This is the second article in a two-part series detailing changes in the use of the Web and what they mean for online real estate.

There’s a growing tendency to judge a website’s performance not just on the number of visitors it generates, but the amount of time people spend on a site.

Last week we looked at how a change in what metrics are "important" often signals a change in the way technology is used ("New ways to measure online visitors").

But the shift in emphasis from number of users to time on site isn’t always directly useful for marketing your real estate practice online. Certainly it’s important, but it isn’t necessarily something on which you can take action.

For example, if you know that people spend around five times as many hours per week on Facebook than on Google, how will that change your marketing practices? The general clamor and hype might lead you to devote more of your resources to Facebook. This might not be a bad thing to do, but it’s reactive, not strategic, thinking.

Search vs. social

The question is what are people doing and why are they doing it? Don’t just fish where the fish are — fish where the fish are hungry.

Facebook is a place people go to interact with people they know and talk about themselves and their friends. It’s self-focused. Google is a place where people go to get answers to questions and find information.

Obviously it makes sense for brands to be in both places. But which one of these interactions is a more obvious fit for helping people find and buy real estate? The place where people go to ask questions and find information.

People definitely ask their friends and family questions about real estate. They might even do it on social networks. But there isn’t a solid mechanism for the marketer to get into that conversation on Facebook.

If my cousin wants to ask me what I think about a neighborhood or house, he’s likely to just send me a message directly. There isn’t room for a marketer to get between my cousin’s message to me or my reply back to him. And if there was, it’d be creepy.

The search environment, however, is ripe with opportunities. My cousin types in what he’s looking for in a house or a neighborhood and Google serves up 10 possibilities plus a bunch of advertising that’s related to what he’s looking for.

The downside (assuming I know anything about real estate — which I will be the first to tell you I don’t) is that in this situation there’s no room for my cousin to drag me into the search interaction. On the search engine, my cousin has a bunch of possibilities but he doesn’t have access to my thoughts on it.

Google and Bing will continue to try to drag a layer of social stuff into the search results specifically to deal with this. But it’s probably a long way off and the basic structure of Web search as it is today will have to change.

You can connect every bit of social content I’ve ever made and my cousin will still not have my thoughts on his specific search because I’ve never thought about the neighborhoods he’s looking at. Search requires you to know what you’re looking for ahead of time.

Real estate and the document Web

Social networks like Facebook are Web technologies that work more like computer applications, while search engines are Web technologies that operate on a pile of documents.

Documents are how all this Web stuff got started in the first place. The natural and useful measure of documents is "how many times has this thing been looked at?" Documents aren’t going away.

Communication is one of the key Web technologies of the Internet. Email, not the Web, was the first killer Internet app. Migrating communication applications to a Web interface has taken time, but it’s obviously up and running. Social communication via the Web is not going away.

Real estate has done a good job of migrating to the document Web. It was a little painful from a policy and business strategy perspective (perhaps continues to be a little painful). But from an implementation issue it’s been pretty straightforward: Take all those printed documents, turn them into Web documents, and add a search feature

That pretty much describes all real estate websites today: a pile of documents with a search feature. Some websites have documents with more information; some websites have different ways to search; some websites have different business rules associated with how you can search. But at the core, they’re all the same.

As the application Web continues to grow, however, what can real estate do with that? Again, I don’t think the document Web is going anywhere. And I think the document Web is the most natural place for real estate to be helpful to people looking to buy or sell a house.

But what sort of communication-driven application is there for property online? Or for agents or brokers? The Facebook pages of most businesses (not just real estate but most businesses) are pretty much just document syndication points. Even the ones that are full of "engagement."

Spending money to lose money?

Over the past couple months I’ve had the opportunity to speak with a lot of different businesses about how their social media thing is working for them. Both inside and outside the real estate industry. Every single one of them has expressed a desire to get more value out of their Facebook page. That’s the polite way of saying they’re not sure it’s working for them in a business sense.

The trouble here, is that the number of users and likers and so on, the "F-factor," isn’t pointing in a direct line towards a revenue number. In addition, the time spent engaging with all of these likers is an expense item. And everyone is discovering that they can add more of these likers by buying ads on Facebook. Sort of an expensive downward spiral.

This issue — spending money to attract people who have a nebulous relationship to the bottom line — highlights not only how the Web is changing, but how the way people use the Web is changing, and that businesses are having trouble figuring out how to operate in this changing environment.

Two possible courses of action are apparent: Stop participating in the application Web because you don’t know how it relates to your bottom line, or figure out how real estate fits into the application Web (or how the application Web fits into real estate).

Here is a grab bag of 10 ideas about the application Web and real estate:

  • Use the application Web to support your document Web activities.
  • Focus on past customers who like you.
  • Build applications that solve some small task related to real estate.
  • Build applications that solve some small task related to your geography.
  • Build applications that solve some small task related to the kinds of lifestyles you work with.
  • Determine the lifetime value of a customer and back that number into your document Web and application Web interactions.
  • No really, determine the lifetime value — don’t just read that out loud.
  • Build applications that allow property to become social objects, not just documents.
  • Build applications that allow you to listen to what your customers are really saying.
  • Build applications that make it easier for you to find the meaning in what your customers are really saying.

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