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The Website Cup: Independent –v– Corporate

Yes, says Jeremy Tapp, it’s a game of two halves – and smaller agencies can win.

PROPERTYdrum

web_agencies_comparisons In the beautiful game that is estate agency, do you see your business as Preston North End or Manchester United? What are the advantages and disadvantages large agency groups have, versus a smaller independent, when it comes to websites? Can a single-branch agency compete against the corporate agent with £100k to spend on their web build? How should a one-brancher play to their local focus and quality? Conversely, what can a larger agency group do to take advantage of their muscle power to take the game up a notch? Let’s kick off…

Smaller agents can communicate their local knowledge and keep the content beautifully simple.” Jeremy Tapp, Homeflow

RESOURCE ADVANTAGE
jeremy_tapp_homeflow

Jeremy Tapp

At Homeflow we build dozens of sites for agents each month, so we see all creatures great and small. Whilst in volume terms most of the work we do is for single branch agents, (spending a few thousand pounds on their website), we get disproportionate interest from the larger agents completely out of balance with their market share. Why? We put it down to the luxury of employing online marketing teams, whose job it is to understand the difference in quality, capability and commercial advantages of building a website properly. They ask tougher questions, appreciate the importance of speed, advanced SEO structures, and the importance of a flexible content management system.

They also have a buying advantage: scale. It’s not 100 times more expensive to build a 100 branch agency website, than it is to build a one-branch website. Sure, there is more content to worry about, more branch data, bigger geographical search capability, more business complexity, hosting and data integrity questions, but fundamentally both sites will have a content management system, both have to be designed to respond well on a phone, and search across property data, etc. Yet the bigger businesses have more financial firepower. It’s not uncommon to see them with £50k to £100k budgets, the really large groups will spend hundreds of thousands on really big builds.

That financial weight translates into: better functionality; more attention to detail; more content copywriting budget and a budget for a proper photo-shoot. They can afford higher end graphic designers; build a properly responsive website with numerous ‘break points’ and, critically, at the really high end, they have the headroom to engage in proper user testing, wire-framing, and information architecture work. Once they launch, they understand the importance of continual evolution, and their marketing teams have the time to read and worry about this stuff. In sum – they can take delivery of a faster car, and they have the luxury of the time and resource to maintain it and learn how to drive it really hard. So, one-nil to the corporate!

LOCAL ADVANTAGE

However, it’s not all bad news for the one-brancher, which is good, given the UK market is 80 per cent driven by truly focused independents…

The focus of the independent makes the job easier. They don’t need multiple branch pages. They can run their contact phone number front and centre in the header. They can run local photography on the homepage. And they can keep the content beautifully simple and focused.

The team will often be closely in touch with their local market. With a bit of attention to decent photography (so key to making a website stand out above the cheaper end sites) a single-brancher can communicate their local knowledge and community connection. They can focus their Twitter and Facebook on local issues, they don’t have to be all things, to all men.

A one-brancher only has to write a few local area guides. Site navigation is simpler, as there is less complexity and typically fewer departments in the business. So, the independent scores an equaliser… one-all going into the second half.

SEO ADVANTAGE
leaders_one_website

Leaders has 90 branches but only needs one website – what a goal!

Turning to one of the key battlegrounds for commercial value from a website: Google. It doesn’t matter how well established your local brand is, if you have any competition in your town, then your ranking in the Google search results WILL be having an impact on how often your phone rings with new enquiries. Of course, there is a proportion of clients who were always going to sell or let through you, that’s great, but at the margin, if you can hunt business and intercept a few calls for customers just wanting to “check the fees of the other agent they were intending on using”, then you’re winning opportunities to convert them to your instruction. If you are an insurgent, this is going to be critical. And this one isn’t so clear cut…

On the side of the large agency group: They have the firepower and resource to buy a proper quality platform. There’s little point in doing SEO work on top of a platform that doesn’t have clean URL structures, and a high page-speed score these days (just witness how Foxtons and Savills clean up, even in areas where they don’t have a branch). They’re also going to have a massive root “domain authority” advantage – meaning Google counts more back-links pointing at them, sees more traffic on their website, has a higher trustranking for their domain etc. Check out the SEO benchmarking stats in the resources section of the Homeflow.co.uk website for more information on this, and measure your own domain authority against a sample of agents in a mid-market city.

eric_lloyd_website

Eric Lloyd has two branches, a crystal clear website and a fabulous view!

However, there’s an advantage for the independent too… great news; you only need to optimise for one town (and a few surrounding areas). Our analysis suggests that Google is perfectly cogniscant of, and compensates for, this “narrower target.” Think of it as taking your overall “energy” from the domain authority you have amassed and only needing to focus it on a few town pages. The corporate on the other hand, may have a faultless SEO foundation, but has to spread their “energy” over a much wider set of town targets that they are optimising for; a tougher ask.

This cuts both ways. If an independent’s platform has a structural problem from an SEO perspective, you’re wasting your time doing any optimisation on it (ask us, we can check and explain it). But if you invest in getting that foundation sorted, then accumulate even a few natural back-links, coupled with a bit of social media and content writing, then you’ll quickly rise above the multi-branch agents in your town in Google.

2-all, so this goes to penalties…

HOW TO WIN ON PENALTIES

So, how should both the independent and the larger agency score the deciding goal? For the independent – take advantage of platforms to level the playing field. If you believe in the importance of online marketing and the intrinsic role a proper website platform needs to play at the heart of this marketing, you need to be taking the quality of your website structure seriously.

As an independent, in the increasingly digital world, it’s simply not adequate to take an out of the box website solution from a second tier player or a by-product from a non-specialist. Indeed it’s a completely false economy. It’s also very dangerous to invest with a local designer, who has to re-invent the wheel on the whole system – at best that’s a huge risk, and at worst, it’s an incredibly inefficient way to spend money.

But the good news is that a proper platform layer is emerging which levels the playing field for the independent and the corporate. These open platforms allow you to work with your own local designer, on top of the same quality of core engine that is used to improve the foundation of a 100+ branch business. Or you can choose from a range of pre-existing themes, which bring costs down to easily within any agency’s reach, yet still affords you the exact same underlying engine and capabilities.

That said, it is essential to understand the differences, in speed, capability, SEO structure, content management system, lead conversion efficiency, email alert systems, and so forth of those platforms. This can be hard as you have a full time job to take care of, but you need to be confident you are understanding these differences before you jump based on gut feeling. All too often websites are bought on the “look”, as that’s easy to assess and get your head around when it’s not your day job. Design is very important, of course, perhaps even half the battle. You don’t need to compromise: platforms allow you to get the look you want and great service from a local designer. However, if you aren’t digging to understand the quality differences in the underlying engine, then you risk missing very important commercial advantages or pitfalls in today’s market. Simply put: all cars have four wheels, not all cars are a Porsche 911. You need to be able to work out the difference to maximise the success of your business.

For the large agency – lean harder on your scale advantage

And what if you are a large agency group, and your marketing team have already fully understood all the various platform “hygiene factors”? How do you win, against the local advantage of an independent who is thinking this through carefully, with focus and care?

You need to take the game up a notch, and continue to press home on your scale advantage. You might want to think about proper software integration. The web front end is really just an intrinsic part of your marketing conversations with customers. It should be acting like your best negotiators, ruthlessly getting contact information and needs, from whatever source, channelled directly into your back office system, where your email marketing, call centres, and front line teams can be harvesting it. If someone so much as breathes on your website, you want to be working out who they are, what their implied search was based on what they have viewed, and you want to be getting that back into your core CRM.

There’s a ‘next wave’ coming of new techniques to use your data far more effectively for SEO.”

Or you might want to break new ground, invent new features. We have a few good ideas in here, which we’re happy to explore with more innovative agents. There is a next wave coming of techniques to use your property data more effectively for SEO, which goes a lot further than simply delaying data going to one portal or another. Or you may want to get more systemic about how you deal with customer accounts on the front of your websites, and what communication you push down through those accounts.

And if nothing else, you need to push really hard on quality content, through your CMS. Several of the larger agency groups have started getting much savvier in how they use proper, inter-related local area guide content pages, sometimes with video guides, to help keep visitors longer, encourage one more click, lower their duplicate content ratios with other sites, and help overcome the SEO dilution risk of having to optimise for numerous towns and villages described above.

It’s anyone’s game. Good luck.

Jeremy Tapp is Joint Managing Director at
Homefl ow. Homefl ow provides websites,
mobile sites and solutions for a variety of
agencies. For more info on the specifi cs of
agency websites and online marketing visit:
www.homefl ow.co.uk/resources

March 12, 2015

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