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Mobile property search – the future?

The mobile is not just the future of property search, it’s the ‘here and now’. Jeremy Harford Tapp explains how to make your site mobile-friendly.

Jeremy Harford Tapp
Consider this:man-using-mobile-phone

  • Approaching 50 per cent of property- related traffic is now mobile
  • 
That includes 10 per cent on iPads and other tablets
  • This is still growing by 10 per cent a year
  • 43 per cent of all email is read on a phone and that’s also growing

Yes, yawn, we’ve all heard these stats before. But stop for a moment and really think what this means: nearly half of your visitors are looking at you on a mobile.
If you don’t have a mobile website, or an inadequate first generation one, then you’ll be giving a deeply disappointing experience to half of your customers, much like unwelcoming service that you wouldn’t tolerate in branch. Every time this happens, it’s a lost opportunity to create a professional opinion of your agency. Worse, it contributes to a weak impression of your brand which might weigh on instruction decisions. It’s time to fix this.

Thankfully a good number of the UK’s estate agents now have a website optimised for mobile, though if you are in that group, don’t sit back just yet; the current crop of solutions are often still inadequate first generation attempts to plug the gap and there are things you need to check your site does to see if it’s actually working effectively.

Having a dedicated ‘app’ isn’t good enough: you need a mobile website, to avoid unwieldy ‘download this app’ processes, which stop 95 per cent of users at the door. The mobile site needs to integrate with your main website, so you see the right version of the site when viewing a link on a phone or on a desktop.

All of which says that being ready with a mobile version of your website is much more important than most people realise.

But the great news is that it’s a much easier fix than the majority of online marketing challenges. You can have the issue sorted in a couple of days as the best mobile sites can be simple to configure.

UNDERSTANDING MOBILE PROPERTY SEARCH

Before choosing your approach, it’s essential to understand the main ‘use cases,’ or how visitors approach your agency on the phone:

1. Email is the biggest entry point

With a surprising 43 per cent of emails being processed on a mobile, a large proportion of your property email alerts will be received on the move, and applicants will want to ‘have a quick look’ at that new property on their phone. Having a mobile site that is properly integrated with your main website, ‘redirecting’ them correctly into the specific property on mobile (rather than dumping them back at the front door of the mobile site) is vital. Many first generation estate agent mobile sites fail here, rendering them almost worse than no mobile site at all.
But the ‘reverse redirect’ is equally important. If I’m looking at a property on my phone, and I send that house to my wife, then she’ll quite likely be looking on her desktop computer. Many mobile sites then open up in mobile mode full screen on a desktop computer which looks terrible, rather than ‘redirecting’ the user to the correct property back on the desktop site. Check yours!

2 Contact information next

When a user is on a phone, often they’re trying to find your number as they’re late
for an appointment. They left your business card at home, so they hit Google on their phone to find your number. Or they see a sale board, and they can’t be bothered with searching on their phone, and just want to talk to someone. You want a thin, fast site, no clutter, with clear contact info, no more than a click away.

3 Finally comes active search on mobile
Perhaps they drive past a new property, and want to check the price, or have a quick look at the interior photos. Maybe, they have some time to kill on the bus and they want to flip through a few properties. The key is to take advantage of the location awareness capability of smart phones and make the search forms easy to use for thumbs!

SO, WEBSITES NEED TO BE DIFFERENT ON A PHONE

The experience of browsing a regular website on a mobile phone is desperately disappointing. We’ve all done it: using
our two opposable thumbs to pinch and expand, fumbling around a full size website on a chronically undersized screen!
You need a dedicated approach, because:

  • the mobile ‘use cases’ are often quite different to desktop
  • the reader is navigating by thumb, not mouse
  • simplicity is paramount on a small screen
  • you’ll want to focus navigation to a few simple options
  • the search form needs to be really simple; clear, big buttons
  • 
you’ll want to take advantage of ‘get-current-location’ capabilities
  • contact info needs to be really easy to get to in one click
  • click-to-call buttons are great – it is a phone after all!
  • and ideally you’d bundle the whole site up into a genuine ‘app’, yet still serve it over the mobile web; we’ll come to this…

Those whopping great big photos on your shiny new website design are huge files, and they don’t fit down the narrow pipes that satellites offer to mobile phones. They make for a dog-slow browsing experience, which is the last thing you want on the move. When it comes to websites, speed is king, and it’s doubly important on mobile.

Then there are the long form articles you’ve carefully written, explaining all about your team, and your brand new branch. They’re great on your nice big, desktop site, where people have time and space to read. But nobody wants to read War and Peace on a phone. You need to adapt your content for the device, that means short and sweet.

All these things mean that users bounce off websites that aren’t optimised for mobile very quickly. And these are lost opportunities for you to have won some business, or created a good impression
of your agency with a potential vendor. None of this is rocket science, and it’s easy to fix; let’s look at your options.

APPROACHES – APPS, MOBILE, SITES OR RESPONSIVE

http://www.homeflow.co.uk/resources/ mobile-app-or-website/
So you need to decide whether to have a ‘native app’ created, which users can download, a mobile website, which they access via a browser, or a fully responsive site. These can look very similar, but the way they work, and how your customers use them, varies strongly. It may feel like a technically confusing minefield, but don’t panic, we’re going to step through the pros and cons of each…

1 Native ‘apps’ – speedy, but often impractical

In the early days of mobile, mobile apps became very popular when Apple pioneered the App Store and made it possible for developers to create programmes for users to download onto their phone (making them ‘native’ and not dependent on a web connection). Since then, there has been an explosion of apps, as other mobile operating systems quickly followed suit, such as Android and Windows.

When an app is downloaded onto a phone, it works quickly as the code for each page is already stored on the phone, and doesn’t need to travel via the satellite to reach you. The only times the app typically needs to use the internet is when it’s calling for more data – for example, to retrieve search results or to access photos requested by a user wanting to see more pictures of a house. Another plus of so called ‘native apps’ is that they can harness the ‘push notifications’ feature of the phone, which is a highly intrusive way of getting a new matching property in front of a user – much like SMS.

But while the speed when using the app is often cited as a big advantage, the huge drawback is that to start using it in the first place the user needs to download it onto his or her mobile phone from the relevant app store (Apple, Google, etc). This often involves having to find it in the store, remembering your password, and following the relevant steps. And a side headache
is that you’ll need to develop separate apps for Android, iPhone, Windows, etc.

In reality, if users go to the trouble of downloading an app, they’ll be more interested in the wider range of properties available from a portal’s app. Couple this with the alarming fact that the average repeat open rate of an app is a pitiful 1.6 times, and you’re looking at a distraction from the main game…

2 Mobile websites – more accessible

While an app is nice and fast to use, it’s hampered by being prohibitively unwieldy to bother installing in the first place. And so we turn to the mobile web as a better alternative. Mobile websites have improved dramatically in the last couple of years, and offer huge advantages over a mobile app:

Accessibility: a mobile site is instantly accessible to any mobile user with a browser, which means anyone with a smartphone. There is no need to visit an app store and download anything. This also means the reach of the website is much wider, as it’s available across all platforms, it’s ready and waiting for those all-important email entry points, and because all the pages of the mobile site can be indexed by search engines and shown in search results.

Easy to upgrade: a mobile site is more flexible to update – if you want to change the design or content, you simply publish the relevant changes and the edits are instantly visible. No need to upgrade a
new version which needs to be downloaded, as is the case with an app.

Time and cost: there is a wide range of options, but on the whole the development of a mobile website is quicker and more cost-effective than the development of a dedicated app. This also goes for the ongoing support and enhancement, which can be more difficult with an app.

3 Second generation mobile web-apps – best of both worlds

So while ‘native apps’ are fast, and ‘mobile websites’ are more flexible, there is an option where you can avoid compromise and enjoy the best features of both.

During the last 12 months a new breed of hybrid mobile ‘web-apps’ delivered via the web have emerged. In this case, when you visit the website on a phone, it recognises that you’re using a mobile and when it provides you with the first web page, it packages up the other pages of the app and sends them to your phone in the background. As such, all the pages are thereafter stored locally on your phone, even though you’ve not had to download an app from an app store.

The main advantage of this approach is that get all the speed benefit of a true single- page app, i.e. native app like performance, but with the advantages of the open web.

On the downside, you need to work very hard at intelligent two-way redirection, and it’s harder to get the same level of user account integration.

4 Responsive design – is it the be all and end all?

The final option is to build a single ’responsive website’ that reshapes to provide an optimal user experience — easy reading and navigation with minimum pinching, panning, and scrolling — across a wide range of devices (from phones, through tablets to desktop).

Pros: this is obviously a great way to go, making a good usability experience, whilst also keeping your system holistic. You only have one set of pages to worry about, and you get consistent URL structures and user account integration out of the box. Redirection isn’t an issue – there is no redirection to do!

Cons: the responsive approach isn’t quite as fast for mobile, and even though you are reshaping for mobile, responsive design remains on a page-by-page model and has to be mapped one-to-one with the desktop processes, so you are not cut totally free to have different interaction models you ideally want. It’s a lot more expensive to build (properly), and it’s a much bigger commitment as it involves rebuilding everything.

CONCLUSION: HOW DO I MAKE THE RIGHT CHOICE?

Only do a ‘native app,’ if you have cash sloshing about and you particularly want the bragging rights with vendors. It is simply not an alternative to a proper mobile site. The push alerts are potentially useful, though the confusion probably makes it not worth the effort.

If you have a good desktop site already and you aren’t about to upgrade right now, then you should simply add on a mobile website with either of approach (2) or (3) described above.

There is a wide range of inexpensive solutions readily available, and it’s so quick and easy that there is simply no excuse not to bolt one on in the next couple of days. Go for a ‘single page web-app’ if possible.

However, if you are considering a full site refresh, you have a more complex choice to make. You might want to go fully responsive, or you might want a ‘single page web-app’ and a partially responsive site for tablets and above.

There are advantages to both approaches and the decision isn’t always clear cut. However, you certainly don’t want to go for a static, first generation mobile site in this situation.

Don’t get left behind by the mobile revolution, capitalise on it!

jeremy-harford-tapp

Jeremy Harford Tapp

Jeremy Harford Tapp is Joint MD at Homeflow.
www.homeflow.co.uk
Tel: 0207 801 9875
Homeflow provides agency websites and mobile solutions for a wide variety of agencies, from large networks like Arun Estates with over 120 branches, to hundreds of independents.
You can learn more about mobile at: www.homeflow.co.uk/mobile

March 21, 2014

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