Weaving A Successful Web Site©

My 1996 New Year’s Resolutions run a bit different than most. With our local board planning to enter the web and the pending roll-out of RIN, I decided that losing weight could wait another year, but that creating a web site for my company, Acclaim Residential Marketing, Inc. could not.

I’ve always prided myself on being somewhere near the technological cutting edge nationwide, and certainly on it within my own marketplace. I had a strong set of computer skills and a friend with some web page development experience. What more could I need?

On Monday January fifteenth, I took my friend out to dinner; twenty minutes after “surfing” for the first time, I diligently wrote down all of the acronyms he provided and attempted to absorb as much of the new language as I could.

Based on that meeting, the immediate goal was to have a web “presence” within thirty days. Nothing too spectacular, just enough to be able to print it on business cards and impress buyers, sellers and potential recruits when I told them that we were “on the web.”

I had previously created quite a large volume of marketing and promotional materials for my firm. These brochures, flyers and presentation forms served as the basis for the beginning of our web site. These materials, a few books and numerous twelve hour days enabled me to quickly meet our short term goal. February ninth is the day that the basic pages were on-line and our Internet “presence” was affirmed.

Eight months later I can honestly tell you that creating your own web page is no big deal; anyone can do it. In all honesty I must tell you a few other things as well:

  1. Creating a quality web site that will be user friendly, is well organized and unique enough that people will want to visit, is another matter altogether.
  2. Not a single week has gone by that I have not added, subtracted or otherwise modified our site.
  3. I can’t even begin to calculate the amount of time that I’ve invested, no other project in my life has been so consuming; it now qualifies as a hobby.
  4. Because of the amount of time I have personally invested, I strongly urge that you don’t do it yourself! You will either end up with a inferior site that few will use, or you will end up in the web development business.
  5. If you happen to be a real estate educator and broker who is a perfectionist as well as a technology fiend, then go ahead an ignore the last item, you’ll love it!
While the process has been very consuming, creating our web site myself has had its advantages. Being an actual user of countless computer programs over the years gave the proper perspective of designing a site that would be user friendly. My near obsession with efficiency and organization was a great asset in designing a site that was created in an easily maintained structure, and that would not need substantial future revision. Finally, my aggressive inquisitive nature gave me the persistence to fully explore and understand the options and decisions necessary to create a truly substantial and successful site.

By substantial, I mean that our site contains over 150 documents that cover all aspects of buying and selling real estate, not just copies of our listings. My definition of success as it applies to a web site is that:

  1. It is considered valuable and unique from the visitors perspective, so that they will want to return, and
  2. That it generates consistent prospecting leads from buyers and sellers which will result in actual transactions.

While I don’t recommend that you develop your own web site, I certainly believe that you should have a lot to say about the process and the final product. I have noticed that many companies in the web development business do not necessarily understand real estate, or even how to design a useful web site. They may be very good at graphic design, and be able to present you with a very attractive site to call your own. However, having an attractive site is absolutely no guarantee that your site will be a successful one.

What Are Your Goals
The first thing you need to identify are your goals for your site. This will dictate the kind of site you should create. You have three basic options:

  • You can design a “billboard” site. This is simply a one page site, somewhat like an yellow page advertisement. It won’t generate much sales activity, but will allow you to claim a “web presence” and will allow customers and clients who already know your company name to find you on the Internet. It won’t require much time to develop and will be very inexpensive.

  • You can create a “directory” site. This is a site that contains an abundance of links to other sites. Its complexity and cost need not be much more than that of the “billboard” site. The major investment will be the time needed to locate any and all useful sites that help the visitor learn more about your marketplace, finance, title insurance, and any other pages that would interest someone buying or selling in your area. Rather than creating all of this information on your site, you simply find the information on other sites and link to it from yours. The object is to create a public awareness that your site is the place to start looking for any information about your area. The goal of this site is to go beyond a simple web presence and to create name recognition for your company.

  • You can design an “interactive” site. Development of an interactive site represents the most expensive and time consuming option. However, it will also be the most likely to generate actual leads and transactions. This type of site will contain an abundance of information that the “directory” site would have simply linked to. The goal is to be the web resource for real estate in your area. But, this is not necessarily the option you should choose.
Keep in mind that the cost of quality design and development will run somewhere between $40 to $70 per hour. A “billboard” site might cost just a few hundred dollars. But, the sky is the limit for an interactive site. The more you want on-line, the greater the cost. Since there’s no limit to how much you can put on-line, but probably a limit to what you can spend, decide how much you are willing to invest first. Then talk to designers and listen to what they believe they can provide for your investment.

I chose to create an interactive site for my company, Acclaim Residential Marketing, Inc. Being a small, technologically advanced firm in a marketplace dominated by three independent companies, we have the most to gain by this type of investment. The larger firms have not, and probably will not create this type of site anytime soon. They are already successful in lead generation via their current marketing programs and are unlikely to have as much to gain from creating an interactive site. Simply put, an extra 25 leads a month is not nearly as important to a large firm as it is to a small one.

Creating Value
Unless you are simply going to put up a “billboard” site, you need to give serious thought to the questions of why the public should visit (and revisit) your site. There are thousands and thousands of real estate sites that don’t offer any answer to this question. While you no doubt want to share information about your company, its agents and your listings, this is not necessarily what the public wants.

What is your site going to offer that makes it unique and valuable for the user? I suggest you do a lot of surfing yourself before you answer these questions. You must be able to see web sites from the user’s perspective before you can truly begin to address these concerns.

For example: our company’s site currently offers seven features to the visitor that do not seem to benefit us directly. On our site you can look up local mortgage rates; calculate mortgage payments; review Census reports; research sales data by area and address; read school data reports; post and review available rental properties and post and review real estate related questions & answers.

None of these functions directly represents the services we provide. The sole reason that we maintain these features is to create value for the user and a reason to return to our site. By giving the user a reason to revisit, to look up this week’s interest rates for example, we get another opportunity to make an impression on them, and thus increase the likelihood that they will initiate a sales contact with us.

Functional Design Considerations
One of the problems with web sites today is speed. Designers are creating pages with large, complex graphics and that contain too much information. While these pages may look great and load fast when all of the data is on your hard drive, loading over the web can be painfully slow for many users.

To illustrate this point, I visited about a dozen “average” real estate sites and timed how long it took to load their “home” pages. Even with my relatively fast computer loading times ranged between 40 seconds to 94 seconds; with 40-55 seconds being the most common. That’s a long time to ask your visitors to wait. Just try to imagine what the user of a ancient two year old computer must have to go through!

By contrast, I’ve designed our home page so that it only takes an average of 23 seconds to load, and most of the other pages on our site load much faster. When discussing speed, keep in mind that the time of day and amount of web traffic will affect loading times, and that after you load a page once your browser will keep much of the information on your hard drive for awhile in order to speed up future loading. So, when testing loading times, you need to clear your browser’s “cache” to accurately gauge how long a new visitor must wait.

I’m not saying that a slow loading home page will be the kiss-of-death for your site. What I am saying is this: if you want users to come back to your site, and to do so frequently, you should strive to make you pages load as quickly as possible.

There are a few simple steps you can take to speed up your site. First, design the site to utilize many smaller pages, rather than a few large ones. For example, on our site, the category of “Thinking Of Selling?” contains eight separate pages that link to one another; like the pages in a brochure, rather than one long document.

Most of the other factors relating to loading time involve the use of graphics. Resist the common temptation to use lots of large, full color graphics. Too many designers are creating pages that no one will see. When you have pages that take over a minute to load, many visitors will simply set their browser’s graphics loading option “off” in order to speed up the loading process. Now your pages will be viewed without any graphics whatsoever!

When considering using any graphical element, ask yourself these three questions: 1) Does it substantially enhance the appearance or usefulness of the page? 2) How small can it be to achieve its purpose? 3) What is the fewest number of colors I can use and still maintain a crisp image?

On our site, I have reduced the size of most of our graphics at least twice since going on-line; resulting in the time required to transmit them by an average of 22%. If you visit our site, you will also find that most of the graphics contain only a few colors; this has reduced their transmission time by an additional 27% to 54%.

Their are other factors to consider, but unfortunately it gets a bit too complicated to discuss here. But, when you interview designers for your site, be sure to ask them how they will take transmission speed into consideration. If they do not have specific answers ready, that include terms like “bit-depth,” “compression,” “MAP’s” and “handshakes” then don’t hire them!

Choosing an Internet Service Provider
Once created, your web pages will have to reside on an Internet server. When considering which ISP to use, I recommend that you require the following:

  • First, make sure that you can use virtual domain name hosting. This allows you to pick your own URL (name) for your site. For example, notice that my company site is “canale.com/acclaim” and not something like “service.net/realtors/michigan/region-H/acclaim/acclaim1.html.” Not only is this shorter an easier to remember, but if I ever change my ISP, the name goes with me so my address stays the same. It’s like having one phone number for life.

  • Second, make sure that the ISP offers e-mail aliasing. This allows the public to send mail to your domain, even though you use a different company for your Internet access and e-mail. Obviously, this makes your e-mail easier to remember and reinforces your web site address. Again, if you later decide to use another service for Internet access and e-mail, you simply change your e-mail forwarding, your public address stays the same.

  • Make sure your ISP has at least a 6/1 user/modem ratio to assure that visitors will be able to get through to your site even during peak traffic hours. Finally, be sure the ISP supports CGI bin scripting, which will allow for on-line “programs” to run. Should you decide, now or in the future, that you want special features such as a mortgage calculator, you’ll need this support.
There are countless ISP providers out there, your web designer should give you recommendations. Expect to pay between $25 to $99 per month. The higher range applies if they also provide you with user access to the Internet and e-mail; and the lower range if they simply “host” your site.

Generating “Leads”
Offer to follow up with free information, relocation packages, home selling forms, lists of available properties, financing packages and the like.

Give them options for receiving follow up information. They may prefer that you mail them information, but be sure to offer to fax or e-mail their requested information too.

Respond quickly! Sophisticated electronic consumers expect speed and convenience. Not responding to their requests and inquiries will jeopardize your relationship; check your e-mail several times each day.

Make it easy! Use on-line forms so that the visitor can simply fill in the blanks to request information or services. Many people hesitate to write, (e-mail or otherwise) but will fill in a form and click “submit” without reservation!

Follow up personally. Many agents forget that the visitors are people, and that real estate is a service business. Don’t simply communicate on-line. A lead is a lead, and just because it originated on-line doesn’t mean you can forgo building a customer relationship and qualifying the prospect!

Cooperative Arrangements
Depending on the complexity of the site you wish to design, you may want to consider bringing partners into the venture. Teaming up with other companies in lending, title insurance, property insurance, pest inspectors, attorneys and others not only will reduce your investment, but will result in a much more useful site for your visitors as well.

If you would like to have Stephen's professional advice when improving your existing web site, then consider hiring him for a Web Site Analysis

The content of this article is based on my seminar:
Weaving A Successful Web Site
Thriving on the Internet
Stephen M. Canale
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