I'm going to describe what properties look like on your website. Keep in mind I've probably never even been to your site. But I bet I'll do a pretty solid job of describing the page that shows a specific listing.
Here we go:
At the top there's your branding and main navigation. This is maybe 2 inches or so on my laptop screen. It has your logo in the upper left and all of that stuff. Since my screen is about 8 inches tall, this section of the the page takes up about 25 percent of the available viewing area.
Below this there's some small type that works to flip around to other properties but it's pretty unnoticeable. What's more noticeable is the large type which shows the address. This is the biggest type on the page (unless the logo in the top branding area is bigger).
There's also a big picture of the property in the upper left area. It's the biggest picture on the page. Below it are a bunch of little postage stamp pictures of the property from different angles or interior shots and so on. If we click a postage stamp image, the big picture swaps out and is replaced with whatever was in the postage stamp.
To the right of that big picture is a block of text. That text is probably fed from the remarks field of your MLS. Below that block of text is a table that lists all the usual data bits about a property -- beds, baths, square feet and so on.
Somewhere on the page -- in a sidebar most likely -- will be a map of where the property is. Also, there will be a little contact widget with a form for people to "ask questions" or "request a showing."
As we scroll to the bottom of your property detail page we might see a table of all the stuff about the property that didn't make it into the table up above. We might also find a variety of other data that you subscribe to such as school district information, and maybe stuff from Yelp or other social integrations.
This goes on until we get to the very bottom, where there are a bunch of disclaimers or copyright notices and a parade of logos for organizations that are affiliated and so on. Maybe there's a few links to some other similar properties.
How'd I do?
I bet I got the main details right. But I don't go through this little exercise as a way to prove my skills at prognostication.
I go through it because I'm often told how unique houses are. I hear how each house is so unique that maybe we shouldn't even call it a house -- we should call it something like a home or an estate or something.
I'm told that houses aren't commodities.
I'm also told that the services that real estate professionals provide aren't a commodity service. They are something that is unique to each professional, and one agent is not necessarily interchangeable with another.
Yet, when I look at the digital artifacts created I notice that all the properties easily fit into a standardized format with no trouble at all. This includes the most expensive estates and the cheapest spare bit of undeveloped property.
And the buttons we click to initiate interaction with real estate professionals all look and read more or less the same.
So on the one hand, we are told houses aren't a commodity, and that real estate professionals offer unique, non-interchangeable services. But on the other hand, everything we are shown looks the same.
You might feel immune to this so far. Perhaps I got some detail wrong in my description of your property page. If so, keep in mind what that detail is.
Now look around the room you're in and ask the first person you see to come over to where you are. Look that person in the face and say "I offer a unique service assisting in transactions around unique things and it's obvious because ..." (insert the detail from your property page that differs from my description).
For example: "I offer a unique service assisting in transactions around unique things and it's obvious because my descriptive text about a property is below the big image and not next to it, like all the other sites."
There will be a very, very small portion of readers of this column who will be able to do that with a straight face. Certainly not every single real estate website fits my description. But I've seen a lot of them. Hell I've built a lot of them.
I know that the number of real estate websites that are truly different from what I've described can probably be counted on my fingers.
Why does this matter?
You should care about all of this because of a little thing called search engine optimization. Maybe you thought I'd say something about branding or personality or whatever. Well the branding stuff is absolutely true, but I figured I'd give you something else to chew on today.
You see, search engines have a really really hard time figuring out what to do when they are presented with many copies of the same information. All of these property detail pages kind of look the same to me and you, but they really look the same to search engines, which can't see colors or type selection or image files very well.
Not only is all this sameness messing with whether or not people think real estate professionals provide unique services, it's messing with how machines think about real estate as well.
As search engines strive desperately to discover uniqueness, they latch on to different things. Authorship -- who owns the listing -- for example. Or technical clues as to the original source of the information. And, yes, brand strength.
A brand that is ill-defined, that looks and acts just like every other brand, isn't going to be chosen by search engines. It's going to be recognized as one of thousands. It's going to be a commodity.
Search engines don't want to serve up commodity. They want to serve up unique. They want to serve up amazing. They want to serve up meaningful. Search engines want this because people want this too.
Reclaiming uniqueness from commodity
While there are certainly some real estate examples available (well, I can think of one and I'm simply assuming there are more) I want to provide an example of something even more commoditized: news.
The news article is a totally commoditized online thing. Doesn't matter what news site you go to, they all pretty much look the same: a headline, some text, some interrupting ads in the text, some widgets to share, then surround the whole thing with moving blinking ads to make money.
But recently I had a conversation with my friends Rob Hahn and Matthew Shadbolt on our Trialogues podcast about the changing face of editorial content.
In it, we discuss at length an article published by The New York Times, "Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek." This piece departs far from the usual display of journalism online.
Even though the news format, like the property detail display, was more or less standardized, the Times took a chance and tried something different.
It worked. According to Atlantic Wire, "Snow Fall" received 3.5 million page views in its first week. One-third of those were first time visitors to the site -- a highly desirable segment for any business.
The Times tried the formula again, this time reining it in a bit to see how it would fit in the usual confines of their design layout, with a story about the Higgs boson. From there, they've distilled lessons learned into what will become the new format for New York Times articles.
Just because something has always been done a certain way, doesn't mean it's a good idea. If you want to be unique and provide unique services you will want that to be apparent in what you do and how you do it.
This how you reach and communicate your unique value to your customers online.
The online display of property is probably the core of the digital real estate experience. Why does it look the same everywhere we go?
Gahlord Dewald is the president and janitor of Thoughtfaucet, a strategic creative services company in Burlington, Vt.
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