Real Estate Online: Virtual Brokerage Can Help or Hurt Buyers

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Google is the first to tell you: Somewhere between 80 percent to 90 percent of all real estate searches start online, at a computer or on a mobile device. Today's buyers pull up page after page of homes, compare assets, price per square foot, every detail. Buyers have even bought homes straight off the Internet, without ever being in them. A great way to shop, huh?

Yes and no. Along with the advantages of real estate shopping online comes the risk of being taken in. And as "web-estate" marketing becomes more competitive and sophisticated, it seems likely the risk could increase.

First it's helpful to know how the business is changing for real estate agents.

Sharp real estate agents produce websites, create blogs, post to bulletin boards, engage in social networking, and learn just about every way they can to sprawl themselves across the web to get sales leads. They also spend thousands of dollars buying keywords and other tools that push them to the top of Google searches so that, for example, when you type in "Dallas homes for sale," their website is among the first to pop up.

In fact, pay-per-click can cost an agent up to $3.00 per visitor, and not all of those are solid leads -- buying customers. Some agents feel it's like throwing money away, but they need to market themselves in the world of "web-estate." Naturally, the more money they spend, the better their positioning, so you often end up with the largest, wealthiest brokerages getting the best rankings. You know, those brokers who get half of that 3 percent commission.

Well, that too may be changing.
The Internet-search playing field is getting more level and affordable, even for the smallest agent, thanks to a new search technology: the IDX/MLS SEO fusion pages.

Not to get too techie on you, but a Realtor in Arizona figured out that when people really want to buy a home, they are very specific -- and rather wordy -- in what they search for: "three-bedroom, three-bath home in Richardson school district with 2-car garage and pool." This is called a "long-tail" search, as opposed to a "short-tail" search like "Richardson Texas real estate."

Right now, say SE experts, agents are throwing money at the short-tail search. A few weeks ago, consultant Sean Callahan of Real Estate Marketing Nerds and Multi Media Icon, Inc., discovered that 60 percent to 80 percent of Google real estate searches are those long-tailed phrases -- very specific searches, not general ones.

"Real estate agents are focusing money on the short-tail keywords," says Callahan, "and throwing money away."

Callahan's "long-tail" searches will have a multiplier effect on web listings as thousands of pages of data are created from listings. Every listing that matches one criteria in a long-tailed search will be spread over the web to feed the longer search. Not only will the longer search terms upstage the short key phrases hogged by the big brokers --- "San Diego Real Estate" -- realty agents will pay considerably less -- $.03 per visitor. And those leads will be toward more-targeted, focused buyers who will end up buying. Ka-ching!

"Our research," says Callahan, "shows that over 70 percent of real estate searches are coming from long-tailed keywords, like 'gated 4 bedroom home for sale in Dallas, TX,' and the long-tailed keywords are converting to better quality leads for the agents. "

This can help the real estate consumer by providing a faster search with better data.

Callahan says consumers will get a higher quality source of information from the Internet and more specific criteria in a shorter period of time -- less digging for relevant data.

It could also ultimately lead to cost savings: Brokers know their days are numbered as costs continue to rise. The virtual brokerage is taking shape. As consumers demand commission concessions from their agents, someone is going to get squeezed: the broker.

But consumers also need to know how real estate agents are marketing in the Web 2.0 world, and be prudent. Great photography can turn a pig's rear into a silk purse on the Internet.

Agents are advised to prepare listings for photo shoots as if they were walking the house down the red carpet at the Academy Awards -- they stage, plump, primp, nip and tuck for the cameras.

They create slick videos with soundtracks to draw you to a home. I often advise readers to see a home in it's "natural state" -- some dishes in the sink, papers stacked on the counters, because likely this is how it will look when you live there.

"This is an incredibly powerful tool that should revolutionize the way potential homeowners find houses to view," says Thad Stammen of Audience Experts, an SEO expert who works with select real estate clients in the Dallas/Fort Worth area."

But consumers need to remember that agents are doing everything they can to be web-assessable and present listings that look like they are straight from the pages of House Beautiful."

See more homes for sale at AOL Real Estate.
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