SAN FRANCISCO — From prom dresses to diets to engagement rings to social media, our online behavior speaks volumes about us — if businesses take the time to analyze and interpret the information, said Bill Tancer, an author and data geek who serves as general manager of global research for Internet metrics company Hitwise.

Tancer, speaking Wednesday at the Inman News Real Estate Connect conference, discussed the potential game-changer if Google more actively routes real estate searches to its mapping platform.

SAN FRANCISCO — From prom dresses to diets to engagement rings to social media, our online behavior speaks volumes about us — if businesses take the time to analyze and interpret the information, said Bill Tancer, an author and data geek who serves as general manager of global research for Internet metrics company Hitwise.

Tancer, speaking Wednesday at the Inman News Real Estate Connect conference, discussed the potential game-changer if Google more actively routes real estate searches to its mapping platform.

He also detailed the types of sites most likely to send traffic to real estate sites and the popularity of specific types of real estate sites with the upper-crust crowd.

Last month, Google rolled out a dedicated landing page at maps.google.com/realestate (see "Google Maps improves listings search") that maps properties and can be customized based on number of bedrooms and bathrooms, square footage, and other criteria.

While Google Maps now supplies about 0.6 percent of all traffic to the roughly 2,200 real estate category Web sites tracked by Hitwise, Tancer said this share could spike if Google channels more home-search queries to its interactive real estate mapping tool.

Integrating that functionality into Google’s general results could mean "a completely different story in terms of the amount of traffic that (the Google Maps tool) can supply to the real estate category," said Tancer, author of "Click: What Millions of People Are Doing Online and Why it Matters."

Search engines are the largest sources of traffic to real estate-related Web sites, Tancer noted, advising that real estate professionals’ dollars may be best spent on search-related marketing.

Google is the No. 1 source of traffic to real estate category sites, accounting for about 23 percent to 24 percent of all traffic to those sites.

While social networking sites are the fastest-growing supplier of traffic to real estate sites, they still account for only about 3 percent of overall traffic to those sites.

The data "tells us we have to take all this hype about social media with a little grain of salt," he said.

Facebook is the major contributor among social networking sites, sending about 1.5 percent of traffic to real estate-related sites, followed by MySpace at 0.5 percent, YouTube at 0.3 percent and Twitter at 0.05 percent — Tancer noted that those Twitter statistics don’t count traffic via apps such as TweetDeck.

Behind Google, Yahoo accounts for about 5 percent of traffic to real estate sites, with Yahoo Real Estate supplying an additional 1.8 percent and Yahoo Mail supplying 1.8 percent. Microsoft’s Bing accounts for about 1.9 percent of traffic sent to real estate sites.

Hitwise crunched the numbers on which real estate sites the "upper-crust" segment of consumers — those in households earning over $250,000 per year — were visiting most, and found that foreclosure-related Web sites topped their list. …CONTINUED

Tancer said it appears those consumers are searching for possible bargain investment properties. That was followed by fractional-ownership real estate sites, such as those related to timeshares.

Multiple listing service Web sites and home-valuation, real-estate "voyeur" type sites were next on the list, Tancer said.

"Observed behavior provides an invaluable asset in terms of figuring out what’s happening," Tancer said. "We think we know how consumers act," he said, but the data shows how consumers are actually acting.

He noted the example of a January spike in online searches for prom dresses. While retailers he spoke with thought the January surge was odd because they expected this seasonal uptick in interest would begin in March, he later learned that advertisers in teen fashion-oriented publications had been heavily marketing prom dresses in January.

A spike in engagement ring-related searches in the week prior to Thanksgiving also ran against retailer expectations, as engagement rings are typically purchased during the Christmas to New Year’s time frame, with another pickup around Valentine’s Day.

For real estate Web sites, the biggest drop-off in traffic tends to occur during the winter holidays, Tancer said, and then rebounding toward the start of the year.

"Right after (consumers) come back from the holidays — that’s the big surge," he said.

A trend that Tancer is interested in of late is that "apartments to rent" recently surpassed "homes for sale" as a top real estate-related search term.

Such data could help advertisers to better tailor their marketing strategies.

He said that observing consumer’s search behavior is not an entirely reliable tool at this point for predicting real estate trends. "The challenge we have: The real estate market is so unsettled," he said.

Tancer said that Hitwise has been working with Stanford University to develop a sort of "Internet Consumer Confidence" index based on search data, though it’s a tall order because it is not easy to delineate consumer intent based solely on search behavior.

Read a related article: "Dancing with Web stats."

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