Editor’s note: In this three-part series, Inman News takes a look at how real estate professionals can use Web analytics tools to optimize their sites, learn more about online visitors, and increase traffic. Click on these links to read Part 1: "Don’t send listings into the void," and Part 2: "Woopra is in demand."
On its introductory page, Google Analytics offers up a variety of case studies — several are real estate-related — to show how companies are using its online statistical tools to better understand Web traffic and to drive site improvements.
From a major overhaul of real estate franchise company RE/MAX’s Web site to increased traffic for a luxury apartment rental site based in Barcelona, Spain, the case studies show how companies are tapping into the power of visitor stats.
The real estate industry is paying attention to analytics. As many companies struggle through challenging times in the housing and financial markets and large numbers of consumers are seeking out real estate information on the Web, online marketing and monitoring can be a cost-effective coping mechanism.
Google Analytics is not alone in propping up examples of real estate industry interest in visitor stats — Visistat (see article) and Woopra (see article) are among the Web analytics companies that are drawing real estate industry users.
Google Analytics offers free tools and the opportunity to work with its technology partners for personalized, paid services. Several other companies offer personalized services for a subscription fee. Visistat charges subscription fees, and Woopra is currently free but has plans to charge subscription fees as the company grows, for example.
In the case of RE/MAX International, the franchise company gleaned information from Google Analytics about consumer behavior at the site that aided a major redesign. And analytics have continually guided further refinements in site design and functionality.
In August 2005 RE/MAX announced that it would integrate the property information available through its franchisees for display at the company’s main Web site, and that information would include for-sale property information shared by non-RE/MAX offices through broker data-exchange agreements.
The strategy appears to have paid off — remax.com was the top-ranked brokerage company Web site among the top-10 real estate category Web sites tracked by metrics company Hitwise in July. The site had a 2.3 percent market share among all real estate category sites that month, behind Zillow with a 2.35 percent market share, Yahoo Real Estate with a 3.06 percent market share and category leader Realtor.com with a 7.33 percent market share.
Brokerage site ZipRealty.com ranked behind RE/MAX with a 2.21 percent market share in July.
Marnie Blanco, vice president of e-business for RE/MAX International, said the company had lacked the ability to follow traffic from its main Web site to individual office Web sites, and the company embedded tagging codes at those sites to help Google Analytics track this flow of traffic.
"That’s one piece of the puzzle," Blanco said.
Before using Google Analytics, the company largely relied on focus groups to learn about consumer behavior.
A pressing issue in the industry is whether or not to require visitors to register in order to engage in property searches at Web sites, and the RE/MAX online network is organized into separate platforms to account for regional variations in registration requirements, Blanco said.
"Some of those regions have registration turned on and some do not," she said.
Some RE/MAX affiliates have called for registration as a possible driver for more leads, though the verdict is still out on whether registration requirements will have this effect.
Blanco said that the Carolinas region, which includes areas in North and South Carolina, are testing out a registration requirement on a temporary basis to gauge its impact on Web traffic, and the company is using Google Analytics to track the impacts of the change.
"The first-month data showed we were losing about 60 percent of the traffic in this one particular market by making (users) register," Blanco said. That study will likely continue for a few more months, so it’s uncertain at this point whether the registration requirement may have more long-term benefits.
While RE/MAX has already implemented some Web site changes based on analytics, Blanco said the company is working on more Web site refinements that are expected to launch in the fall. The intent is to improve the "stickiness" of the site, or the ability of the site to hold visitors’ attention for longer periods of time and keep them coming back.
There are also plans to add more analytics tools to get a clearer picture of Web visitors. "We don’t have analytics embedded as heavily as we could," she said.
In addition to Google Analytics, RE/MAX also watches other metrics such as Hitwise and comScore rankings of industry sites, she said. "As an industry I think it’s important to look at competitors … how many uniques are you getting versus how many uniques are we getting?"
Estimating a cost per consumer lead is also an important aim in gathering online statistics, she said. And as a franchise company, RE/MAX has sought to analyze Web stats for prospective franchisees, too.
Analytics can show how many people are completing and submitting forms to become franchisees, she noted, and similar analytics can gauge interest from agents who are seeking to affiliate with the company.
"Using analytics helps us balance that part of the business," she said, adding that separate tracking at various areas of the site serve to provide "a good full picture" of site activity.
Remax.com draws about 2.9 million unique visitors per month, on average, Blanco said, and the company estimates that about 175,000 unique leads pour in per month. Its online initiatives are intended to reduce the need for RE/MAX agents to pay outside companies to generate leads.
Paul Botto, who leads analytics sales for Google, said that Google Analytics helped RE/MAX to understand, early on, the importance of keeping visitors on their site rather than channeling them to other sites.
"They just weren’t monetizing the traffic as best as they could," he said.
A hot area for analytics among real estate companies is geo-tracking, or the ability to gauge which areas of the globe the visitors are coming from, Botto said.
This is helpful "to really understand local traffic and local nuances," Botto said, adding that companies can "get a jumpstart on where the hot and cold markets are."
A company with a property-search site could determine, for example, in which areas consumers are searching for lower-priced homes or higher-priced homes.
Google also offers an optional analytics service called benchmarking that shows how a user’s Web site statistics stack up against other verticals in the same industry. Participating companies’ names remain anonymous to other users of the benchmarking service, and results are displayed in an aggregated format.
"This is like a real-time census that updates automatically," Botto said.
Talking about embedded tags on Web pages may draw blank looks from some real estate professionals, though Botto said the Google Analytics tools are designed to be easy to use, if you have "cursory knowledge of Web sites and how they work."
He added, "We’ve taken great pains to make it actionable and usable. It caters to an enormous swath of clientele. There’s no reason why a RE/MAX agent wouldn’t put up Google Analytics for themselves," just as the franchise company has implemented it on a grander scale, he said.
The fact that a large and growing volume of real estate searches are conducted online "speaks to the need for analytics," Botto said.
"Now there is not only information on what (consumers) were looking for, but how did they discover this place? There is a ton of information available now.
"In this kind of crunch time you need to maximize every dollar you spend," he said, and analytics can help to determine where real estate professionals and companies are getting the most bang for the buck online.
The automated gathering of electronic information about Web visitors may spook some users, though Botto said that "Google does take great pains to protect privacy" and to aggregate individual information as group behavior at a site.
Google also offers a tool that allows users to test out different variations of the same Web page — essentially shifting around different design aspects of the page to gauge whether the different designs have any influence on visitor behavior at the site.
There is a movement toward converging analytics data from a variety of sources, Botto said, such as the combination of Web site stats with statistics from radio and television ad campaigns. "We’re really looking to get to where you have one place to go for data instead of 17 places with 17 different owners."
He said that analytics have come "a long way from where I started nine years ago — I had to convince people that they needed analytics. At least they know they need analytics now."
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