Real Estate Online: Virtual Brokerage Can Help or Hurt Buyers

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.