Caught in the ’Net

NYC firms pour time and capital into revamping websites, but must grapple with how to quantify results

This month, the Manhattan-based franchise of Keller Williams is set to launch a beta version of a new website that, for the first time, will connect its site to the vast online network of the national firm.

Founded by Ilan Bracha, Keller Williams NYC had been the only one of the firm’s 700 offices to have a completely separate website, said Keller Williams NYC chief operating officer Zhann Jochinke.

The old site — designed with a more Manhattan-friendly aesthetic and dominated by large photographs — had worked for about 15 months, he said. But now Keller Williams NYC is aiming to tap into the highly trafficked site of its Texas-based franchisor, as well as take advantage of the firm’s 50-person technology team, he said.

And Keller Williams NYC is not the only local brokerage investing in a digital makeover. “Many of us launched our initial websites around the same time,” said Elizabeth Ann Kivlan, the director of marketing and business development at Stribling & Associates. “As technologies have changed, and consumers look at things in a different way, the time had come to present listings and our agents in a different manner.”

Stribling spent “well over $1 million” on rebranding efforts launched in February that covered everything from new stationery to a restyled website, Kivlan said. The new site earned its designer, the digital agency Canvas, a Webby nomination in 2012. In theory, the rebranding will also earn the firm more business — more sellers listing properties with Stribling and more buyers connecting with those sellers.

For its part, the in-house team at the national Keller Williams entity is investing untold hours in the Manhattan website’s overhaul: If the firm had to hire an outside developer, the project could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, Jochinke estimated.

Source note: Figures taken from firms’ official Facebook fan pages on July 16, 2012. Biggest firms determined by a survey in the June 2012 issue. (Click to enlarge.)
As part of a transformation that established a separate commercial division, the New York and New Jersey brokerage DJK launched a new website last month that lets users connect to five multiple-listing services and a virtual office website.

Phyllis Pezenik, DJK’s vice president of brokerage services, pegged the cost at tens of thousands of dollars. She expects the efforts will increase the firm’s real estate business by more than 30 percent.

Additionally, Brown Harris Stevens revamped its site several months ago, furnishing its agent-profile pages with dapper new head shots.

And in 2010, Prudential Douglas Elliman unveiled a new version of that cost $1 million.

While conventional wisdom says an attractive, user-friendly website is crucial to marketing a real estate firm, brokerages are grappling with how best to quantify the benefits of these major investments of time and money.

An oft-quoted statistic, from the National Association of Realtors, says that 88 percent of buyers in the U.S. used the Internet in their home search in 2011 — a number that has only been growing over the years.

Further adding to the pressure today to invest capital online is that real estate consumers expect a wealth of property information up front, and brokerages that fail to give up the goods risk coming off as relics of an earlier age.

But what was once considered the go-to metric to quantify a website’s usefulness — hits on a home page — has proven too blunt a tool to measure success, sources said. (Hits are generated anytime a user calls up a file, such as a graphic, on a webpage.

Source note: Figures taken from firms’ official Twitter accounts on July 16, 2012. Biggest firms determined by a survey in the June 2012 issue. (Click to enlarge.)
Since most pages contain numerous files, it’s a misleading and subjective way of tracking web traffic, experts said. Visits, on the other hand, are generated anytime someone surfs onto a website. Separate users who visit sites are called “unique visitors.”)

Brokerages are “no longer [only] interested in getting giant numbers to their sites,” said James Cahill, Halstead Property’s chief information and technology officer.

Rather, the right question is not: “How much traffic do you generate?” according to Gregg Larson, president of Clareity Consulting, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based real estate information technology consultancy. It’s: “How do you measure the value of that traffic?”

Most say that the main function of a brokerage’s website is not just to establish a “brand,” but to generate leads — by capturing visitors’ contact information to turn them from web surfers to clients.

However, that system is problematic in an industry comprised of independent contractors who own their client lists. In many cases, brokers do not have to share the leads they get online, sources said.

Additionally, most home hunters bypass a firm’s home page altogether, first experiencing its Internet presence by clicking through to a specific listing from an online hub such as StreetEasy or Zillow, according to brokerage web experts and independent website developers.

“There are a lot of brokerage firms that have very pretty websites,” said Doug Perlson, CEO of RealDirect, the online brokerage and listings consultant. But, he added, websites are better used for functional purposes, including generating leads and communicating with clients. “If you’re looking for the web to give yourself a presence,” he said, “then you’re not thinking about the web in the right way.”

Traffic lights

Web traffic is not a useless tool, sources said. It’s still closely monitored by brokerages, since it means more eyeballs on listings. Plus, web traffic numbers are sometimes cited in listing pitches or used as a means to recruit new agents, and are generally good numbers to publicize to less sophisticated outsiders, sources said.

“For a seller, for them to see that the traffic is there — they would overlook a less-than-user-friendly or attractive website,” said Jochinke.

With the Keller Williams NYC redesign, the firm is hoping that will become the fourth or fifth most-trafficked real estate brokerage site in the city, he said.

Yet, while web traffic is a useful metric in some areas, it is an antiquated, outdated tool for measuring whether a website is bringing in more clients and, ultimately, more transactions, sources said.

“It’s really only the first step in ultimately [bringing in] a client and using your website in a way that’s beyond just providing information about your listing,” Perlson said.

For one, the number of hits or visitors to a site is largely a function of how many listings are there, Perlson said. Plus, inexpensive rental listings will no doubt generate far more clicks than mid-range sale properties, sources said.

Real estate firms can now measure the minute details of how visitors use their websites with the help of free software like Google Analytics or by hiring companies like Alexa, Experian Hitwise and Quantcast.

Those programs can track everything from the number of page views per visit to the amount of time users spend on a site to the users’ location to the sites they click on before and after visiting a brokerage’s home page. That information helps firms decide where to invest marketing dollars, how to target certain types of consumers and whether new website features are effective.

Using Google Analytics, Stribling found that 3 percent of online visitors came from Facebook — both from clicking on new paid advertisements and the company’s fan page — while the remaining traffic came from StreetEasy, the New York Times and other sources, Kivlan said.

Overall, the rebranding has increased the number of visitors by about 10 percent, Kivlan added. In addition, earlier this year, the firm found that visitors were spending 44 percent more time on its website.

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But one of the big challenges the industry is facing is that this kind of detailed web traffic data is not public, nor are brokerages required to certify the accuracy of the data they cite in marketing materials.

Accordingly, brokerages can (and do) claim unverified or irrelevant web traffic numbers, sources said, leaving sellers and competitors who care about traffic to piece together estimated data themselves.

Indeed, as the Internet has brought transparency to many parts of the residential real estate business — allowing consumers to access listings directly or making comparable sale records widely available — the information on web traffic has largely stayed behind closed doors.

“I would love to see it transparent,” Jochinke said. “I don’t think it’ll ever happen.”
That doesn’t mean there aren’t data providers aiming to fill this gap.

Hitwise provided The Real Deal with a breakdown of the number of visits that Manhattan’s biggest brokerages received in June — the same data it would provide to paying customers — but reserves more comprehensive traffic breakdowns for clients.

Quantcast provides only limited data publicly for sites that have agreed to release additional information. Public data from Alexa, meanwhile, is widely seen as unreliable because it only closely tracks companies that install a special toolbar on their websites. (Representatives for Quantcast and Amazon, Alexa’s parent company, did not return requests for comment.)

Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that the companies come up with different figures, since they all have different subscribers and different methods of collecting data. For example, according to Hitwise, Corcoran received 236,256 visits in June. Quantcast found that the site had 154,148 visitors between early June and early July. Alexa does not release this number.

Corcoran’s head of online marketing declined to be interviewed for this story.

From left: Doug Perlson, CEO of RealDirect; Stribling’s Elizabeth Ann Kivlan; Miron Properties’ Jeffrey Schleider; Keller Williams NYC’s Zhann Jochinke

Acknowledging aggregators

Yet to some extent, it’s more important for brokerages to drive potential clients to listings, not home pages, Halstead’s Cahill said.

“Real estate [firms] tend to think they are badass and have great web sites because they spend hundreds of thousands on them per year — and many have nice sites,” Larson said. “However, they are not where the bulk of the traffic is going.”

Instead, homebuyers and renters are seeking out listing aggregator sites, such as national providers like Trulia, Zillow and, as well as the Manhattan-based StreetEasy.

In May, 130,000 unique visitors (as opposed to overall visits) from the New York metropolitan area came to Corcoran’s website — the most of any New York City brokerage, according to figures obtained by The Real Deal from comScore, another web traffic data subscription service. By contrast, the aggregators received much more; StreetEasy received 216,000 such visitors, and Zillow received 978,000 from the New York area.

Web users also spent longer on aggregator sites. Visitors spent an average of 2.8 minutes on Corcoran’s site, compared to 3.5 minutes on StreetEasy and 6.6 minutes on Zillow, the data show.

However, even though visitors may spend more time with aggregators, once a consumer is on a firm’s website, Larson noted, they are more likely to engage the firm, meaning that visitors to the brokerage’s website represent the “highest-quality traffic.”

And, brokerages try to maximize the “stickiness” of their sites with useful information and teasers for other listings. Keller Williams NYC aims to retain users with help from a tab that shows similar listings and a function that lets users save properties to third-party websites, Jochinke said.

The firms are on the lookout for minimizing their “bounce rate,” or the rate at which visitors come to a site and then quickly leave, sources said.

“If you say you’ve got a million visitors, but they’re just spending two seconds on your site, that’s a problem,” Cahill said.

Capturing leads

Perhaps the most pressing concern for real estate brokerages — at least, those using their websites as a tool to generate business — is how many leads they capture online, sources said.

Often, brokerage websites will have a “call to action,” a prompt for users to provide their contact information, in order to save properties or receive additional information, Larson said.

The most involved example of this is the virtual office website, or VOW, a program set up by the Real Estate Board of New York in 2009 that lets users browse listings from many firms through one company’s website, provided they have formally registered with a broker or a firm and agreed to certain terms.

However, convincing users to sign up is still an uphill battle for any website, and it’s an even more complicated process for real estate brokerages.

Since brokers are independent contractors, any leads they generate are proprietary. Firms can track consumers, who register directly with the firm, but they cannot force brokers to hand over leads that may come through the website but go directly to individual agents, said Andrew Heiberger, the founder of Town Residential.

And those numbers are already tiny.

Jeffrey Schleider, founder of Manhattan brokerage Miron Properties, estimated that if 2 to 3 percent of visitors — out of an estimated 25,000 to 30,000 per month — fill out a registration form, the site is doing “phenomenally well.”

If Keller Williams NYC can convince between 5 and 10 percent of unique visitors to register with the firm, Jochinke said, that is a success. With the new website, the overall traffic is expected to jump, but the rate at which visitors register will likely stay the same, he said.

Even more difficult is tracking whether a website lead turns into a sale, RealDirect’s Perlson said.

“It’s not quite as simple as selling iPad covers on Amazon, where we see the sale typically within minutes of acquiring the traffic,” he said.

And not all websites focus on capturing leads. For example, Stribling allows users to register to get market report mailings and to save properties, but the firm does not have a goal for what percentage of users hand over their contact information, Kivlan said.

A good website, according to Larson, should let users access the bulk of the information for free, but have enough premium content — such as saving searches or putting properties in “shopping carts” — to make visitors give up their e-mail addresses.

“You provide information of utility to the general public without requiring them to be your customer,” Schleider said, “and a certain percentage will come back to work with you.”

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