If 2010 is anything like the last five years, online interest in real estate will peak for the year this month or next. That means that very soon, the number of people using the Web to find real estate will be on a seasonal, downward slope until the January 2011 bump.

This lull sometimes puts people into a panic about what to do next. Often the first thing they seize on is search engine optimization (SEO). This is a tempting area to address, if only because of the misconception that SEO is free. It’s free only if the time it takes you to research and create content is free.

If 2010 is anything like the last five years, online interest in real estate will peak for the year this month or next. That means that very soon, the number of people using the Web to find real estate will be on a seasonal, downward slope until the January 2011 bump.

This lull sometimes puts people into a panic about what to do next. Often the first thing they seize on is search engine optimization (SEO). This is a tempting area to address, if only because of the misconception that SEO is free. It’s free only if the time it takes you to research and create content is free.

Gauging SEO ROI

Now isn’t the time worry about SEO unless you are going to pursue very specific terms. You’re unlikely to see results quickly enough if you’re shooting at broad search terms. An example of a broad search term would be "Burlington real estate for sale." An example of a specific search term might be "Condo in the Old North End Burlington, VT."

If you’re going to take advantage of online interest in real estate this year and you aren’t well positioned on the broad searches, you’re unlikely to get there in time this year. Which isn’t to say that you shouldn’t keep working on it. But if your business plan requires results this season, SEO may not be the place to direct your resources.

Social media

Social media is another avenue that digitally savvy real estate professionals often see as promising. Social media is great for working with the people you know — your "sphere of influence." But the people you reach via social media are segmented based on their relationship with you, not their desire or need to buy or sell a house.

While you might have better luck getting aggressive with your social media work over the next two months than if you put an equal amount of energy into a broad-term SEO plan, you’re still not going to be reaching those people who don’t know you or your friends and are looking for a house right now.

Paid advertising

Adwords and other paid advertising methods overcome these challenges. Or maybe I should say they allow you to swap the challenges presented by social media marketing and search engine optimization for another set of challenges.

When you activate an online advertising campaign, it starts as soon as you authorize the credit card. Also, your message can target people based on what they’re looking for — the words they enter in the search field. So you can start seeing results right away, quickly expanding your base beyond those you already know.

I probably don’t have to tell you that advertising isn’t free. At least with Adwords and most other search-based advertising, you pay only when someone clicks on the ad. The price is determined based on how many people are bidding on that term. "Long tail" terms tend to be cheaper and convert better, but there aren’t as many of them.

If you haven’t tried online advertising (or if you did but had spotty results), try these three tips and see if they help you out over the next couple months.

Search terms

Sometimes picking the right search term to advertise on makes all the difference.

Choosing a phrase to advertise on is very much like doing keyword research for organic search engine optimization. You want to find a term that indicates that someone is looking to buy or sell a house. But that covers a lot of ground.

Try a variety of terms to find the one that works best for your real estate practice. For example, test out "House for sale Jay, VT" vs. "Real estate for sale Jay, VT" or test out your state spelled out completely vs. the abbreviation. There’s a lot of things to try. I’ve found that what works best is different in each market (and sometimes even within markets).

Landing pages

You can direct a paid advertisement to a specific page on your website. In many cases, that page shouldn’t be your home page (this is doubly true if the word "Welcome" appears anywhere on your home page).

For example, say you run an ad on the search phrase "House for sale in Lunenburg, VT." When someone clicks on that ad, you might want to bring them directly to a page on your website that shows a list of all the houses for sale in Lunenburg, Vt., or maybe a page focused on a house in Lunenburg, Vt., that you’re listing.

Always try to bring the search advertising visitor directly to what they’re looking for. Remember, they already typed what they want into the search engine, they don’t want to type it again into the search field on your site — it’s easier to hit the back button.

Location, location, location

By default, your ads will show all over the world. But you can limit your advertising by geography. For example, if you don’t have a significant Chinese or Russian client base you can make sure your ads don’t show in those countries. Keeping your advertising focused by geography will stretch your budget further.

You can also use the geo-targeting features to craft campaigns specific to different towns or cities. For example, you can focus campaigns for relocation to towns outside of your main selling area.

Ultimately, you want to have a plan that integrates your search engine optimization, social media and advertising activities. They complement each other very well. But when time is short — whether it’s your time or the time of customer interest — advertising can be a good method to get you where you need to go.

Gahlord Dewald is the president and janitor of Thoughtfaucet, a strategic creative services company in Burlington, Vt. He’s a frequent speaker on applying analytics and data to creative marketing endeavors.

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