SAN FRANCISCO — Finding a place to advertise online is easy — there are so many — but picking the right one for your business can be challenging, notes Greg Sterling, an analyst and blogger who has expertise in local media and search and mobile technologies.

"The world is getting more fragmented and difficult," he said during a presentation Thursday at the Real Estate Connect conference.

"There are lots of different ways to get exposure online. You need to be represented almost everywhere."

Real estate professionals, who once had a more limited selection of advertising outlets, now can place ads in traditional media, on search engines, display networks, vertical sites, classified sites and networks, social media sites, and on mobile platforms.

Identifying the options with the best return on investment can take a little work, though a "dirty little secret" is that there are many free ways to promote your business online, Sterling said.

Chances are, they are online

"It’s critical to know where your customers are," Sterling said — and increasingly they are online.

He cited a study released this year by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, which found that about 75 percent of those ages 18-29 (so-called "Millennials") have a social networking profile.

In that age group, 88 percent used a mobile device to send text messages, and 80 percent had sent a text message in the past 24 hours.

Among Generation Xers — those 30-45 — 50 percent have created a social networking profile, 48 percent use a wireless Internet connection away from home, and 77 percent use a mobile device to text.

"Consumers are obviously using the Internet and electronic media very, very heavily. All data reflect the same thing," he also said.

While it’s tough to get and maintain a high page rank in Google’s search results, there are other ways to get online exposure, Sterling noted, such as maintaining multiple websites, a blog, and participating in local directories (for example, Yellow Pages sites and Google Places), and in industry vertical sites.

Getting property listings and profiles into top-ranking real estate websites is a good idea, he said.

Google may continue to beef up its Google Maps integration with real estate data, he speculated, noting that Google has made moves in the mortgage space by providing a loan-comparison tool built with its AdWords Comparison Ads program.

Get to know local search, social media

ComScore, a Web traffic research company, has reported that Google receives about 14 billion queries per month, and Google has reported that about 20 percent of searches are related to location.

Location-based searches are a significant chunk of total online searches, Sterling also said, accounting for about 20 percent of Google’s estimated 14 billion monthly search queries.

He offered a list of some advertising networks that offer locally targeted ads, including: CityGrid, Chitika/LAX, Local Ad Xchange, Where, Marchex, Centro and LSN Mobile, among others.

There are abundant marketing opportunities on Facebook and Twitter, he said, and noted that Facebook Ads can be targeted at specific locations, demographic groups and interest areas.

Twitter reported that it has an estimated 105.8 million registered users, with about 180 million unique visitors each month. Facebook, meanwhile, has about 500 million users.

Sterling noted in his presentation that Twitter posts, or tweets, are increasingly indexed by Google and Bing search engines, and there are tools to help users consolidate and manage messages from a variety social platforms. There are also reputation tools to help monitor what’s said about you online.

You can’t ignore mobile

"Mobile is a big area for real estate," Sterling said, with an estimated 75 million adults — almost one-third of total U.S. Internet users — accessing the Internet via mobile devices, and 55 percent of them using it on a daily basis.

In a separate presentation during the Real Estate Connect conference, Michael Zimbalist, vice president of research and development operations at the New York Times Co., said that by the end of this year it is anticipated that there will be more smart phones than desktop computers sold in the U.S.

And Zimbalist said that there are now more global users of social networks than there are users of e-mail, with the time that people spend on social networks continuing to rise.

"We’re also changing our behaviors — moving from being passive recipients of information to active creators," he said.

Mobile demand has led to a wave of new devices, from smart phones to tablet computers, e-readers, netbooks and hybrids. The vision of a "ubiquitous computing future," with myriad interconnected and interactive devices, is increasingly a reality, he said.

"Never before have we lived through this kind of hardware explosion we’re seeing now," Zimbalist said.

About 23 percent of mobile phone users in the U.S. are now using smart phones, according to a Nielsen study.

Mobile coupon and deal services, such as Groupon, and location-based check-in services — Scavngr and Foursquare are among the examples — are hot right now, Sterling also said.

How are mobile users engaging with real estate tools?

Real estate search and marketing company Trulia reported that Sunday is the busiest day for mobile usage, with about 70 percent more usage than Friday, which is the lowest-use day. About 50 percent of Trulia searches on the iPhone are for properties near the user’s current location, the company also reported.

Real estate valuation, search and marketing company Zillow reported that its mobile audience accounts for about 15 percent of homes viewed on weekends, up from about 10 percent during the week.

And mobile users are viewing active listings 45 percent more frequently than other Zillow users. The company has reported in excess of 1.75 million downloads of its iPhone app.

Online user-review company Yelp has reported that about 27 percent of its search queries stem from its iPhone app, and Sterling said real estate professionals should consider setting up a profile on that site.

Morgan Stanley estimated in a report earlier this year that mobile Internet use will exceed desktop Internet use within five years.

There are many ways to engage with the mobile audience, Sterling noted, from text-messaging to mobile-optimized websites to mobile apps.

The mobile real estate crowd may be closer to purchasing, so mobile leads could be more promising, he said, advising real estate professionals to use mobile marketing in tandem with more traditional campaigns.

Microsoft’s Bing search engine, which will soon transition to be the power behind Yahoo’s search, too, should not be ignored, Sterling said. "Don’t neglect Bing." He said he expects Bing to build out more verticals, and "it’s probably a reasonable assumption" that Bing will build out a real estate vertical at some point.

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