Build a Better Web Site

April 1, 2005

With most consumers turning to the Internet to start their home search, it’s essential that your online presence stand out—giving visitors a reason to do business with you. That means building a Web site that is easy to navigate; offers valuable, up-to-date information; and above all else helps prospects achieve their goals.

Where to start? Sometimes, it’s best to look at what the competition is doing. REALTOR® Magazine reviewed about 100 practitioner and company sites and talked with experts to provide you with a list of best practices in Web site design and development (see below: “10 features of a great Web site"). To demonstrate these principles, the magazine worked with a successful Minnesota team, the Otts of Coldwell Banker Burnet, creating a new look and architecture for the team’s site.

We also present tips from experts on getting the most from popular template Web sites, as well as the story of an Atlanta-area brokerage’s Web site evolution.

The Otts' Web Site: Before was created for the eight-person Ott family team of Cottage Grove, Minn,

affiliated with Coldwell Banker Burnet, REALTORS®. The Web site has seen few changes since it was produced in the late 1990s. The Otts believe the site is bland and doesn’t reflect a warm, inviting family feel. “We want to convey how genuine we are and how much we enjoy selling,” says sales associate Tina Ott-Angell.

The site is full of useful information, but visitors can’t easily find it. Although the team’s primary business is selling existing homes, it’s hard to tell that, since the first link is “Build a New Home.” The site doesn’t have a strong hierarchy; links to local businesses and attractions have as much visibility as the home search function, which is housed under “Find Your Home.” The team’s company affiliation and market area aren’t clear. And the copy, although it does a good job of speaking directly to consumers, is long and could be better organized.

The Otts' Web Site: After

We’ve presented the Otts with a concept for a new site. The Otts plan to incorporate these proposed changes over the next several months.

  • The Home Page. The Otts provided a warmer group photo and an updated logo. The logo includes a new motto, “Your Family Real Estate Team,” that eliminates improper use of the term REALTORS®. The term is a National Association of REALTORS® trademark referring to members of NAR and can’t be modified as it was in the original logo, “Your Family REALTORS® For Life.”

    • We gave the page a more sophisticated look, replacing the illustration of a home with a photo that’s carried throughout the site. The contact information remains prominent, as does the emphasis on the family’s team approach.
    • The new design clarifies the Otts’ service area and incorporates the Coldwell Banker Burnet logo throughout, something that was missing from the original site.
    • About Us. The Otts have a good story to tell, and we created a place for them to tell it. From this page visitors can view biographical and contact information for each team member and read about the family’s history in real estate. We also added a link to customer testimonials, where the Otts can showcase stories from happy clients and customers.
    • Search for Homes. Here, visitors can search “All Area Listings” using Coldwell
      Banker Burnet’s IDX listing site and can view the Otts’ “Featured Homes,” the team’s listings.
    • Buyer Services. The Otts can make a direct sales pitch to buyers and provide useful information on mortgages, credit scores, and the benefits of owning. All these features were scattered throughout the original site and needed a centralized home. The Otts might also take advantage of ready-to-use consumer content available free to NAR members at REALTOR® Magazine Online. Our Handouts for Consumers link provides articles such as “10 Steps to Prepare for Homeowership” and “Common Closing Costs for Buyers,” which can be customized with market-specific information.
    • Seller Services. Here, the Otts can make a direct pitch to sellers, describing their home marketing program and free market analysis -service. They can also offer seller-specific resources adapted from REALTOR® Magazine Online’s Handouts for Consumers.
    • New Construction. About one-third of the Otts’ business is new-construction sales. So we placed links at their home page and their Search for Homes page to a section on buying and building a new home. The New Homes section includes links to builders the Otts work with and resources for people thinking of building a home.

    10 features of a great Web site

    In our exploration of readers’ Web sites, we found the same problems popping up again and again. But we also encountered sites that were doing things right. Here are the features shared by the most effective sites:

    1. Lots of property photos and descriptions. Photographs and detailed property information are considered the two most valuable Web site features by buyers and sellers, according to a 2004 survey by the National Association of REALTORS®. Virtual tours ranked third.
    2. Searchable listings. Buyers want to see properties. Provide access to your area’s MLS listings using an Internet Data Exchange, says Mike Barnett, CRS®, e-PRO®, vice president of technology for InternetCrusade. Let visitors know you’re there to help them as soon as they find properties they like.
    3. Updated links. Make sure hyperlinks are working and link to the most current information available; when visitors get snagged on broken links or see you don’t keep your site updated, you lose credibility.
    4. Type that’s accurate and easy to read. As tempting as it may be to experiment with colored or textured backgrounds, or to use light-colored text on a dark background, the best sites stick with easy-to-read black text on a light background. Proofread for misspellings, and make sure words aren’t overlapping images, which impedes readability.
    5. Customer-centric content. Your Web site should tell prospects what’s in it for them. “Consumers aren’t impressed when they see a picture of a [practitioner] posing with a phone to his ear,” says Marc Davison, executive vice president of VREO Software Inc., a real estate software company in San Luis Obispo, Calif., that has surveyed consumers. “They’re saying, ‘Show me the properties.’”
    6. Information prospects can use. The best sites go beyond mortgage calculators and local weather to provide information that’s truly valued by the niche customer. For example, if you prospect in a condominium project, publish bylaws and tenant rules and let all the residents know they can find the information on your site.
    7. Simplicity. Consumers should be able to take a quick look at your home page and know how to contact you, how to search for homes, and where to find resources for buying or selling. Flashing graphics, slow-loading animation, and too many links will slow them down.
    8. Organization. It doesn’t matter how much great information you provide if it’s buried. Don’t make visitors scroll down several screens to find contact information, listing search tools, or neighborhood data. Organize content into categories and provide clear links on the home page. A site map helps consumers find what they’re looking for.
    9. A consistent look. Use the same typefaces, type sizes, design elements, and navigation tools on every page of the Web site. It’s great to have different sections for buyers and sellers, but don’t make the sections look like entirely different sites.
    10. Short, snappy copy. Use digestible bites of information when explaining how you got into the business and what awards you’ve won. Bullet points and short paragraphs work best. And don’t put your mission statement or biography on the home page.

Evolution of a company Web site

For an example of online ambition, take a look at the Web site for Metro Brokers/GMAC Real Estate of Atlanta,

“We’re constantly fine-tuning our site,” says Kevin Levent, president and CEO of the brokerage. “If you want to be successful, you need to give consumers what they want, and fast.”

He points to statistics from the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS® showing that 77 percent of buyers use the Internet at some point during their home search. “Your Web site may be the first thing you’re judged by,” he says. “If it’s not easy to navigate or doesn’t have what customers are looking for, they’re going to move on to another site.”

Even after winning local Web site awards, the company regularly reworks its home page, adding interactive features and devoting substantial resources to expanding site traffic. Metro Brokers, with more than 2,300 licensees in 19 offices, spends nearly $100,000 a year on paid search engine placement and other Internet advertising to drive traffic to its site.

The centerpiece of the home page is its search tool, which lets visitors view properties from a database of nearly 80,000 area homes in two MLSs. If visitors find a home they’re interested in, they can use an online appointment scheduling program to select a time for a showing—sometimes for that same day.

Just as important is the company’s back-end system. A four-person Internet response team, created in 2003, focuses on converting Internet leads. The group is alerted by e-mail when an online visitor sets an appointment. Team members then coordinate the showing with the listing agent or an associate specially trained to work with online consumers, says Steve Taylor, director of corporate marketing and e-commerce business. “The system empowers consumers to set their own schedule,” he says.

Another new tool allows real estate practitioners to see how many hits their listings get. And “Metro Mike” lets consumers chat live with a company representative about Atlanta real estate. “A lot of people like to remain anonymous at first,” explains Taylor. “But once they decide to stick their head out, they know we’re here.”

Between 2002 and 2005, Atlanta’s Metro Brokers/GMAC added drop-down menus, renamed section headings, and introduced interactive tools like ShowingTime to its home page.

Metro Brokers 2002

Metro Brokers 2005

Get the most from a template

For many real estate practitioners, a template is the most convenient road to a professional online presence. You don’t need Web design experience, maintenance is relatively simple, and it’s typically less expensive than having a site custom-designed. For example, offers more than 50 templates for salespeople and offices. The drawback with any template: You sacrifice some individuality by being bound to the designs offered by the Web site provider.

To help you get the most from a template, REALTOR® Magazine sought advice from InternetCrusade, the San Diego–based Internet provider and training company that developed the National Association of REALTORS®’ e-PRO® Internet certification program.

To make changes to your site and keep it updated with fresh content, you have to know how to use the “back end” of the site, says Mike Barnett, CRS®, e-PRO®, vice president of technology for InternetCrusade. It sounds simple, yet many practitioners never take the time to learn about all the ways they can customize their template sites.

“Web site templates are really software,” he says. When you “buy” a site, you’re really buying a license to use the Web site company’s template software. “The key is to learn the software so that you can change the look and feel of the site,” Barnett says.

Ask your Web site vendor where you can find training on how to make your site unique by including community data, adding resources specific to your niche market, and changing the color scheme. You also should know how to update the site regularly—and make a plan for doing so—particularly if you want to offer timely news stories or market information.

When you’re choosing a Web site company, do some research to find one with good customer service, says InternetCrusade President Saul Klein, e-PRO®, GRI. You want a company that will train you on how to use its software and one that will answer questions quickly.

With any Web site, you need to have a strategy to generate traffic, Klein says. Incorporate the site into your marketing and advertising plans by including the URL in your letterhead and business cards and by making it a routine to ask prospects for their e-mail address. There are many strategies for getting your site recognized by search engines, but if you want to consistently place high on the major engines you should be prepared to pay for it, he says.

Finally, the experts say, follow the same principles as you would with a custom site: Keep the design simple, provide easy access to listings, and always seek new ways to improve your content.

Kelly Quigley

Kelly Quigley is the former managing editor of REALTOR® Magazine.

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