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Focus on the money!

“Everyone does their search on the portals, I don’t need my own site.” This, clearly, is nuts, says Jeremy Tapp.

The Negotiator

focus on Home key imageRegular readers will know how we advocate focusing agency websites on the vendors, rather than just the applicant search functionality. At the end of the day, the principal aim of most agents’ websites is to attract and trap more vendor/landlord enquiries, as they drive the value in the business. This is all plainly obvious.

One such example that we recommend is a simple exercise, which you can do right now. Take a sheet of paper, and open up your own website. Make a very rough sketch of the layout of your homepage, all the principle elements, boxes etc. Take out a red pen, sit back and consider the page. Shade all the areas which speak to your vendors, like “Why sell with us?” navigation options, valuation request boxes, sold galleries and so forth, anything aimed at your actual clients, in red. Next, colour in all the messages, images, and areas of the site, like the search bar, or featured properties, which communicate predominantly to the applicant, and colour them in green. Colour everything else, things that talk about you, other news or filler content in, say, yellow.

80% of traffic to agents’ websites is on the applicant search pathway – so you have to get this part right.”

Now, take a look at the end creation. Ask yourself if you have enough red? Above the fold? Spread around in various places around the site? Try the same exercise with your competitors.

Foxtons' website image

Foxtons’ site has no less than 16 messages aimed at the vendor – all different psychological pitches.

Now try going to Foxtons website – always a good benchmark – and try the same exercise there. We did this recently and counted no less than 16 messages aimed at the vendor, most of which were explicitly inviting valuation requests. Furthermore, the invitations were done through different psychological pitches – some straightforward and direct, some in content, some soft and aimed at the curious, some in graphics, some in navigation, some in the footer, others in the carousel. Brilliant.

TAKING IT TO THE EXTREME

Foxtons' website imageHowever lately, when talking to agents about their new websites, we’ve noticed a worrying trend. We’ve heard them taking this view to an extreme, “I’m not worried about the applicant search, forget about that, I only want my website to focus on presenting my brand beautifully, and targeting vendors, nothing else.”

We even hear a few agents say, “Why do I even need a website, everyone does their search on Rightmove, I don’t need my own site.” This is clearly nuts, of course, as that’s ignoring any applicant use case (and there are plenty), and the vendor use cases too!

In this article, we’re going to argue that you need to be very careful not to take the “focus on the vendor” approach too far. There are some very dangerous consequences if you do.

Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater… applicants don’t use agents’ websites, right? Wrong. We see the analytics of literally hundreds of estate agents’ websites, and without exception, they paint a very clear picture. No matter how much the agent has taken to heart the vendor focus, the majority of traffic – the vast majority of traffic (80 per cent plus) – is on the applicant search pathway. So you have to get this right.

That applicant activity comes for a bunch of reasons:

If you have an effective email alert system from either your website, or your agency software, then a lot of applicant traffic will be entering directly onto property detail pages.

This gets doubled down by house-hunting couples, or flat-sharing friends, emailing each other links.

If your SEO is working properly, a strong independent estate agent will be able to harvest decent volumes of applicant side traffic out of Google, even against the portals. You’ll normally rank just underneath the portals, but as the portal landscape has thinned out, and as agents have started to invest properly in cleaner, faster websites, with better SEO frameworks, they’re increasingly finding themselves ranked for applicant traffic.

There is still a big bunch of people who look directly to the agents in their area, and don’t use portals exclusively. Working in the industry, we’re guilty of thinking that everyone must know the portals intimately, and whilst of course the utility and uniformity they provide obviously means they soak up much of the applicant search activity, it’s by no means to the exclusion of all search on agency sites.

Some agents are starting to become much more sophisticated in how they think about handling their property data, releasing it onto their own sites slightly before the portals, to encourage email alert
sign up.

When applicants find a house they like, they are desperate for more information. They go to look at the photos and floorplans on the agent’s own site, hoping they will find a scrap more information, or bigger photos, or information on the square footage, etc.

Finally, there’s a category of behaviour when an applicant finds a house they like on a portal or portal email alert, where they actively go to the agent’s site to ‘find the direct phone number’ (not trusting aggregators’ phone systems), or somehow thinking that an email or phone call direct to the agent will somehow result in a better response.

Indeed the behaviour that results is called “Pogo sticking” – where on a given search session, they’ll hop between portal, and agent site, back to portal, off to agent site etc. It’s not anywhere near as clean cut a world as you might think.

And there are two more reasons why you mustn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater…

Applicants are vendors in disguise

Perhaps more important than all of the above is the fact that what appears to be applicant traffic on your website may in fact be ‘vendors in disguise’!

On the one hand, the majority of applicants will have a house to sell. They may be out of area, or they may be selling in a lower price band where you aren’t strong. But a good proportion of them will also be potential customers.

Even the ones who are already instructed with another agent might get itchy. And if they notice your site is significantly nicer than the agent they are using to sell (they’ll probably be looking even more closely now, as they will definitely have checked out their own house on their agent’s site, and now they’re looking at houses on your site too in comparison) then your site is playing its part in helping win the instruction off them.

Then, on the other hand, there is ‘applicant’ traffic – which isn’t even applicant traffic, it’s actually only vendor traffic. I might be wondering if my house is worth £220k or £260k, and I’ve seen one that you are selling on the street next door – so I pop along to your site to have a look at the price and see what condition it is in. I have no intention of buying from you as I’m moving to the town down the road, but I’m researching my own sale – and to Google analytics that looks a lot like applicant traffic.

Furthermore, before a vendor instructs your agency, they want to check out whether their house will be in safe company with others like it. If I think my house is worth £240k, then I feel more comfortable if you are selling lots of other properties in the £200k-£300k range. You’ll probably have more applicants in that range if so. And I’ll also want to know how you are going to present my house, do you take nice photos, is your property details page going to present my own house attractively for sale?

All of this suggests you need to pay very careful attention to the applicant search functionality on your site. And you might want to consider weaving in some vendor focused messaging, right in amongst the search results too.

SEO results are driven by applicant behaviour

Finally, there’s a technical reason you need to worry about your applicant experience too. Bear with us here, as while it’s technical, it’s very important to understand if you want more vendor enquiries…

Vendors use Google to help find estate agents, even if only as a way of looking up the phone numbers, or checking fees with another agent. So your ranking in Google matters, a lot. And Google’s ranking algorithm has been moving relentlessly towards a basket of measures that they collectively term ‘quality metrics’. Those metrics include factors like repeat visit ratio (driven by email alerts, driven in turn by applicants), and visitor session length (driven by long page journeys through your site, which are driven largely by longer search journeys looking at multiple properties, which are driven by applicants). You can see where this is headed. Indeed the basket of ‘quality metrics’ is, we suspect, not really assessed at anything more than a site wide level for now. So the fact that your site is great for vendors is useless, if the experience on which Google is judging you is 80 per cent dominated by your applicant side traffic.

All of this suggests that if you want more vendors, you better make damn sure your applicant experience is first rate.

Conclusion

As with everything in life, we need to find a happy medium. If you are designing a new site, there’s no doubt that the typical site of 2015 is far more vendor-focused than the 2010-2012 vintage sites.

Take the opportunity to rebalance towards vendors, but don’t lurch too far. Make sure you are considering the applicant search pathways on your site, through the eyes of a potential vendor. And don’t forget that a large proportion of applicants in the early stages of their house search won’t yet be locked down and committed to whom they are selling with. They won’t be sending enquiries yet, as they’re just limbering up. But they will be lurking around on your website, and if that experience is stunning by design, clear in content, and engaging in functionality, then you’re much more likely to catch them as a  vendor ahead of your competitors.

So please, in our bid to focus on vendor lead conversion, let’s not forget about the poor old house-hunter. Apart from anything else, at the end of the day, they are also your customer. And they’ll be selling one day too!

Jeremy is Joint Managing Director at Homeflow which provides websites, mobile sites and solutions for a variety of agencies from large agency websites to hundreds of single branch independents.  www.homeflow.co.uk 0207 801 9875

June 10, 2015

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