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Seven SEO ways to beat portals at their own game

To win your Google group, says Jeremy Tapp, don’t do SEO!

Jeremy Tapp

seo-whats-the-score-google-logoDon’t be fooled into thinking your favourite property portal is the be all and end all when it comes to online marketing. It’s just one piece of the jigsaw, less important for getting an advantage over other agents and winning new instructions than it is for applicants.

People only sell a home every few years, they don’t go straight to portals – Google is often their first port of call. This can lead them directly to you if you play your cards right. The game is to ensure you come in the top three results for “estate agent in xyz town” – so you get the calls first.

You don’t need a big marketing budget to secure a good position on Google, but you do have to work hard at your Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) – the process of ensuring Google can find, read and rank your website, so it can decide whether to list your site top of the results when someone runs a relevant search.

This article seeks to explain the biggest underlying trend in SEO in the past three years, then dive into five topics for you to check your game against that macro trend.

SEO Rule 1 – Don’t ‘DO’ SEO

Seriously, you can stop reading. Don’t do SEO, it’s that simple. Google is explicit about this. They’re on record saying, “Don’t dance for us, just get on with building the best possible website for your customers.”
Once you understand the implications of this rule, you are on the way to understand how to really perform in search.

Google is actively trying to reward businesses that give a good web experience to their customers, it makes total sense. They see their own product experience as the sum of their search box, their results listing pages and the websites that they send their customers to, i.e. yours. If they consistently send visitors to sites they enjoy, they’ve given the visitors a “good experience using Google” and they will more than likely come back to Google next time round.

Worse, they now apply stick as well as carrot. If they catch you buying links (an old SEO trick), then they will punish your rankings. If you have too much duplicate content supplied generically, they’ll dampen your results too. If your site runs slow (a low quality user experience) they’ll down-rank you for that too.

So the defining characteristic that Google are shifting towards can be summed up in one word: quality – their word, not ours.

They don’t want to be tricked, or gamed, or SEOd. They simply want to find sites that are sticky, relevant, enjoyable experiences for their searchers. This basic ethos sits behind most of the major updates to the ranking algorithm released over the last five years, and most of what we can expect to see released over the coming years too.

At one level, the implications are huge. At another, they’re simple: stop worrying about SEO. Just focus on making your website a great experience for customers, and that’s refreshingly constructive.

There are dozens of things you can do to develop a ‘quality’ experience, so, we’ll pick five ideas at random; simple things you can check on your own site.

2. Importance Of Clean URLS

Your website needs clean, human readable, URLs, like: www.stags.co.uk/cornwall/ truro/sales/up-to-500000/within-5-miles …rather than something ugly, like: www. youragency.com/search/?locID=23&?tag=g obbledegook?pricemax=?sessionID=as8ss.

You wouldn’t send that second URL to a friend and expect her to understand it. Why send it to Google? Not many sites get this sorted out cleanly, it’s a strong component of SEO in a competitive landscape.

To see how important this is, search for “estate agent in…” and “house for sale in…” in a range of areas, starting somewhere remote like Falmouth or Whitby and working your way up through Exeter or York, into more urban areas, ending in, say, Notting Hill. Scan through the URLs of the winning agents. As you get closer to major urban areas, where larger agency groups compete with more resources, you’ll see the agents that manage to rank typically have cleaner “human readable” URLs. This needn’t be expensive, but it does need to be understood and insisted on for your website. If you have the luxury of being in a less competitive area, great news: you have a wide opportunity. Sort this and you’ll quickly pop above your competition and start picking up more valuations.

Another fundamental is that you have ‘uniquely addressable’ links (that’s the U bit of URL!). Check your own site: search for one village name then another, and check the URL isn’t constant for both of these searches, like the raw stem for example: www.youragency.com/search. If it is, then your site is passing the location ID in the background and you don’t have URLs at all. If you have one branch and just filter by price range not location, you still need your town in your search results URL string, if you want the best chance of ranking.

There is little point in trying other SEO work, until your URL foundations are well sorted, as not only can Google not get a handle on the town name (no hope of optimising for that traffic) but now you have a human error as well… I can’t email a specific town filtered list, to my wife for her to look through. Focusing on great human experiences has perfect alignment with your SEO objectives!

Obviously URLs are a big, technical, topic. If you suspect you have an issue, drop us a line and we’ll have a quick look for you.

3. I feel the need… for speed

It’s not enough to be clean; you’ve got to be blazingly fast too. Site speed is probably the most overlooked ingredient in estate agency website design. It’s an ‘invisible factor’ so it’s easy to overlook its full significance.

Humans love websites that serve pages quickly. You’ve felt this yourself; “Ugh, this is a slow site, I’m done here!” whereas fast sites reward users to the point where they feel they can “click on that next link”. Faster sites get more page impressions. Users find more properties, make more enquiries, read more articles, register more often.

We see that alignment yet again: a better human experience on our site, also gives us SEO advantage, as we’re being measured both explicitly on site speed, but also rewarded for longer user visits, more page impressions, great email sign up, greater repeat visit ratios etc.

When you are a large agency group trying to optimise for 1000s of concurrent visitors, you techniques like ‘caching’ (pre-preparing web pages on the server, to instantly dish them up), content delivery networks (pushing pages/images down the network to the your local telephone exchange), or even deploy ultra-fast specialist databases like MongoDB. However speed is every bit as important for the competitive single branch independent too – you want blisteringly fast page speed whatever your size.

The best news is that speed optimisation techniques aren’t widely used in agency websites, as agents very rarely request these capabilities. This gives you an opportunity, if you’re the one to focus on it in your town.

4. Vital Role Of Email

Systems Many SEO experts believe that repeat visit ratio is now a ‘signal of quality.’ So focus on mechanisms which drag your users back to your site multiple times a month.

Ensure your websites’ email alert system is optimised for very smooth sign up. Your site should allow saving of properties and searches without insisting on account creation (you’ll get more sign ups to email alerts if you drag people into a deeper commitment first).

Then you want to ensure your email alerts fire on a continual cycle (rather than 24-hour batches), ideally integrating your property data real-time with your software system too: this way you can get the new matching property email out to applicants hours before they get their Rightmove alert for the same property.

The alert system should send out beautiful template emails mirroring your main site design and, critically, those emails need to link directly back to your website (many don’t, linking to URLs outside of your website domain, check).

This results in a stronger than average repeat visit ratio to YOUR site, rather than to the portal and better SEO performance than your competitors. You’d be amazed how many sites fail here, yet it’s a simple, open goal to fix and the prize is huge.

5. Just ‘One More’ Page

Next you want to look for ways to create longer journeys within your site. More ‘page impressions per visit’ and longer ‘session time’ are signals of quality. There are dozens of ways to structure your site to encourage this. You can create staff profile pages, and show staff photos against individual property pages – many people will click on the staff profile just to look. You can link upwards to the branch pages, or sideways to colleagues. This improves the performance of your site: it personalises your agency, staff profiles increase the conversion rate to registration or enquiry on property detail pages too.

You can also encourage one more click on property detail pages. If you build the concept of an ‘implied search’ around a property, you can render similar properties and add nice clear ‘next’ and ‘previous’ property buttons too. These buttons decrease the single page bounce rate for your site. I email an interesting property to my wife, she looks at it, but she also clicks ‘next’ (as the page loaded quickly and the design makes that tempting). Voila: another page impression.
Hopefully, you’ll have dedicated branch pages within your site; ideally you’ll optimise these pages, with clean human readable URLs, links to properties from that branch, links to the staff from within the team and links to local area guides (the most logical place to hang them, to encourage just one more click).

6. A Word On Content

Google loves a steady flow of fresh, high quality, original, editorial content. It sees this as a sign of life, and quality within your domain. Beyond this, your vendors and applicants love well-written content too, and Google loves what those users love, so you score twice.

That said, avoid flooding your site with generic, externally supplied newsfeeds or content which will be duplicated across many sites, this is likely to actually punish your SEO performance.

You might want to focus on local guide content. You can add these guides onto the relevant property results pages. This is a smart and advanced SEO practice, it reduces duplicate content ratio with the major portals who have the same property descriptions, and encourages ‘one more click’ as it’s a logical place for humans to find those guides and click.

Try writing meaningful advice articles for your vendors; how to prepare their house for sale, how to instruct an agent, etc. Rule No.1: optimise for your end customers, Google will see that and your SEO will look after itself.

Finally, be extremely wary of ‘writing content’ for Google. In fact, don’t! If you find yourself thinking, I’ve got to make sure I mention those town names in the first paragraph, for ‘keyword density’ or some such concept, then stop. You can bet that Google’s natural language assessment engine can smell ‘optimised content’ better than you can fake it. Don’t dance for them. Put them completely out of your mind and write for your vendors.

7. The Tip Of The Iceberg

We’ve covered a few miscellaneous ideas here, but they’re just the tip of the iceberg, there are dozens more things you can do. So whenever you consider other ideas, just follow the guiding principle, “is this good for my customers?” then you’re on the right track. If the idea is good for humans, you’re safe. If you’re doing it for Google, don’t.

We have a basic guide to SEO and a more advanced guide to SEO to help you work on improving your rankings. We welcome the opportunity to give you a quick assessment of your existing site on the phone. Good luck not doing SEO!

Jeremy Tapp is Jt MD at Homeflw, providing mobile and website solutions for agencies from large networks like Arun Estates to independents. Homeflw is offering readers a free SEO review of your website with fie actionable ideas. Contact: www.homeflw.co.uk or 0207 801 9875.

July 6, 2014

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