Social search versus Web search

This article by CNET, Why Google is Ditching Search, prompted me to look for empirical research supporting the author’s premise. And I found this gem of a research paper, #TwitterSearch: A Comparison of Microblog Search and Web Search.

The Stanford and Microsoft researchers compared how individuals use search in Twitter versus traditional Web platforms like Google and Bing. What the researchers found:

  • Web search can leverage social search to discover additional search queries that are temporally and contextually related, thus delivering a more relevant set of search results
  • Social search influences the perception of online reputation
  • Web search can leverage the hashtag and tagging concepts central to social search (especially Twitter and del.icio.us) to identify and deliver non-spam results that deep link to further relevant results
  • Web search can leverage social search to understand what issues are trending, the nuances of these trends, and then relate these discoveries to search queries and thereby deliver a more relevant result

We’re already seeing these types of things integrated into Google’s search platform through its integration of G+ . And now Twitter and Google are engaged in a PR smack-down .

Similarly, these findings above suggest there is increased opportunity within CRM systems. The researchers found that individuals bounce between social and Web search as they narrow their queries. If a brand is leveraging a social platform (via Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, etc) and focused on SEO, and consumers find consistent redundancy in results for their queries via both search platforms, the likelihood that this consumer will reach out to this brand increases. And if this brand is capable of tracking the source of the lead (what platform delivered the lead) in conjunction with tracking the query that generated the lead (what was actually searched), then the brand can engage the consumer with a higher level of insight. This type of process necessarily promotes high consumer satisfaction (and increased likelihood of lead conversion).

Photo credit: visualpanic

Responsiveness Drives Differentiation

Are your prospective clients having to act like abalone divers to interact with you? Abalone divers furbish themselves with an abalone iron to pry off abalones from submerged rocks. These divers are committed to their task, as abalone is considered a divine delicacy to some. But if prospective clients have to work like an abalone diver to communicate with and engage you, chances are they’ll dive elsewhere.

Concierge service is not a new topic, it still resonates. Let’s assume you have a robust lead acquisition strategy that runs the gamut from SEO, SEM, social media, targeted print ads, etc. Let’s assume too that this strategy yields a healthy inbound inquiry pipeline. Let’s also assume that–if you’re a brokerage–you have a decent eCommerce, relocation, and/or Internet lead management team that responds in a timely manner to these inquiries whether they’ve come in by email, telephone, or live chat. Finally, let’s assume that as an agent you get lead inquiries directly (from your blog, website, broker, etc) and/or leads are routed to you via a relocation or lead management team. What’s the average response time to these direct-to-agent or eCommerce-to-agent leads? If it’s over 15 minutes, I posit that is too long (for eCommerce-to-agent leads, I say response time should be under 5 minutes).

According to the 2008 NAR Profile of Home Buyers and Sellers:

  • 21% of home buyers say reputation is an important factor when choosing an agent, which is the second most important factor out of eight factors polled, the number one factor (at 29%) is agent honesty and trustworthiness
  • 93% of home buyers rate responsiveness as “very important” when considering agent skills
  • 84% of home buyers rate communication skills as “very important” when considering agents skills
  • 67% of all buyers interview only one agent in their search process

Do prospective clients visit the following types of sites more often than real estate websites: BassPro.com, Cabelas.com, Zappos.com, Craigslist.com, Geico.com? I’ll posit that your prospective clients are visiting these types of sites more often than any one real estate site. Thus, their customer service–their concierge service–expectations are being set by these entities. Where does your service level measure up related to these companies?

Put yourself in the shoes of a consumer who goes to BassPro.com and contacts their customer support staff and gets a response within one minute or less (especially if he/she used live chat). Would you say this consumer has a higher likelihood of being satisfied and that BassPro likely created a good vibe for its brand in the mind of that consumer? I’d say yes. Now what would happen if that consumer had to wait for 48 or 72 hours for a response to his/her question that common sense tells him/her should take only a couple of minutes? I’d say a bad vibe is created. Granted, if the customer is committed enough, he/she may try to pry a response out of BassPro by recontacting them. But the more he/she has to try and pry the customer service abalone shell off the rock, the less likely this customer will remain with BassPro. And if prospective clients have to pry a response out of you, the less likely they are to engage with you.

Prospective clients expect responsiveness. And their expectation for this responsiveness is being set OUTSIDE the real estate industry. Thus, it’s incumbent upon real estate professionals to step up to the client concierge service plate and respond as quickly as possible to inbound lead inquiries.

Where do you want your trustworthiness and reputation factors to be slotted in a prospective client’s mind: as uncaring and lazy because you don’t typically respond in a timely manner, or that you’re concerned about prospective clients’ needs and desires? Thus, meet 93% of home buyers’ expectations and set a standard to respond to inquiries in a timely manner. If 84% of home buyers consider communication skills as very important, how are you demonstrating your communication skills–as ignoring a prospective client’s requests, or by addressing him/her with alacrity and professionalism?

Don’t make prospective clients pry a response out of you. Remember that 67% of prospective clients contact and interview only one agent during their search process. Increase your odds of gaining a client’s trust and business by quickly responding to their inquiries.

Photo attribution: Abalone divers, Queue

Foreclosure Searches on the Rise

Hitwise and Google show that foreclosure searches are creeping up on “traditional” searches regarding properties for sale. UPDATE: RealtyTrac reports a 6% rise in foreclosures in February 2009 over January 2009, with a 30% increase over February 2008. On March 12, 2009, Hitwise reported that foreclosure searches are on the rise.

Hitwise: Forclosure Searches on the Rise
Hitwise: Forclosure Searches on the Rise

For fun I ran the top five Hitwise searches in Google Trends to see the differences between the search reporting engines. Google had slightly different data.

free foreclosure listings, foreclosure listings, foreclosure homes, foreclosure, foreclosure.com

Foreclosure searches: Google vs Hitwise

Next I compared the search term “foreclosures” against search terms “homes for sale” and “real estate for sale” over a 12 month period. Here’s what I found:

foreclosures, homes for sale, real estate for sale, US, Last 12 months
Google searches: foreclosure, homes for sale, real estate for saleThen I focused on Nevada for the same search phrases: forclosures, homes for sale, real estate for sale, NV, Last 12 months
Google searches: NV foreclosures, homes for sale, real estate for saleFinally, I narrowed the searches down to Las Vegas: foreclosures, homes for sale, real estate for sale, LAS VEGAS, NV, Last 12 months

Google searches: Las Vegas foreclosures, homes for sale, real estate for sale

Google personalized search

Ever wonder why anyone tries to “out-game” Google? I’ve always argued it’s futile to try and out-think hundreds of PhDs working in a university atmosphere where they have relatively free-reign to explore their research-oriented whims, and where they’re all pretty much singularly focused on studying one thing: us. Oh, and they likely get paid extremely well for what they do.

A question I have after watching the video below: How can anyone “out-game” this? Which likely also supports Google’s universal search platform. That is, it’s not a stretch to assume that Google employs insights derived from the user base that’s signed up for Google’s personalized search service to refine the primary algorithm(s) used by Google’s general audience to deliver more and more “relevant” results to this general audience.

Accordingly, when it comes to SEO I always advise taking the “high road” and write original content, update your site(s) frequently with this original content, build relevant in-bound links over time, create an easy to navigate (and spider) website, and focus on your niche expertise.

Real estate website technology and engagement

This post on real estate brokerage future and this one on hyper-local targeting are two excellent discussions about the strategic decisions real estate brokers will face over the next few years, especially with the technology side of the equation. I will focus on two salient points from these posts: (1) the ascendancy of broker power relative to agents and agent teams; and (2) the “Human Touch”.

In the first post, the author essentially argues that “Big Brokerage” along with a constellation of boutique firms will emerge dominate over the next few years. Not only is this argument valid in my opinion, but follows the power law principle, which has been proven in many other social, scientific, and natural systems. Interestingly, the author also skims the surface on some historical trends too. Having just finished reading the Rise and Fall of Great Powers, I’m seeing a correlation in the real estate industry to what existed in the late 1600s through early 1800s in Europe, which saw “old” powers atrophy and “new” powers emerge. Many national firms are under distress and, thus, weakened competitively when confronted by attempts at marketshare gains made by rivals (i.e., analogous to the Hapsburg’s loss of power). What may emerge in the near term is a balkanized set of real estate brokerage fiefdoms (all following the power law principle within their own market) but no one true national “winner”. Over time these fiefdoms (or principalities) will begin competing along their borders too, where the brokerages that strategically deploy technology gain advantage (just like the principalities and states that adopted new forms of weaponry won their military campaigns during the afore-mentioned time period).

Which brings me to my second issue the, “Human Touch“. I’ve always argued that real estate is a participation sport. And technology should serve one principal service: get an arms-length positioned consumer in front of an agent as quickly as possible…but it’s the manner by which this occurs that separates effectiveness from mere happenstance.

Many agents despise Internet leads, and sometimes with good reason. Too many “leads” an agent receives are really a waste of time from the agent’s perspective (too many questions, too many meetings, too many emails, not enough transaction); this tends to breed resentment, bitterness, and non-effectiveness. Thus, smart brokerages employ a lead qualification layer operating under a managed care rubric that works with potential clients prior to handing them off to an agent (in my opinion agents by and large are “closers” not “nurture-ers” and their talents are not deployed optimally when called upon to nurture consumers). And it’s in the managed care environment where firms can make the most gains.

Let’s assume an ideal state of technology circumstances for a brokerage principality that wants to gain consumer mindshare (and, thus, marketshare). This brokerage’s website would consist of the following primary entry points for potential (and existing) clients (all very consumer-facing, focusing on consumers’ needs and points-of-view):

  • Tag clouds that demonstrate inventory density demarcated along neighborhood, price, zip code, lifestyle, and home-type attributes
  • Search clouds that demonstrate what consumers have been most interested in within the site
  • Lifestyle-oriented search (which I’ve written about previously)
  • Targeted site elements driven by a Site +1 engine (I have not seen this product work, but will give the company the benefit of the doubt and assume that it works as advertised) that presents relevant imagery, content, property type suggestions, and calls to action that meet the potential client’s assumed demographic/psychographic profile in a predictive sense
  • Map display that presents data in compelling ways (like search cloud data overlaid on a Google map)

Deploying such site elements not only meets consumers expectations at a high level by presenting them with features they are “familiar” with by virtue of visiting other types of websites more frequently than a real estate website, namely sites like Amazon and blogs (my previous post references a Universal McCann study stating that blogs have just as much reach as traditional media). But more importantly a Utopian site like the one I’ve described is geared towards four primary things: not wasting the consumer’s time, presenting them with multiple ways to access information, speaking relevantly to them immediately, and incenting them to contact a “human” as quickly and efficiently as possible.

This type of a site uses engagement-oriented features that compellingly reward a consumer’s time spent on the site by giving them information in a manner that mirrors a “human touch” while actually cross-promoting a “human touch”, rather than penalizing or irritating them with worn, tired, slow, and stale elements. Thus, consumers establish emotional and brand-centric bonds with the brokerage via its website. And when a consumer decides to “reach out” and contact the company, this consumer does so in a more informed and qualified manner, which allows the managed care department to not only engage this consumer at a higher level but transfer a more informed and content consumer to the agent. What’s happened is that “technology” has allowed the consumer–at her leisure–to satiate her information gathering needs in a highly effective and efficient manner, making the site more relevant and trustworthy with respect to her quest, allowed the managed care department to spend less time educating her, and focuses agents’ core competencies on “closing” and transaction management issues; which in the end reinforces the power law principle and propels the marketshare gains the firm seeks.

Adding blog functionality to real estate websites

This Universal McCann study states that

  • Blogs are a mainstream media world-wide and as a collective rival any traditional media
  • The blogsphere is becoming increasingly participatory, now 184m bloggers world-wide

 

And as recently referred to in my previous post on the long tail, the New York Times discusses the power of blogs for real estate firms.

So why are many real estate brokerage web sites so un-blog-like? It seems to me that if consumers are familiar with blogs, frequently read and interact with blogs, brokerage sites ought to adopt “blog-like” functionality on their web sites so as to give consumers modes of “familiarity” when they visit (it’s probably safe to say that consumers interact with non-real estate sites on a much more frequent basis and, thus, their expectations for best-in-class web site experiences are set by these non-real estate sites).

For example, brokerages could create a popular search cloud. Similarly, firms could create a listings type cloud based on property type, location, lifestyle, time-on-market, foreclosure, and price. As demonstrated by Amazon’s “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” product recommendation success, consumers want to know what other consumers are doing and thinking. Thus, a search cloud lets consumers take a pulse of the market by quickly perusing the cloud. Second, a listings cloud quickly lets consumers see what type and how much inventory exists without having to perform a search to get this information.

One click into either cloud quickly sifts the database and returns a results set to the consumer, and from there he/she could further refine a search; thus, reinforcing that the firm’s website is functional, speedily returns results, and respects consumers’ time. Further, these two features would go a long way towards giving consumers something “familiar” while enhancing real estate website functionality and data accessibility. All of the above combines to increase marketing penetration and consumer loyalty.

Long tail search data

Despite the sentiments expressed by Google’s CEO about long tail search (see previous post), Bill Tancer of Hitwise presents an intriguing alternative view. Tancer shows that despite brand-centric search saturation in the head, the long tail presents a panoply of opportunities to online marketers willing to invest the strategic and tactical resources necessary to leverage such.

Top 100 Search Terms by Percentage of All Search Traffic

And, according to the New York Times real estate blogs offer consumers some of the best information available about real estate.

For brokers, blogs are, of course, a handy marketing tool: they’re economical, practical and easy to update. But for prospective buyers, a sophisticated blog — one with more than an agent’s plea, “check out my new listing” — can help potential buyers forge a connection to a faraway community, learn the landscape of an area and, ultimately, make informed purchasing decisions.

Since blogs are long tail feed machines, real estate professionals ought to embrace blogging as a viable online marketing channel.

Long-tail in a multi-channel strategy

McKinsey & Company Consulting interview of Google CEO discussing long-tail search viability.

This is a great video interview of Google’s CEO by McKinsey & Company Consulting. Read this definition of Zipf’s Law first, however, if you don’t know what Zipf’s law is. What’s especially intriguing is the interview segment that discusses the long-tail versus the head. Schmidt does not dismiss the long-tail as a search marketing strategy, but he does implicitly decry its value. My take-away from his comments, however, is that no single strategy is the marketing silver bullet; rather it’s a blending of marketing strategies that makes sense. Abandon the long-tail as a strategy? No. Augment your firm’s short-tail and primary brand promotion strategy with a concerted long-tail marketing strategy powered by blogs? Absolutely. This study leads credence to this augment, where it states that blogs have just as much reach as mainstream media.

Keyword influences on paid search click-through rates

This research paper investigated how specific keyword characteristics affect click-through rates. By modeling a set of keywords in a pay-per-click environment, the researchers found that searches conducted by brand-loyal consumers, typified by “retailer-name” searches, had the highest predictive value relative to click-through rates. The researchers noted that when consumers searched for specific brand names, however, click-through rates on paid searches were not as easy to predict. The researchers surmised that this is because consumers were more likely conducting “competitive” searches–surveying the market–and were not swayed by clever calls to action but focused more on securing the lowest price.

Planning longtail media campaigns with Google AdPlanner

Google’s AdPlanner (need to register for the beta) has the potential to unleash the power of traditional demographic marketing analysis to long-tail search strategies. This is a great tool because it allows media planners to target niche sites in a highly effective manner while focusing on distinct consumer segments. For example, let’s say that I’m targeting cycling enthusiasts and want to know which niche sites appeal to a male demographic with a HHI between $100,000 and $125,000. By using Google AdPlanner I have good idea where to start: roadbikereview.com and cyclingnews.com (see screenshot below).

GoogleAdPlanner

Blog Pay-Per-Click Advertising Opportunities

eMarketer issued a report that blogs are big business (or have the potential to be). According to the article, advertising opportunities abound for traditional advertisers in the blogosphere as the number of blogs grow and readership increases.

And this research paper from MicroSoft adCenterLabs discusses intriguing concepts in tracking blog information flows with an eye towards charging an appropriate fee for a PPC advertisement placed on a blog.

Classified Ads in the Trash

Epitaph of printed classified advertisements:

classifiedtrash2.jpg

classifiedadcut.JPG

And this commentary corroborates the physical evidence.

For newspapers, these are the end times, or something very much like them. Every week provides a new marker on the road to apocalypse: hundreds of layoffs in Los Angeles, circulation scandals in Dallas

… and …

The rise of the Craigslist model has devastated classified advertising in newspapers, once the only place in a city to sell a used car or list a job opening…why should you spend $100 putting something up for sale in the paper when you can post it on Craigslist for free? Why list a job for $200 when you can list it for $10?

The NYTimes also agrees. And apparently it’s profitable to give consumers–and advertisers–a simple and easy to access, use, and understand forum.

Accordingly, unless you’re really targeting a niche demographic, go with an online vertical advertising venue rather than traditional print classifieds; this saves you money over the long-term, allows you to target your audience more effectively, and measure the performance of your advertising spend.

Competitive Intelligence Using TouchGraph

TouchGraph is an excellent tool that gives you “visual insight” into a site’s external linking structure and relationships, which is a good starting point for website competitive analysis.  Let’s compare Redfin, Zillow, and REALTOR.com.

Redfin’s linking relationships

RedfineTouchGraph

Zillow’s linking relationships

ZillowTouchGraph

REALTOR.com’s linking relationships

RealtorToughGraph

The visual representation of these relationships allows you to quickly explore the link structure of the “affiliated” sites much faster than conducting such an analysis using Google or Yahoo tools. Thus, you can better assess your weaknesses, strengths, and opportunities in cultivating or disabling the same or similar relationships.

Trulia Case Study in Online Reputation Management

Trulia’s response to this issue is an excellent case study in online reputation management.

This post generated 159 comments, and landed in Trulia’s lap on Tuesday, April 29th, 2008, 10:36 am MST. The subject hit at the heart of Trulia’s astounding SEO success. Trulia’s response to this issue is an excellent case study in online reputation management that began with a blog-flame and ended with this MarketWatch interview.

On April 29th, Trulia’s first response was to see how high the flames would go. BHB is a very popular real estate industry blog. If the issue dies on BHB, then it’s likely dead everywhere else too. However, if the issue lives and progresses from birth to adolescence to adulthood in record time, it’s time to respond. And on BHB, “adulthood” was reached in record time. Thus, Trulia responded.

Trulia’s first public response on BHB was April 30th, 2008 9:58 am from Rudy at Trulia. His post did not seem to stem the tide of negative commentary. Thus, Pete Flint, Trulia’s founder and CEO, got in on the action that afternoon. Rudy’s and Pete’s posts were debated, derided, and defended throughout the day and over the next several days, with the issue basically fizzling out on the eighth day–an eternity in the blogosphere. Additionally, in the midst of this, Trulia responded on its own blog; an appropriate tactic and response vehicle in addition to their comments mentioned above.

In analyzing their response tactics in view of a possible PR crisis, Trulia did an excellent job–they jumped into the controversy, debated and tried to clarify points they felt were inaccurate (i.e., through their comments they got their side of the story posted on the BHB blog), and responded in their own forum. This latter tactic get’s their blog post about the controversy a nifty Google search result. For example, the search phrase trulia pagerank debate gives them a higher position on Google than the original BHB posting, and the phrase trulia seo debate gives them a similar great position. Trulia’s final act in the midst of this blog-debate was to issue a press release about their foreclosure survey, which was also picked up by newswires like PR Newswire Eur at 15:47:00 on 5/7/08 and AP Alert – HiTech at 15:49:22 on 5/7/08.

From a PR perspective, what’s masterful about this latter tactic? PR channel management: managing the blog-tech channel as opposed to the traditional press-consumer channel.

Essentially, Trulia ceded the fact that they would not win the blog-tech battle, and appears fine with having their side of the story told. Yet, Trulia appears absolutely focused on maintaining its dominate position in the eyes of the traditional press as the authority on real estate. To this point, what’s some evidence that Trulia has maintained it’s dominance in the eyes of the traditional press? The MarketWatch interview seen above.