There's more to creating a successful Real Estate website than just providing a portal for property listings. So before even implementing such a website, check some of these often overlooked factors.
USE INDUSTRY STANDARD CMS
CMS stands for Content Management System. These systems draw content from a database into standard page designs, and allow for simple and quick updating of websites through a simple Web Interface. This eliminates re-designing web pages and re-ordering the web site every time new information has to be uploaded. If a new look is required at some point, a new style sheet is simply uploaded to the site, and everything is changed automatically.
For most Real Estate websites, there are basically two primary requirements. The first is to have a CMS system that allows content to be updated on a frequent basis (the Web Shell). Secondly, there needs to be one or more separate modules that manipulates a separate database of properties (the Application). Such modules allow the searching of the database, the display of property particulars pages, and other related, property-specific functions.
For most site owners, there is no need to utilize custom writ CMS. Firstly, it can be very expensive, and secondly, if you terminate your contract with your chosen web site developer, you will not be able to hand-over the site to a new developer. By using industry-standard CMS and modules, your website development can be easily transferred to another developer who is familiar with the underlying CMS. This helps protect your investment in the future. Industry Standard CMS is usually issued under a GNU General Public license which basically means it's free to use as long as copyright notices embedded in the undering system are not changed or removed.
Utilizing Industry Standard CMS does not give you a finished website – it simply gives you the framework in which your site can be developed. Application Modules, however, are not free to use. These are licensed applications that are designed to work within the CMS framework. Although these modules are designed to perform specific functions (such as Real Estate Listings), they do not work Out of the Box; they will require integration into your website design and will often require adaptation for specific uses.
There is often much confusion about multi-lingual websites. The most successful sites are not actually multilingual at all – they are a series of separate sites which are individually maintained by the national divisions of international domain owners. E-bay is a prime example; The US site is a .com domain, while the Spanish site is an .es domain. Each site can be accessed by choosing a language option from ANY of the national sites. What happens is that the site visitor gets transferred to the national site of the chosen language option.
Clearly, most multi-lingual operations require a separate team of webmasters to administrator each language version site. Also, the content is typically regionalized to suit the regional locale. This is why you will often see different products for sale or different content in different regional sites.
The reason this route has been adopted by most major web site owners is for pure practicality. For example, it IS possible to have a multilingual site within a single domain, but the work involved in maintaining the site is a major problem. Firstly, content would have to be created and uploaded in EVERY language supported by the site. Secondly, computer dependent regionalization, such as contracts and dates, could not be used. A typical example of this would be a property being advertised for sale in say Thailand. Such a property would normally be offered in Thai Baht, for which there is an international currency format. If a websites's Price Field was set up to reflect this format, ALL prices for properties located in ALL countries would also be formatted the same way. This is clearly not a desirable option.
Another option often touted by website developers is the website translation option. This works by selecting a language on the web page. The whole page is then literally translated by a web-based translation service. The downside here is that it does not exceed the regionalization problem, and the pages that translate into something that does not make any sense to those who understand the language. This looks very amateurish, and is never used by international domain owners.
In summary, if a multi lingual website is required, it will need separate domains and content if it is to look professional. A master Front Page is then used on the .com domain from where visitors can change to a front page of a language specific domain.
In a Real Estate website, this regionalization can be effectively used to create regional franchises that regional business people buy under license from the main domain owner. Each franchisee would then be responsible for maintaining their regional domain in their native language.
ESSENTIAL FEATURES FOR A REAL ESTATE LISTING SERVICE.
In a listing services website, the domain owner is typically looking for a convenient method by which FSBO or agencies can upload their property details through a web interface. In creating a listing, the domain owner must have a method of getting paid before the listing is displayed on the site. Therefore, it is essential to have a payment system integrated into the site. Of course, for those who simply want a site for listing their own agency properties, this is not such an important requirement.
The next consideration must be the amount of information that should be allowed. In most countries a listing should comprise of a tick-box summary of base features such as heating, air conditioning, parking spaces etc. This should be complimented with summary details of the accommodation. Is it leasehold or freehold, How many bedrooms / bathrooms etc. There should also be free-text descriptions. These should allow for a short description AND a long description. There should also be locality information such as nearest school / university, near shopping, public transport and the name of the local authority. For user convenience, all property information should be displayed as tabbed sections so that users do not have to scroll through pages of information.
Next to the information tabs there should be a photo gallery that displays one main picture of the property, plus a number of thumbnails. Clicking on thumbnails should ideally display the image in a SlimBox. This is essentially a picture that zooms up in the center of the web page, and then dims the page background. Navigation within the SlimBox will allow users to scroll back and forth between the images.
Under the main property information area, there should be a location map which is automatically created from the property address. There are a number of mapping services covering the world that allows this facility to be incorporated easily into the website.
The ideal scenario is to create a compact property listing page that requires very little page scrolling, yet provides all the information in an attractive layout.
From any property particulars page, the user should have the ability to print the full property particulars to a preformatted page, save the property to a lightbox for later reference, or to send the property particulars to a user supplied email address. They should also have the ability to contact the vendor or listing agent directly.
The overall property listing application should provide for customized particulars for different property types, ie land sales, business sales, property rentals etc.
Users should have the ability to undertake a Quick Search from the front page of the site, or a more detailed search from a search form. The site should also offer Premium Listings which are listings summarized on the front page of the website. There should also be a most recently added section that lists the last 5 or 10 last added properties, as well as the most popular properties viewed.
A Mortgage calculator as well as a How much can I borrow calculator should be available on all pages. This will help visitors decide if they can afford to buy a particular property while they are viewing the details on screen.
AUTOMATED SITE MANAGEMENT
The site should incorporate a Requirements section that can alert the domain owner to specific inquiries from people who did not find a property that matched their requirements on the site. Additionally, where a paid listing service is to be offered, the system should have the capability of sending automated emails to all clients who's listing period is about to expire. The email should give clients the option of renewing their listing for a further period. If listings are not renewed within a certain time frame, the system should automatically remove expired listings from the database.
THE IMPORTANCE OF A CONTENT-RICH WEB SHELL
Any web application, such as real estate listings, are essentially bolt-on applications to an existing web shell. The web shell is the real key to search engine optimization, and contrary to popular belief, there is no other way to optimize a web site other than providing relevant content.
Content is the only way a web-crawler (such as those used by major search engines) can gather metadata and keywords that enable your site to be catalogued. Basically, the more relevant content you have in your site, the better the cataloging becomes. CMS sites have one great advantage over traditional HTML sites, and that is that they are composed almost entirely of simple text files. They may display on a website in many artistic and creative ways, but to a search engine, they just see text files which they can handle easily and efficiently.
So, the first consideration in designing a real estate web site is to decide what content could be relevant to your potential target audience. If the intention is to deal with international properties, then clearly site visitors will want to know a whole lot more than just the price of a few available properties. They will want to know about education, shopping, restaurants, getting to and from the destination, where to eat and where to play. All this information can be key to persuading a potential buyer to purchase a property in a particular location.
Lifestyle has become a key concept in property selling. It is often said that people do not buy properties – they buy Lifestyle. Therefore, a good lifestyle section covering each locality covered by your site can result in many more site visitors than just those who have already decided to go property hunting. Your website's knowledge can often be a decisive factor in converting people from just learning about their options, to active buyers. If they are confident in the information provided by your website, they will be more inclined to contact you for information regarding actual properties for sale.
CASHING IN ON CELEBRITY CULTURE
This is another feature that should be heavily incorporated into an international website. Almost every locality has a resident population of celebrities. Such people should also be featured on your website. It's usually possible to obtain syndication articles and photographs from local magazines, and have these featured in the relevant location sections of the website. This lets visitors know that there are celebrities that have purchased properties in these locations, which somehow makes people more confident in making the investment decision. Likewise, a few famous faces dotted around a website can also give confidence to those who may want to list on your site.
Corporate image, even for a small agency operation, is vitally important. People who are viewing your site from a distance do not know how large or small your organizations is – they only have a perception based on the look and feel of your website. If your website looks like a Mom & Pop business, that's how it will be perceived. However, if it looks like a major corporation, the perception will be far different. People will automatically trust the information on your site, and treat it with higher importance. They will also be happier about sending you money for a paid listing!
No matter what your brand name, color scheme or logo design, you must ensure that it's exportable. It must be a brand that can transcend physical and cultural boundaries without causing offense to anyone. Even if your business is currently regionalized, you should still try an adopt a global brand and apply it to every aspect of the business. This will give you the flexibility to grow without incurring extra investment in image assets as your web presence grows.
Get the design, layout and content correct for your web shell, and your application will get carried along with it. The application, no matter how good it is, will not, in itself, ensure high traffic to your website. You should view your web shell as the store, and your application as the check-out where the money gets made. Get this formula right, and everything falls into place.