Catch Slides and Video From Ellen Thompson's SEO Webinar Until Friday!

Great news! If you missed Ellen Thompson's webinar last week "Capture the Traffic: SEO Tools and Tips to Help You Maximize Web Traffic", www.multifamilyinsiders.com is sharing the slides and a video recording from the presentation from now until FRIDAY!

You must be a member of Multifamily Insiders to view it, so if you aren't already a member, register here (it's free): http://www.multifamilyinsiders.com/home/community/register

After you register, click here to watch the webinar.

Free Online Webinar with 4 Walls CEO Ellen Thompson!

Join 4 Walls CEO Ellen Thompson on September 23, 2010 at 2 p.m. EST (11 a.m. PST) for a free webinar, "Capture the Traffic: SEO Tools and Tips to Help You Maximize Web Traffic."

Click here to find out more and to register now.

Search Engine Optimization is Changing

A friend of mine, who is an ecommerce entrepreneur in a very competitive space and in the middle of a shopping cart migration, recently asked me for some SEO advice. After answering his specific questions, I suggested we do a few searches for high volume keywords to see what his competitors are doing. Some of the results were rather surprising. Here were the two biggest eye openers.

1. Numerous first page Google search results included pages that didn't even contain the search terms we used.

2. For many keyword searches, half of the results were video and other social media sites rather than his direct competitors.

These results were not a fluke. I have been able to repeat this outcome with several searches for my own site. The first results for “4walls sterling apartments,” which would have previously delivered the listing page, now serve up my index page— which does not have the word sterling on it—as the first result. 100% of our social media clients are seeing their Twitter, Facebook, or both of these pages on the first page of search results for their community within 30 days (we now take before and after screen shots to demonstrate this finding).

Getting great search results used to be straightforward. If you started with good content, didn't screw up the title and description meta tag or on-page text, set up appropriate internal linking and got a few sites to link to yours, you'd be golden. Everyone would think you were a search engine genius.

Today, this just isn't enough. First, you've got to be so much better because there is a lot more competition from new rating and review sites, apartment mapping sites, real estate sections of large portals (e.g. Yahoo), and an ever-increasing number of traditional Internet Listing Services. Second, it takes a lot more work to maintain search rankings. You need to have a site that's constantly changing, take into consideration the impact of word stemming and themes, and you have to have a ton of authoritative sites linking to yours. And it seems to me that a little bit of luck plays a part, too.

Search Engine Optimization is still the best potential investment you can make in your site, but if you decide to make an investment, make sure you understand that a one-time tune-up isn't going to work as well as it used to. What works in 2010 requires an expanded set of tricks.

Do Your ILS Perceptions Jive With Reality?

We all cope with aging in different ways. In my case, I have always taken solace in the fact that I don't quite look my age.

But this week, I got a rude awakening. I had a few headshots taken for a speaking engagement, and in one of them, I look ten years older. The photo captured every wrinkle and every uneven spot in my complexion. I look in the mirror every day, so to me, my appearance doesn’t seem to change. But seeing the truth captured in print was a wake up call that my perception was not in alignment with reality.

This same type of shift—a slow erosion that's unnoticeable month to month but adds up over the course of a year—is happening in the online advertising space. During the past year, it's likely that a combination of the economy, a proliferation of new sites, and your own improvements to your website and internal web marketing have reduced the number of leads you are getting from paid advertising sources (although not all sources are experiencing declines). Renters are being more careful than ever, which is also decreasing the average closing ratio.

But has this shift changed your thinking about the standards by which you measure your ILSs? Some marketing managers are very realistic, but many are still expecting to pay less than $10 per lead. In most submarkets, you'll be cutting off your nose to spite your face. Sure, you’ll still get some leads, but if you cut all advertising that doesn't meet this standard, you'll lower your cost per lead but you won't have enough leads to work with.

Although it's tricky to measure where leases come from, it's not difficult to look at year over year changes in aggregate data. Take a look at your lead data for the past three years to make sure that your expectations are not outdated. You can also ask ILS vendors to identify overall trends.

Like me, you might not like the year over year picture. But the best decisions can only be made if you are armed with the facts, so it's best to just take a deep breath and take a closer look.

Top 3 SEO Mistakes Made on Property Management Sites

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is not as sexy to talk about as social media. But the reality is that the best and fastest way to increase leads and decrease costs is to make sure your site is optimized properly. Here's some marketing steak to go along with the sizzle.

At this point, the cat is pretty much out of the bag that website drive-bys turn into leads for Internet Listing Sites. Is this happening to you? Here’s how to tell: Type in the name of your community and then the name of your community followed by the city and state abbreviations. If you see organic and paid search results ahead of your website, it's time for an SEO tune up.

Below, find three major SEO mistakes I find on property management sites that limit their ability to rise to the top of search results when people type in their community name . . . and how to fix them.

Tune up your title tag.

The title tag populates the title bar, which is what you see at the top of your browser window. In addition to being a vitally important piece of the SEO equation, title tags are also used as the heading of search engine results.

If you don't have the name of your community as well as the city and state abbreviation in your title tag, it will be almost impossible to show up before your ads on ILSs. Having extra words (e.g. the name of your property management firm, the address of the community) can dilute the effectiveness of your tag. Get them out of there. There is no magic equation to creating a title tag. Take a look at pages that are showing up before you and follow their lead.

Refrain from putting the name of your property in an image.

It may look nice, but when you put the name of your community in an image, it negatively impacts your SEO results. Search engines can't read text in images, so to them, it's like those words don't exist on the pages.

Get rid of the images and have your web developer type the community name in. Even better, make sure your community name is formatted using a heading tag. It's widely believed that names formatted with heading tags and other attributes get more credit.

Don't forget the meta description tag.

Meta tags are text that appears behind the scenes in the code of your page. While the keyword meta tag is ignored by major search engines, the description tags are picked up. In addition to being a critical factor in SEO, description tags also allow you to better control your marking message. For instance, if you have a description tag, Google will use this rather than random bits of text in your search results.

Make sure you have a unique meta description tag for every page on your site. Check that the name of your property, the city, and the state abbreviation are all in the meta description tag.

Putting the Cart Before the Horse

How did we get from search engines to social media? It’s been a long journey.

We know that the fastest way to improve your search engine rankings is to pay a couple of thousands of dollars to a Search Engine Optimization consultant to tell you how to clean up the title and description tags and content on your page and to get your webmaster to follow through. The second investment you make is to build unique and compelling content. That’s what we did for customers in 2005.

We know that getting inbound links helps search engine rankings. We used to write press releases and put them on sites like prweb.com, or if we had the budget, prnewswire.com. We also wrote unique content and put them on sites like articlecity.com. This was called PR and article marketing, respectively, and that was so 2006.

We believed that providing information about moving resources and local business information would be a great amenity for residents. We launched cartandhorse.com and then followed up with a property-specific version with 5000 business reviews, called eRetriever, in 2007. We got 160 properties to sign on in the Philadelphia metro area, but it didn’t take off nationally… and the service was free.

cart/horse
And now, we’re doing exactly the same things with Respage, only this time the content management system is called a blog and we’re syndicating through sites like Twitter and Facebook. In 2009, we call it Social Media Optimization and Social Media Marketing. But has the concept really changed?

Back then, the cart was full but many a horse refused to budge. Some thought that Search Engine Optimization was voodoo, others got burned by unscrupulous consultants and yet others didn’t know where to start.

Now, the horses are racing ahead, but what are they packing? The idea that tweeting a mile a minute is the way to get ahead? We should never forget about the one thing that matters: content. Whatever you want to call it these days, it’s the real information that we have helped our customers provide over the years. Useful content is the ultimate social, and sometimes, search engine solution.

Maybe it’s just that I have trouble with names. I should have never put the cart before the horse.

[photo credit: everystockphoto.com]

The Cost of Free Advertising

When we expanded nationally, we offered free listings with no set up fee and no success fee. In other words, they really were cost-free listings. We even offered to accept listings via datafeed or do the listing setup ourselves.

I personally called the marketing director of at least 100 property management companies fully expecting that they’d be interested in this offer. Much to my surprise, this effort was a failure – we only got about 160 free listings.

Now I understand why: there is no such thing as a free listing.

Here’s why.

At least one new apartment listing site appears each month. About half of them are positioned as apartment mapping or review sites. They populate their sites with apartment directories, do a great job with SEO and then make really nice revenue through AdSense ads or by sending leads to apartment listing services through their affiliate programs. These clog up the search engine results for the rest of us, and do not generate more than a handful of leads – many of which probably go unnoticed by multifamily marketing directors.

Then there’s the other half that started with the goal to be the next leading online apartment guide. These companies put up sites and then begin calling multifamily marketing directors in the hopes of generating revenue through pay per lease, pay per lead or monthly listing fees. In order to build the relationship, they call or email with offers for free listings (or a pay for performance model, such as pay per lead). These phone calls and emails add up. Screening them is a big burden for marketing personnel.

Let’s suppose you actually manage to get someone to advertise her property for free. Though there are no out of pocket fees, she has measurable costs associated with tracking and measuring results. If it’s a pay for performance solution, such as Pay per Lead, then she has the additional burden of validating each lead. If the source is only generating a few leads per month, it might not be worth the internal costs, even for a free lead.

It has been helpful for us to understand that just like there is no such thing as a free lunch, there is no such thing as a free lead.

[photo credit: everystockphoto.com]