When it comes to search engine optimization and marketing for real estate websites, the conversation can get wonky in a hurry. Luckily, most agents and brokers don’t need to know about canonical references, link structures or the intricate guts of SEO/SEM.

We can have a little bit of fun with the topic, because basics of generating rankings and traffic online are fairly straightforward. The truth is that 90 percent of the concepts you need to understand can be explained with Taco Bell, muscle cars and “The Matrix.” If you have a career in real estate, you can easily take on these topics and form simple habits that allow you to create good SEO/SEM for your website now and in the future.

Making a run from the border — the Taco Bell effect

The first hurdle most real estate practitioners have to get over today is the pervasive myth that large companies dominate search rankings and there is no chance for the little guy, so they ought to give up.

The fact is, big portal websites garner very many of the top spots on search engine results pages. At the same time, there’s still plenty of room in the rankings for smaller companies that can supply more than enough business to keep them busy. It’s a matter of the ranking’s value relative to the business’s and the consumer’s needs.

Imagine you’re on a road trip through Southern California, and your clan wants to find some great Mexican food. Guess what you’re going to drive by first: Taco Bell. Two miles later, it’s another Taco Bell. You ask Siri: “Find Mexican restaurants nearby.”

“I … found … 16 … Taco … Bells … within two miles. …”

The thing is, Siri has the mental capacity of a toddler, and Google just barely got through first grade. There’s a reason an old SEO mantra was “treat a search engine like a blind 5-year-old.” They’re trying really hard to weed through the drivel online for you, but they’re just not very good at it yet. Luckily, you are an adult and you know how to page through their countless bland, inauthentic choices until you find El Cotixan. You can’t even pronounce the name, which is why you know it’s not some mass-produced meal whose creators never saw the southern side of the border. As an experienced diner, you know El Cotixan will offer horchata on the drink menu, not Taco Bell’s Frankenstein orange juice mixed with Mountain Dew.

Most consumers search online the same way. Taco Bell might be their first foray into “Mexican” food, and it works when they’re just trying to appease themselves for a bit and get on down the road, but they’re going to spend only five bucks. When they’re looking for a serious meal, and are willing to spend real money, they will take the extra time to scroll through their choices and find a local, authentic, unique business that actually understands the specificity of the cuisine it’s supposed to prepare. They’ll look past the 20 fast-food signs perched on 150-foot poles to find the quality product tucked away in the corner.

Create a different product. Create what the big portals can’t create. Their stats and charts don’t show that they know your neighborhood. They don’t know the flavor of the local scene. They can’t get on camera and explain the nuances of the local market with personality. Even more important, they need thousands (or millions) of visitors per day to be successful, but you don’t. A few dozen serious homebuyers and sellers are plenty to keep you busy with real clients.

Whatever you do online, make it reflect the unique vibe of your home marketplace, and serious consumers will take the time to not just find your business, but to seek you out again in the future because they can see that your product is authentic. Your website might be ranked behind gobs of repetitive portal pages, but consumers learn over time how to scroll past the outdated listings and the Crunchwrap Supremes to find the authentic pozole they’ve been really searching for.

Muscle cars: tuning up for long-term horsepower

Your website is like an engine. It has to be in good working order, with everything correctly connected and maintained to run smoothly.

There are four basic ways to increase the engine’s output:

  1. Add larger components that increase the size of the engine.
  2. Add superchargers or turbochargers that force more fuel and air into the system.
  3. Add temporary enhancers like NOS (nitrous oxide) that force more fuel and air into the system.
  4. Finely tune the current components to maximize their efficiency.

Adding some good old-fashioned American displacement

The first three options above are readily available to a novice, and No. 1 is fairly easy. Gearheads spend their time adding displacement with larger engine components. This is essentially like adding content to your website. The more neighborhood pages you have, and the more videos, photos and area descriptions they have, the more capacity for horsepower your website gains.

Writing blog posts, doing features on new developments, posting client video testimonials and creating market reports all add capacity to your website. To achieve credibility in the search engines, you have to achieve a minimum level of capacity. The Daytona 500 isn’t going to let you enter your two-cylinder, 0.9-liter Fiat into their race, no matter how fast you say it is. Build out a rich, robust website with unique local content to show Google you’ve got the chops to be ranked, and you’ll have a healthy baseline to begin with.

Gittin’ ‘er some gas

At this point, you’ve got to increase the fuel you’re getting to your website to grow traffic. No matter what you’ve read, inbound links are still the overwhelming signals that create search engine rankings. The process of getting other websites to link to yours is a long and well-documented topic, but what you need to remember is that quality links from quality websites, gotten in an organic fashion, are the fastest way to get your website moving up the rankings.

Link building is a fuel boost for your website. When you add a supercharger to your engine, you can push more fuel, even faster through the system, boosting performance on a permanent basis. Adding links does the same thing. Links from other websites add significant value to your search engine rankings, and the link value lasts over time. The process takes work, but it also requires very little technical knowledge. If you’ve built quality content on your website and you take the time to distribute it and keep generating new content, you’ll be able to build links.

Link building should be an ongoing process. Your competitors will just keep improving their engines, so you’ve got to continue to build links long term and keep up with the pace.

Hitting the NOS

If you’ve watched any of the import-racer movies, you’ve seen the burst of speed that NOS-enhanced vehicles can achieve. The nitrous oxide boost allows a temporary surge of fuel and air to reach the car’s engine, causing significant speed improvement, but it runs out in a short period of time.

Social media is basically NOS for your website. It’s popular, it’s flashy, and it puts on a good show, but it has a fairly quick depletion effect. There’s no doubt that it can increase your traffic speed and awareness. These things can lead to more links, which should be your primary goal, so focusing on social media shares and likes is a worthwhile venture. It’s just one that needs to be kept in perspective. Social media signals don’t technically improve your SEO, they temporarily boost your traffic like a pay-per-click (PPC) campaign and provide the opportunity for other permanent SEO improvements.

Any driver would see the advantage of a vehicle that maintains a steady pace of 180 mph on standard fuel vs. one that requires constant replenishment of NOS infusions to get to the same speed. At the same time, they would be happy to have the NOS as an available accessory. As long as you remember that social media is the means to an end, and not the end goal in itself, then social media campaigns can be huge drivers of temporary traffic and — when partnered with high-quality content — contributors to the link-building process that’s at the heart of your goals.

Tuning up your Italian supercar

Most car buffs still leave the high-end tuning of their vehicle to a pro. As much as they like to tinker with parts and accessories, there are certain technical skills needed for timing and electronic tuning that very few amateur mechanics have. You’ll see the same thing with the hiring of SEO professionals.

There are plenty of things that agents can do to properly label pages with keyword-rich titles and intuitive links within their websites. Allowing search engines and consumers to understand quickly what your content is about, and how to get to related on-site content is important and not particularly difficult for most. Making sure that your content is clear and concise will help your site’s SEO in a big way.

Don’t discount the potential value of fine tuning the back end of your website, but don’t get overly hung up on it, either. Most enthusiasts can do very well with a Mustang that they souped up with their buddies in their garage. If you’re really trying to build a Ferrari, though, and are willing to spend what it takes to do it right, you might want to consider some support from a real pro. There are some technical SEO techniques that can take your current setup and tweak it into a much more powerful overall system.

Running the Matrix with Neo

Once you’ve focused your efforts on finding quality long-term techniques, you’ll start to gain a unique perspective on how things really work online. Although the search engine algorithms are always changing, don’t be distracted by those who make the whole process out to be some ethereal realm above your understanding. While the ubiquity of the seemingly all-powerful Matrix surrounds you with portals and aggregators online, you can actually be quite comfortable carving out your own authentic niche within that space.

The basic tenets behind getting your website to generate traffic really never seem to change, but you’ll always see others scrambling back and forth between new tactics and schemes. They’re buying up the latest shiny implement trying to find a shortcut, but, as Neo found out, “there is no spoon.” If you think you’re going to outspend the online overlords or outmaneuver them with gimmicks, you’re eventually going to lose. You need a long-term strategy that focuses on your relative strengths — unique knowledge and the flexibility of being a small business.

We frequently see stories about real estate agents and brokers who have built dedicated followings online through some unique efforts that really connected with the people seeking intimate knowledge about their city or neighborhood. Whether it’s a weekly video conversation, quirky blog updates, or news on the social and business scenes in their neighborhoods, SEO is rarely the primary focus of their efforts. They simply want to create the kind of content online that their customer base is seeking. The inbound links that their work produces are initially an afterthought, but when they being to materialize, their value becomes clear.

Those who do it right often wake up one day, realize they’ve out-SEO’d their much larger competitors, and have a Mr. Anderson moment: “I know kung fu.” Without any technical training whatsoever, they’ve delivered the kind of experience online that creates the necessary value to climb the search engine rankings and build traffic. By focusing on what the search engines and consumers both want — quality content that engages users — they’ve mastered the art of long-term online engagement without becoming SEO drones.

Sam DeBord is managing broker of Seattle Homes Group with Coldwell Banker Danforth, and a state director for Washington Realtors. You can find his team at SeattleHome.com and SeattleCondo.com.

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