Hacker Connect January 16 in New York
An event for and by the real estate tech community

Editor’s note: In this three-part series, Inman News looks at how the changing market is impacting lead generation, how agents are competing for top spots on Google, and how the lending industry faces increased criticism of its use of trigger lists. (Read Part 1, “Survival of the niches: getting leads in a slow market,” and Part 3, “Consumers, lawmakers take issue with trigger lists.”)

Google is a major part of many real estate practitioners’ online lead strategies. Show up high in relevant real estate search results and watch the Web traffic roll in.

But with more lead aggregators spending big bucks on search marketing and more brokers and agents buying real estate keywords and phrases, Google placement in many ways has become a full-time job rather than a part-time dance.

For some agents like Kevin Boer, blogging has become the top Google lead strategy.

“I know there’s all sorts of tricks, but far and away what I do is I just write frequently about anything that comes to mind about real estate,” said Boer, a Realtor for 3 Oceans Real Estate in California’s Silicon Valley. “Because I’m reasonably well read and write reasonably well, I seem to do well in natural searches.”

Boer blogs at 3 Oceans Real Estate blog, along with three other Realtors, a mortgage broker, a home stager and an attorney.

Boer said he’s used both paid search — which requires bidding on keywords and paying the bid price when a person clicks on your ad — and natural search optimization, which pushes him up in the natural or nonsponsored results area of the search engine.

He brought up a point that’s been mentioned by many others in the search marketing space — that paid search is only worth the investment if the advertiser has a well-constructed landing page for visitors clicking on their Google ads.

Paid search has also become increasingly more expensive, according to search marketing experts. Andy Beal, an editor and Internet marketing consultant, said that while there is still a lot of room for paid search marketing, more larger companies (in general, not just in real estate) have come in and set up campaigns to dominate common keywords.

The “long tail” of search has become increasingly important to keyword advertisers, he said, meaning that advertisers like real estate agents are buying more targeted key phrases that are four or five words long.

So agents who formerly may have been buying “Silicon Valley homes” would now want to go further and choose a neighborhood key term or perhaps their particular market niche, such as single women or first-time buyers.

Advertisers will find that with long-tail terms, “the cost per click is lower and they will have a better chance at tapping in” to leads, Beal said.

Many view an advantage to using a paid search link as the ability for advertisers to send consumers to whatever page they want. This is known as a landing page, and Beal says that advertisers can do all sorts of testing of landing pages to see what works and what doesn’t work.

“You can do split testing, one neighborhood in a specific ZIP code,” he said as an example for real estate agents.

However, testing landing pages is a much slower process when working with organic or natural search results, he said.

“Are they (the consumer) ready to call you or just searching a neighborhood? Understand what brought them to that page, and make sure there’s a call to action,” Beal said.

The call to action doesn’t always have to be for the consumer to call you, he said, but could be for them to sign up for your newsletter or visit an open house. Either way, the call to action should be relevant to the person who came to your site.

Beal, who keeps a daily blog about online marketing called Marketing Pilgrim, also sees a lot of opportunity for real estate agents in blogging.

Game’s not over

Showing up high in Google search results is only the first inning. Brokers and agents will need to be sure that consumers have lots of relevant, unique content to dive into once they are sent to their Web sites. And research that shows the majority of consumers do business with the first agent who responds to them suggests that agents need to follow up with online inquiries right away.

Andrew Coleman, co-founder of LeadQual, a lead-qualification service, says that times will only get tougher for real estate agents dealing with online consumer inquiries. He says that large lead aggregators that cut their teeth in the cutthroat mortgage lead space are just now starting to enter real estate. All agents — even those who do not buy leads from online aggregators — will be affected by this wave of new entrants, he said.

On the pay-per-click side of search marketing, it gets complicated for small businesses like brokerage offices and individual agents to compete with large aggregators because it’s not just a matter of bidding more money on certain terms, Coleman said.

“A lot of people think that where you rank depends on your bid, but what Google does is they take your bid price and they multiply it by an index,” he said. “Based on my experience in the past, the index was primarily driven by your click-through rate.”

However, Coleman and his team recently began noticing a greater emphasis by Google on advertisers’ landing pages. He says they look at how long a consumer stays on the advertiser’s page because that length of time can convey whether the site is relevant.

“The more complicated this process gets, the less (agents and smaller brokers) are able to compete,” he said.

On the organic, or natural search results side, Coleman also says he believes it’s getting much more competitive. Many of the larger online aggregators and new entrants appear to be focusing on those natural results, he said.

For instance, if you search for “Deerfield real estate” on Google, HomeGain’s Deerfield, Ill., page comes up in the number two natural search slot. Coleman says that’s because the company has a lot of local content for that market, including homes for sale, price data and school information. “They’ve formulated those pages to get good SEO (search engine optimization),” he said.

Local content is another area that Google has been emphasizing in relevancy tests. And that’s where blogging can make great marketing sense for real estate agents. Boer has realized this when blogging about specific neighborhoods. His blog shows up above larger sites like Trulia for searches at this level, while he lags behind for searches at the city level, he said.

Boer says that as an agent you can make a tradeoff when approaching Google as an online lead strategy: “You can either pay these lead-generation companies or you can use your time to try yourself (with blogging),” he said.

Coleman, however, sees it a little differently, noting that blogging is just one part to a solid online lead strategy. “Blogging is good content and it’s always updated so that’s a good strategy — it’s one piece that can help, but not the panacea,” he said.

Even if an agent is not outright paying for leads, he said, they’re going to have to spend a lot of time figuring out changes in search marketing or writing a blog. In the end, agents essentially are paying for leads in one way or another.

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