SAN FRANCISCO — A WordPress site can function as an online hub for real estate professionals, rollling together content and customer relationship management systems, a blog, property search, an agent directory, and a database of market information, among other functions.

But in order to mine that potential, agents and brokers will need both strategy and a bit of tech know-how, said speakers at the Real Estate Connect conference last week.

The first question to ask yourself is: What content and aesthetics will draw your target audience to the site?

SAN FRANCISCO — A WordPress site can function as an online hub for real estate professionals, rollling together content and customer relationship management systems, a blog, property search, an agent directory, and a database of market information, among other functions.

But in order to mine that potential, agents and brokers will need both strategy and a bit of tech know-how, said speakers at the Real Estate Connect conference last week.

The first question to ask yourself is: What content and aesthetics will draw your target audience to the site?

Content strategy

"Establish a voice: What makes you different, other than your listings, from everyone else in your market? What makes you you and why should I buy from you as opposed to anyone else in your market?" said Chad Parizman, director of Emerging Ventures at Scripps Networks Interactive.

"During the next few years, your listings are going to be compromised" by companies like Google, which is integrating listings from agents, brokers and third-party vendors into its massive search engine, said Chris Pearson, founder of Pearsonified and DIYThemes.com,

"Your only real protection is … your content strategy," he said.

Pearson suggested specializing in the kind of architecture that predominates in your market area.

"I purchased a home in Austin last year, a mid-century modern home. I found listings from agents, but information about that kind of home from local enthusiasts," he said.

Content is especially important when a real estate professional wants to be found and considered an authority by prospective homebuyers and sellers.

"Beyond that six-, eight-, 12-week period that someone is looking for a home, your blog will be around. (Potential clients) will look to see if there’s conversation on your blog between you and other people who post comments and questions."

By that same token, consistency is also important to building that dialogue.

"People might not stick around if they can’t be sure you’ll post something at certain times. If Wednesday is your foreclosure day, on Tuesday night after you’ve done three showings and an open house you still need to do it. Or schedule posts so you can take a day and do them in advance," Parizman said.

After posting an item, "spend twice as long promoting your post than you did writing it," said workshop moderator Dustin Luther. "To get people to make comments, focus on the consumer: What are they interested in?"

Navigation matters

Go simple with site design — and analyze the results.

"First, stop and ask yourself, ‘What is the goal of this page? What is helping me achieve that goal and what is taking away from that goal?’ You’re probably going to end up getting rid of a lot of links and navigation," Pearson said.

"If you offer four or five different options and keep things very simple, people are very good at making decisions in that context. Go to five to 10 (options), and people try to use unconscious reasoning. People are poor decision-makers in that context."

Funnel the users where you want them to go and experiment with what drives them to particular pages, panelists said.

Specifically for real estate sites, Pearson said, "There’s crap on everybody’s listings pages. You shouldn’t have links at the bottom, giving people an out (from) your page. You should have a way to contact an agent about a listing."

At DIYThemes.com, for example, once a user clicks a button to register and download the product, there are no other links on the resulting page besides the one that will direct the user to make a purchase — not even a home page button.

"That increased the effectiveness of the page by 50 percent," Pearson said.

He said he knows that because he uses Google Analytics, which has a WordPress plug-in, to watch traffic on individual pages of his site. Previously, a link on that pricing page had a 31 percent higher click-through rate than the other pages on his site because people were looking to leave the pricing page.

Maximize listings SEO

Justin LaJoie, CEO of Internet marketing company Diverse Solutions, suggested WordPress users who would like to have listings on their sites use a WordPress Internet Data Exchange (IDX) plug-in.

Such plug-ins are "built using the best (search engine optimization) practices and have countless ways to display listings," LaJoie said.

"Listings are always being updated and Google loves new content. It will come back more often, and therefore consumers (will) too," he added.

Search engines rank based on how authoritative they consider a source and visit that source more often depending on several factors.

"Sites with higher authority will get more indexed: that means they have more content, they’re updating more frequently, have more visitors, and are getting more inbound links from other sites," LaJoie said.

Sites can begin to build authority by incorporating a property-search sidebar widget into the site that would enable consumers to search from any page on the site. WordPress users can also add links to the home page directing consumers to the most important geographic areas their multiple listing service covers.

"Don’t add a link to every city in the MLS. You’re not going to get indexed for every property in the MLS. Start with the most important cities to you, then watch and see what’s getting indexed. See where results are coming from," LaJoie said.

"Your blog has only so much love to go around — search engines can only go so far into your site," he added.

Authority also comes from having something other than listings in a site — in other words, unique content. That also extends to how content is displayed through WordPress themes.

"Choose a different theme than other people. I know everybody likes the Thesis theme, but you want to be different for the consumer and the search engines," LaJoie said. "Be unique."

Duplicate content is not necessarily a problem, however. Search engines don’t penalize for it.

"The only problem is you’re competing with somebody else. The better sites overall will be the victors," LaJoie said.

Authority also extends to loading times. An SEO-optimized site should be fast — both for search engine rankings and for a superior consumer experience. To fulfill that need for speed, LaJoie recommends the hosting sites Rackspace and DreamHost.

For examples of real estate sites LaJoie thinks are getting things right, see:

Upgrade

If you’re a current WordPress 2.0 user, upgrade to 3.0 — and now, said Jane Wells, who is in charge of user experience at WordPress.

"You’re a huge security risk right now; your site will get hacked eventually," she said. While a 2.0 user may have to pay someone to upgrade them, as of WordPress 2.7, the company put a built-in upgrader in the software, she said, so users will be able to upgrade automatically in the future.

WordPress 3.0 also offers increased functionality, she added. It now offers a multi-site feature that can be used for neighborhood sites, agent sub-sites, niche sites, and/or single-property websites.

"Right now it’s still fairly complicated, so you might want to hold off (on the multi-site feature) unless you’re technical. Wait for another version or two," she cautioned.

The 3.0 version also has an option to implement child themes, meaning that instead of every page in your site looking exactly the same, a single theme can now spawn thousands of sub-themes without compromising the original theme template.

For prospective users who would like to switch over to WordPress from another type of site but want to carry over that site’s pretty design, Wells suggested hiring a WordPress coder.

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