Online estate agents: what do they know that traditional estate agencies don’t?

Author avatar

Daniel Saunders

I was on Facebook a few weeks ago and a friend had written a post about how fantastic Purplebricks were when selling his house, and how his Purplebricks’ Local Property Expert was amazing. Referrals like this are pure gold for anybody, especially in an industry that’s worth roughly £11bn a year, with an annual growth for 2013-2018 forecasted at 4.4%.

Estate Agent Today has tipped Purplebricks to be the biggest estate agent by 2019. With the sharp drop in share prices of Countrywide and Foxtons, it’s easy to think this is just the start of the decline in traditional agents. What is interesting, though, is that Purplebricks don’t appear when searching locally for ‘houses for sale in Leeds’, or when searching for houses in the other top 10 places to live in the UK.  The Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs) are dominated by property portals such as Rightmove and Zoopla,  with other property portals e.g. OnTheMarket.com also featuring on the first page. That’s the first hole in Purplebricks’ armour.

Estate agents traffic index

Figure 1. Traffic share for non-brand keywords for property searches in the top 10 locations in the UK

So, how have traditional agents allowed a new company to rise to such heights in a time where the stock of homes in the UK is at its lowest for 40 years? The answer is simple: by being traditional. Lord Sugar once famously said that estate agents are “a necessary evil” – they were tarred with the same brush as politicians, solicitors and recruiters. It wasn’t until recently that a new agent (Purplebricks), tried to change the perception of the industry. Purplebricks is built by former traditional estate agents who listened to their customers and tackled some of the biggest estate agency complaints;  fees, service and communication.

Interest growth from 2004 to present

Figure 2. Interest growth from 2004 to present. (Red = Rightmove, Purple = Zoopla, Blue = Purplebricks, Yellow = Barratt Developments, Green = Foxtons)

It’s not just Purplebricks that are succeeding online, Rightmove have reported that the online estate agent market share has more than doubled in two years (see figure 2). The reality is, only 0.2% of Purplebricks’ customer complaints were about fees. If you’re an estate agent, take an honest look at your complaints and tell me if that figure is less for you? In short, online agents are much more tuned into their customers’ needs.

Halo slip? No not really.

Traditional estate agents in general need to learn the difference between a feature and a benefit and tailor it to their customer, especially a customer who has never sold a house before. Don’t just mention the feature in isolation – you have 50 years’ experience… so what?

The Rock meme

Instead, explain why the feature is beneficial to the individual: “I’ve been doing this a long time and I’ve got a lot of experience dealing with people who haven’t sold a house before.” As an ex estate agent, I helped clients by listening and asking questions until I got to the root of their worries. I know many traditional agents who only talk about features and are not worth their salt. The ones that focus on benefits do well and that’s hardwired into all Purplebricks staff.

Estate agents' SEO visibility

Figure 3. Search metrics graph measuring the visibility of traditional estate agents against each other

Search Metrics graph showing SEO visibility of estate agents

Figure 4. Search metrics graph measuring the visibility of traditional estate agents against each Online Agents

Search Metrics don’t lie and as figure 4 shows, Purplebricks’ search visibility soared above its competitors in the new year.

Who cares about estate agents? As long as it’s on Rightmove

Anyone asking this raises a very good point. Rightmove dominates the search space in all things property. Rightmove did this by building a business on SEO and then reinvesting money into traditional TV advertising etc. This led to a profit margin of over 75% in 2016, so clearly, they’re doing something right.

Graph measuring SEO visibility of traditional estate agents against Rightmove

Figure 5 Search metrics graph measuring the visibility of traditional estate agents against Rightmove

So, what have traditional estate agents forgotten?

  1. To evolve and move with the times, there is a reason the UK now spends more on digital media than it does on TV advertising.
  2. To put their own targets to one side and ask their customers, “what is it you actually want?”
  3. Don’t tell people how bad someone else is, get people to talk about how good you are and give them proof by selling houses.

You beat Purplebricks by beating Rightmove at property search!

OnTheMarket.com are following closely behind Rightmove and are making serious ground (See figure 1). A few traditional agents have now started playing catch up, but how do they make up lost ground?

  1. Build your business on SEO. You’ve seen it work for Rightmove – now it’s time to step in front. OntheMarket.com is pushing forward (See figure 1) by putting in their terms of business that properties must be listed for 24 hours on their site before it can go live on yours or another property portal. So, if you’re not using OnTheMarket.com, then why don’t you do the same? Doing so means Google credits you with the property and not Rightmove. Just make sure you manage your vendors’ expectations. Also ensure your site is optimised and up to date with Google’s latest algorithm updates so that Google can find you.
  2. Optimise your site so that it dominates the local estate agent search. This is by far the easiest thing to do on my list. When you focus on these local markets, the competition gets thinner. For instance, when a buyer searches in Leeds, they will be very specific about the town, village, borough etc. that they want to live in. Most traditional agents want to brand themselves for the city, when in fact, they should be going after theses micro markets. I mentioned earlier, Purplebricks aren’t doing this and so there is certainly a gap for this.
  3. Be a strong link builder. Google uses links in a similar way that word of mouth can build an estate agency up through recommendations. The more trusted people are talking about you, the more people will use you. Google uses links in the same way: the more trusted the site that links to you, the higher you rank. The easiest way to build these links is to make strong connections with influential journalists and create interesting headlines that get picked up by them.
  4. Write unique content. Not many people are fond of estate agents and think fees are too high – why not write content to help people better understand what it is you do for your money? Better still, use a social listening tool to see what your target audience is talking about and write content about that. This will also help you build links. What do you need to offer on your site that Rightmove can’t? Local content!
  5. Rightmove is the big dog on every level when it comes to estate agency content. They have articles on design, architecture all the way down to Christmas songs. That’s all well and good, but what you can beat them on is local content. Focus on a local level for every town and village you want your expertise showcased on. While Rightmove have the public information available on how much a property is worth on your street, there’s no information on the schools on your street outside of an Ofsted report, they don’t have community activities, local running routes, best type of house to live in in which village etc. Offering this information is your secret weapon and will help you earn your badge as local expert. Try and make this something people can’t get anywhere else. The best way forward is blogging, vlogging and YouTube. Google loves it when you use their tools! The more Google tools you use, the more Google’s bots will love you, and the longer the user will stay on your site. Remember, your audience can get a free valuation anywhere on the Internet, so offering it on your site isn’t of any significant value. Local news and content is where you will win.
  6. Use long-tail keywords. If a consumer was searching the phrase “Victorian Mansions in Oakwood” you’d have a fighting chance of being ranked as the search phrase is much more specific, and more importantly, it’ll convert better. You can get even more specific and use a phrase like “Cheapest bungalow in Meanwood”. Yes, fewer people are searching these phrases, but that also means there is less competition and more serious home buyers specifically looking for a certain type of property.
  7. Have a strong paid advertisement game. Make sure you’re writing interesting and eye-catching adverts and then bid on terms that convert the best for you. As you can imagine, lots of other estate agents will be bidding on similar terms like “How much is my home worth”, “Valuations”, “Estate agent in Leeds” and “Best estate agent in the city”, so make sure your bidding is optimised, or you could end up losing money.
  8. You need, a Facebook business page, Twitter and Google My Business for every area you want to rank in. If you only do one thing after reading this, make sure you fill in Google My Business. That’s right. For every area! These social links then must appear on your site (they make your page legitimate).
  9. Finally, make sure you’re managing the entire process. Whoever is doing your marketing needs to make sure the technical SEO, link building, content and PPC are all joined up. By optimising your site, you add more value to your PPC as your price per click will drop. In short, SEO and PPC feed each other – if you’re not joined up, opportunities will be missed and that could cost you in the long run.

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