Building a killer brokerage Web site is as simple as knowing who your clients are, what they want, and making it simple for them to get it.
Unless they are passionate about technology, brokers may be better off hiring somebody else to build their site — but they should be sure to hire a vendor that’s not relying on an out-of-date template, and will build a site that can be scaled for growth without ditching tools like a customer relationship management platform.
Brokers and vendors who serve them offered those tips and other advice Thursday at a forum moderated by 1000Watt Consulting partner Brian Boero at Real Estate Connect San Francisco.
"I talk to brokerage companies all the time who are trying to figure out where to start," Boero said. "I tell them know who your customer is. It is always amazing to me that brokers haven’t taken the time to do that. Even if it’s just taking six of your most recent customers into a conference room and interviewing them about what they want from a Web site, that’s a start."
Consumers want access to all the information they can get their hands on, but a poor Web site interface can keep them from accessing it.
"Most map-based search applications suck," said Galen Ward, co-founder and chief executive officer of Estately Inc. The problem with many map-based sites is they present the map "above the fold" — in the user’s visible screen area — and present a separate list of the properties mapped "below the fold," where users have to scroll down to it.
"Consumers look at the map, don’t see the list, and have to hunt and peck on the map" do get details on properties they might be interested in. Estately.com presents the list of properties returned in a search next to the map, making it easier for users to call up details on a particular home.
Ward said the most egregious mistake broker Web sites make is forced registration. Requiring visitors to provide their personal information without giving them a taste of a site’s capabilities will limit traffic.
Matt Goyer, lead product manager at Redfin, said Boston is the one major market where the local multiple listing service requires registration to access the brokerage’s map-based data. It’s the only market where Redfin’s traffic is flat, Goyer said.
Asking consumers to give up their e-mail address "is a huge barrier, and I wish MLSs would drop that requirement," Goyer said.
Problems based on limitations imposed by MLSs were the subject of another panel discussion Thursday, "The MLS Mess."
Ashfaq Munshi, founder and chief executive officer of Terabitz, said most listing sites aren’t set up to search for properties the way consumers would prefer to.
"First I find the place I want to live, then I find the house," Munshi said. "On the Internet, it seems like we do the opposite. We find the house, then we decide if it’s a place we want to live."
A number of Web sites have sprung up of late to help consumers answer the first question, "Where to live?" offering statistics on everything from local demographics and schools to crime rates.
"The map is a great visual representation of the properties, and gives you a reference to (the surrounding) neighborhood," said Ori Staub, technology director of Active Website LLC, a vendor that builds Web sites for brokers. "What’s lacking right now (at many brokerage sites) is additional data, heat maps, crime data — everything that can make a map a visually engaging environment."
But Greg Tracy, a real estate broker who’s also the president of BlueRoof360, said that brokers are often so intent on "throwing as much data out" as possible that they neglect the user interface and experience.
"There seems to be a race at some sites to see how much stuff (they) can throw on," Tracy said. "We survey every consumer we close a deal with, and people want it to be simple and fun to look at."
One potential drawback to presenting consumers with a bottomless well of information is liability. If a listing site offers information on the school district a property lies within, the site might be liable if the buyer later learns the district boundaries have changed and information they based their decision on was inaccurate, Munshi said.
A simple interface doesn’t have to limit access to information, Staub said. "Always show (the consumer) the big picture of what’s available, but only drill down into the details when they chose to do so."
David Therrien, chief technology officer for Keller Williams Realty International, said a brokerage Web site must have built-in flexibility to grow.
"You want to make the tools you had at the beginning modulized, so you can plug them in to whatever customization you have in the future," Therrien said. It’s a pain to switch customer relationship management (CRM) software just to update a Web site, for example. "I’m looking for continuity in tools, so that someday you can take everything you’ve got and move it onto some custom platform."
Another critical consideration, Therrien said, is providing opportunities for the consumer to interact, whether by telephone, e-mail, text messaging or live chat.
Web 2.0 sites that invite user-generated content through comments on blog posts, discussion groups or even agent reviews are all the rage at third-party listing sites, but Redfin’s Goyer noted that MLS rules may limit what brokerages can do in that department.
"A lot of us would like to do ‘user gen’ on our Web sites, but MLS rules prevent us from doing that," he said. "If user-gen content is important to our business, we as brokerages have to get the MLSs to evolve and change. Imagine Amazon without their review system. It would be a much different site."
If you consider yourself a technologist, don’t be afraid to hire a good coder and build your own site — the track taken by Estately.com, Ward said. Staub advised against trying to tackle a project that’s "outside of your core focus."
There’s more to building a site than coding, such as training and consulting, Staub said, advising brokers to "go to the professionals" for the complete package.
Tracy said that his brokerage closed 114 sales last year from its Web site, and is still closing eight deals a month — without prospecting.
"If you really invest in it, the Internet can be so powerful," Tracy said. "We haven’t felt the downturn at all. There’s no other place you can put your money and get that kind of return."
An easy way to see what works is to "go watch somebody use your Web site," Goyer said. He also suggested making a list of the Web sites you visit every day, and to note what makes them memorable.
Therrien recommended a book by Steve Krug, "Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability," as a good starting point for designing a site — an endorsement seconded by Boero.
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