On my personal blog I recently wrote about the importance of design, inspired by an excerpt from Alan Webber’s book, "Rules of Thumb," posted on @Issue, an online journal.

On my personal blog I recently wrote about the importance of design, inspired by an excerpt from Alan Webber’s book, "Rules of Thumb," posted on @Issue, an online journal.

Alan Webber is the co-founder of Fast Company, and a veteran within the design industry. In brief, Webber sets forth the proposition that competitiveness in the modern era is based on design, and that good design is merely table stakes while great design is required to win at business.

As a result of that post, I’ve had e-mails and direct messages on Twitter that raise a related question: If you had to choose between design and content, which do you prioritize?

It’s a great question, and a critical one, especially for real estate. The current thinking is that Realtors should embrace content, above all, for three reasons. First, content means better search-engine optimization. Second, content means establishing yourself as a local expert. And third, content keeps visitors on a site longer. Seems reasonable, right? Alas, reasonable isn’t the same thing as correct.

Good design is table stakes

While I will always emphasize the importance of good content, I believe that today, good design should be prioritized even over content for most real estate Web sites. There are three reasons why:

1. Good design leads people to content, while bad design drives people away. People may not judge a book by its cover, but they certainly pick up a book because of the cover. Bad design quite often means that the content is never read or viewed. A home page that is confused and fragmented, with no organization and no thought to the user, simply drives users away.

You could have written the best guide to first-time homebuyers in the history of real estate. However, if your Web site looks like something put together by an eighth-grader interested mostly in spamming and planting Trojan horse viruses on the visitor’s computer, chances of people reading that guide are slim.

2. Good design is table stakes for branding. Alan Webber writes: "My guess is that most of you already get it. You already know that the design of your Web site says more about your brand than any 30-second TV spot."

I couldn’t agree more. Your Web site is your face to the world. Even before a visitor reads a single word on your Web site, he is forming an opinion of you as a professional, as a company, based purely on visual and behavioral cues provided by the design.

Is the site cluttered or clean? Is it jam-packed with all sorts of pictures and lots of words, or is the site open and spacious? Does it load quickly, or am I staring at a loading screen for 30 seconds? Does the site look professional, or does it look like something put together by Nigerians who need your help to recover large sums stuck in a bank?

Without reading a single thing on a Web page, people make assumptions about the site’s owner. Malcolm Gladwell is right: We are all trained to make rapid decisions on very little information. And first impressions are hard to change.

3. Good design means you care more about human beings than robots. Something I find disturbing in real estate is the amount of attention paid to optimizing for Google and capturing the "long tail" compared to the amount of attention paid to optimizing for the human being who has actually landed on your Web site.

Realtors are routinely spending thousands of dollars in paid search, and hundreds of hours pumping out content, because that’s "good for search." They completely ignore the fact that their Web site — bought for $9.95 per month from some template Web site vendor — would have looked terrible back in 1999, nevermind in 2009. …CONTINUED

I see sites all the time that go on for seven screen-lengths with all manner of tiny type on the home page, loaded with all sorts of keywords. Such sites cry out to me, "You’re not a person to me, you’re just a lead off of Google!"

Don’t talk to me about how much you care about me as a client, how careful you are to work with me to understand my needs and all that jazz — when your Web site clearly communicates that you value Google far more than you do me.

Real estate content

Consider further that the single most important piece of content for real estate is listings. We can debate whether that’s good or bad, but facts do not change. You could have awesome videos, blog posts, photographs, and all manner of content; if you don’t have listings for your area, consumers don’t particularly care.

In fact, consumers may come to your site because of your blogging, read through your posts, and think you’re a great Realtor. They will then look for listings.

Traffic analysis of every real estate company Web site I’ve ever worked on showed that the vast majority of the traffic went to the property-search areas. Granted, these are non-blog sites, but even blog-heavy sites see the bulk of traffic to listings searches. Look at your own traffic logs and see for yourself.

Again, this is not to suggest that content is unimportant. Good content is a difference-maker. It is, however, to suggest that for the most part, a real estate Web site can simply have a good listings search and fulfill 90 percent-plus of the consumer’s content needs. Additional content, whether statistics, blog posts about the market, or video tours, is the chocolate topping on your listings sundae.

Priorities

Of course the ideal is to have great design wedded to great, compelling content. Who doesn’t want beauty and brains?

In real estate today, however, I submit that a well-designed Web site featuring not much more than a solid property search married to a good contact form will outperform a horribly designed Web site with all manner of great content.

Good design is table stakes — a minimum requirement for success — while good content is extra. Prioritize the basics, differentiate on the extras.

Robert Hahn is managing partner of 7DS Associates, a marketing, technology and strategy consultancy focusing on the real estate industry. He is also founder of The Notorious R.O.B. blog.

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