2010 is around the corner. Real estate companies have known for years that the vast majority of consumers use the Internet. If a real estate agent or broker is not redesigning his Web site right now, he’s thinking about redesigning his Web site real soon. And as soon as the Web site is finished and launched, he’s probably planning the next one he wants to launch.

The Web site can be thought of as the real storefront of the modern real estate practice. There are successful companies in real estate today that have a great Web site but no physical offices. There are none that I know of who have a swank marble-floored office but no Web site.

2010 is around the corner. Real estate companies have known for years that the vast majority of consumers use the Internet. If a real estate agent or broker is not redesigning his Web site right now, he’s thinking about redesigning his Web site real soon. And as soon as the Web site is finished and launched, he’s probably planning the next one he wants to launch.

The Web site can be thought of as the real storefront of the modern real estate practice. There are successful companies in real estate today that have a great Web site but no physical offices. There are none that I know of who have a swank marble-floored office but no Web site.

So … why are so many real estate Web sites so awful? The vast majority of them look like cookie-cutter sites designed by colorblind high school kids back in the late ’90s. Even the decent-looking Web sites are bland affairs with odd usability problems all over the place.

Granted, there are exceptions, but for the most part real estate Web sites are not exercises in Web-design greatness.

The reason, I submit, is a lack of strategy.

Why strategy matters

The genesis of most real estate Web sites lies in the broker or agent feeling like he needs one of these "fancy new Web site things" for a variety of reasons: his competitor got one, or he has read some article "talking about how 80 percent of buyers start on the ‘Internets,’ " or some such.

And he goes immediately from need to fulfillment by the shortest distance possible: call a Web site designer who promises to take care of everything, from hosting to design to copy to search.

The result is another cookie-cutter Web site where the only thing different is the name of the company and the smiling picture of the agent.

Or, if the choice is a custom Web site designer, then the broker’s (or agent’s) natural inclination to push as much sales and marketing as possible in front of the consumer results in a Web site that literally puts everything on the home page — from listings search, to featured listings, to how wonderful the agent is, to neighborhood descriptions and market conditions, and, and, and …

At no point during this entire process has the broker or agent sat down and asked any of the following questions:

1. Why am I building this Web site?

2. Who am I building this Web site for?

3. What will my users want to see or use?

4. Where will my users come from?

5. How will I know it’s working? …CONTINUED

Asking and answering these questions (and others like them) is strategy. Strategy is intelligence applied to a set of problems — it is thought. One can certainly over-think things, and sometimes instinct is better than thought. But usually, thinking about a problem improves the solution.

Applied to building a Web site, strategy forms the foundation upon which a good Web site can be built. I viewed an extremely useful presentation conducted by Navigation Arts, a company that specializes in Internet strategy and user experience, called "Applying IA Fundamentals," delivered by Kelley McDonald, the company’s director of user experience.

IA stands for information architecture. In Web design, it refers to a cross-disciplinary specialty that attempts to systematically build Web sites based on user research, systematic and strategic structuring of content, and usability testing. The big corporate sites have all seen the tender loving care of expert information architects, and as a result are generally more successful.

The presentation featured a graphic from Jesse James Garrett’s "The Elements of User Experience," which explains that you cannot have a beautiful Web site (at least if you define beauty as including function) without a skeleton, often called the wireframe.

And you cannot build a wireframe until the basic structure of the site is put in place, with its component pieces of content and features organized.

At the bottom of the Web site, at the most abstract level, lies strategy: Why build a Web site? What do you hope to get out of it? Who are you building the site for? How will they use it? What will they want? How will you measure success or failure?

IA professionals cannot answer these strategic questions for the client, although they can help facilitate the process. Only the client knows why he wants a Web site, and only users can answer what they want from a Web site.

Most real estate Web sites fail because the client (i.e., the broker or agent) is picking out colors (the "surface") and thinking about where the featured listings should go (skeleton or wireframe) long before dealing with the more abstract and yet more foundational issues of strategy.

Since, dear reader, chances are that if you are responsible for the Web site of major real estate companies, you’re already working with IA experts, let me instead speak to the rest of you: small brokers and individual agents who feel that your site could be better but don’t quite know why. …CONTINUED

The Cracker Jack box Web site strategy

No matter your size or budget, you can and should come up with a Web site strategy: if you haven’t hired consultants or IA experts, then doing strategy costs you nothing out of pocket. Sit down with a pad and pencil and answer these questions:

1. Why do I want to build a Web site?

The real question here is one of prioritizing your many wishes. You want a Web site so you can generate leads, which you can convert into more transactions. You also want to showcase how awesome you are.

Maybe you want to communicate with your prospects and clients about market conditions. Broadly speaking, there are three buckets of reasons: branding, lead generation, and customer service. You want all three; the trouble is, which one is most important to you? Which one is second?

2.For whom am I building this Web site?

The first and most obvious answer is: everbody. Except that’s pretty much the same thing as saying that you want to build the Web site for nobody.

As I’ve discussed in this column before, trying to be everything to everybody pretty much guarantees that you’re going to be targeting no one in particular, and is the Web site equivalent of saying, "Now is a great time to buy or sell!"

Again, prioritization is the key. Of course you want to generate leads from buyers, sellers and renters. But who is more important than the others? The answer depends on the specifics of your business.

Maybe you have all of the buyers you can handle, but would really like to list more homes. Or maybe you’re brand new and want to focus on buyers for the first five years of your real estate practice. Maybe you live in New York City and renters are your game.

Whatever the answer, this single decision influences the content, feature set, and probably the home page and navigation of your final product. Segment, then prioritize.

3. What will my users want to see or use?

We are treading into "scope" here, which dictates what features and content pieces need to be put together, but at the strategy level you want to focus on broad wants and needs. Since you don’t have the budget to conduct an in-depth user research study, focus groups, and the like … start simple: ask your clients, past and present, what they’d like to see in your future Web site.

The answers need to be filtered through your answer to the who question. Say your focus is on sellers in your market, which is going through a rough patch with high foreclosure rates.

Maybe what the sellers want to get out of a real estate Web site is a sense of hope, or at a minimum some order out of the chaos they are going through. Perhaps they want reassurance that somebody knows what’s going on with the crazy market.

From this strategic answer you will be able to build the scope: market reports, blog posts on the market conditions, foreclosure and bank-owned (REO) property counts, etc. …CONTINUED

4. Where will my users come from?

Taking your why and your who answers, you can more easily answer the important where question. There is an overemphasis in real estate Web sites on Google and search engines. A lot of nonsense about Long Tail Marketing gets thrown around with precious little understanding of what that phrase actually means for realtors. Meanwhile, research by WAV Group indicates that the majority of people coming from a search engine to a realtor Web site typed in the name of the realtor, or the URL of the site.

This is not to knock SEO, which is important. But it is to say that depending on Why you’re bulding a Web site, and Who you are targeting, SEO may not be the most important thing in the world to you. If your first priority is to brand yourself as an expert to the sellers in your local market, then perhaps your users won’t necessarily be coming from Google typing in "real estate brokers in XYZ." Maybe, for you, FaceBook is a far more important traffic driver. On the other hand, if your business is all about relocation, well then you’d better put a ton of thought into SEO.

5. How will I know it’s working?

The final question is, in some ways, the most important. The difference between strategy and a wishlist often comes down to metrics. If lead generation is your goal, then you need to think about what constitutes a lead, and how you will measure the effectiveness of your Web site in creating new leads. If relocation buyers are your target, you need to consider how you’ll know the effectiveness of your efforts to target them. Gut feeling, while valuable, is not a substitute.

Despite a wealth of analytics tools and various metrics, strategically, only you know how much information is enough for you. Maybe you don’t need to delve into funnels and goal conversion rates; maybe all you need is to look at your checkbook to see if the Web site is working or not. Fine — but know that because you’ve thought about it, and have decided that’s all you need.

While a full-blown Web site strategy, complete with user research, can and does go far beyond these basics, and is in turn built on a marketing strategy derived from overall business strategy, I believe that a large number of real estate Web sites can be improved rather quickly if the owners spend an evening in a comfortable chair working through these simple questions. So pour a glass of wine, turn down the lights, get comfy, and get thinking.

P.S.: If you are interested in delving deeper into the information architecture and usability game, the single best book on the subject for the layman is "Don’t Make Me Think" by Steve Krug.

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. You can reach him on Twitter at @robhahn.

***

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