Guest Blogger, Kevin Lisota, is CEO & Co-founder of findwell, a real estate brokerage helping people buy and sell Seattle real estate. Kevin left a career at Microsoft to put his tech skills to use in real estate and can be found regularly on his Seattle real estate blog.
Every real estate agent wants to be found on the web. Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is the art of perfecting your website to appear in the most relevant search results on sites like Google and Bing. The search engines uses thousands of computers to crawl and index your web pages, trying to match the most relevant pages in their index with the appropriate searches being done by consumers. Every website needs to start with interesting, quality content to draw in visitors, but some of the most important improvements you can make to your pages are hidden in the HTML code of each web page. Let’s take a look at 6 of them.
Let’s start by doing a search for "Inman News™," a site that most of us probably read. When you enter the search, you will see a title, a short description and the URL for the site. A well-designed web page will have each of these elements carefully described in their HTML so that the search engines do not have to guess at what they should use in search results.
Look at the top of your web browser when you are on the Inman News home page. You will see a title that says "Real Estate News for Realtors and Brokers | Inman News." Where does this text come from? If you view the underlying HTML for the page, you will find this line of code:
<title>Real Estate News for Realtors and Brokers | Inman News</title>
Not only does the title tag show up at the top of your web browser, it also becomes the top line in your search results on Google and Bing, so you can see how important it is to get it right. It needs to be short, generally no more than 65 characters, so that it doesn’t get cut off in the search results. It also needs to incorporate the important search keywords on the page. If your page is about "real estate staging," then your title tag needs to include that phrase. You’ll see many websites adding their brand to the end of the title to better identify the site. This is a good practice, so if your page is about "real estate staging in Seattle" and your brand is "Mary’s Staging," then your title tag should read "Real Estate Staging in Seattle | Mary’s Staging."
The meta description of a web page is completely hidden from you when you are visiting a site, yet it is one of the most important things to get right for the search engines and is often forgotten. Take a look at the Inman News example above. You will see a one sentence description that says "Inman News is the real estate industry’s most authoritative source of market conditions, business trends, technology, real estate and financial news." Where did the search engine find that text? There is a line of HTML called the meta description where you can enter this for each and every page.
<META NAME="description" CONTENT="Inman News is the real estate industry's most authoritative source of market conditions, business trends, technology, real estate and financial news.">
If you forget to enter a meta description, the search engines will try to guess at a snippet of text that summarizes the page. That guess is usually pretty crude and often comes from the first sentence or two in your page. Many times, that isn’t the best sentence to draw in visitors from search results, so you should make it a habit to specifically summarize each page with its own meta description text. Once again it needs to be short, with no more than 160 characters so that it doesn’t get cut off. It also should read like an ad for your webpage. You have ~160 characters to get the user to click through to your page, so make it compelling. We talked about adding keywords to your title, and it is critical that you repeat those keywords in the meta description. If your page is about "real estate staging in Seattle," by all means make sure that your short description contains that exact phrase, just like the title.
The third piece of the puzzle is the actual URL for your webpage. Users need to enter a URL to get to your webpage. If your page is about real estate staging, which of the two URLs would be better?
It is pretty obvious that the second one is more readable to a user, and it is also more readable to a search engine. Don’t make the URL too long, but repeat that important keyword phrase again, and separate the words with a hyphen. You can also drop out connector words like a, the and in. There is some debate about how heavily search engines look at keywords in URLs, but there is evidence that it can improve your search results. Once again, repeat the important keyword phrase from your title and meta description.
Webpages can all have heading tags in their text. These are ranked in order of importance, starting with H1 through H6, which are usually highlighted in bold at the beginning of each section. Heading tags give structure to your web page and allow search engines to better interpret what your page is about. The important one is the H1 tag, which signifies the most important topic on the page and generally appears as the heading at the top of your web page. You’ll notice the repetition here, but your H1 tag should also include the keyword phrase that you have repeated in the title, description and URL. Here is what the H1 tag would look like on your real estate staging page:
<h1>Real estate staging in Seattle</h1>
Search engines don’t like duplicate content. Your ranking is best when just one page houses your content, but it is pretty easy to have multiple URLs for the same page like this:
This is likely the same exact page, but the search engines may see it as three pages with identical content. That is not good for your search rankings. Luckily there is a way to tell the search engines which URL is the right one, using something called the "canonical URL." Basically the canonical URL tells them that no matter what the user typed to get to the page, it is all referring to one specific URL, and they can safely ignore the duplicate URLs. Here is what that tag looks like:
<link rel="canonical" href="http://www.mysite.com" />
One more hidden field that can appear on a web page is called meta keywords. Once again, you never see this when browsing the web, but this is a way to mark up your page to tell search engines about the important keywords on the page. There is some debate on how effective this is, as Google and Bing may actually ignore them in their search results, but some SEO experts will tell you that they can help. Here is what that might look like for your real estate staging page:
<META NAME="KEYWORDS" CONTENT="real estate staging,Seattle,preparing a home for sale">
It turns out that some of these hidden fields also play a role on Facebook. When someone shares your web page on Facebook, they automatically generate a title, description and URL from these fields, so it pays to have them right so that you get the best results when sharing the page on social media networks as well.
Improving Your Own Web Pages
You may be reading this and saying to yourself, "what the heck is he talking about? I don’t know anything about HTML on my web pages." If you want to dig in and see the actual HTML for your own webpage, try going to Page > View Source in Internet Explorer. That will bring up a text files with all of the HTML on your page. You can see if these fields are there, or if you may have missed them.
These changes aren’t that difficult to implement. If you design your own web pages, the software you use will have a way to set these fields easily, without having to write any HTML code. If you use a web developer to help you, you will still want to help them by writing the titles, descriptions and keywords for each page, since you are the subject matter expert. Tools like WordPress also allow you to set the best titles and descriptions for your articles, but it usually adds an extra step to your publishing process.
If you have a lot of pages on your site, it can be a bit tedious to get through them all, but the results are worth it. Web pages with proper titles, descriptions and keywords all have a better chance of being found in Google and Bing, and users are more likely to click on them when they are well written. Spend the time to improve your website and you have a better chance of finding new customers.