I am guilty of making every possible mistake someone could make while building a local real estate search portal.
If you have a real estate web site or are thinking about building one, I hope this list of lessons learned can save you a few headaches along the way.
How I Decided to Launch My Website and 8 Years of Agony
It all began in 2007, when I purchased a few ad spots for a few hundred dollars a month from a local Miami condo sale directory web site. I signed an annual contract for the ads, and I wasn’t getting the return I was expecting. After getting threatened by the company to finish my contract or have their lawyers get on my case, I decided I would get my revenge and get a better bang for my buck by setting up my own local miami condo search web site called condoblackbook.com.
I thought I had the skills and background to be able to pull it off, since I owned a small web development shop for 5 years prior to entering real estate. I had created dozens of websites for others, so why wouldn’t I be able to build an amazing website for my own purposes?
So I built my first very simple Miami area condo directory which I was quite proud of, for a whopping $2500. The site wasn’t amazing, but it achieved my “I’ll show you!” goal with the condo directory company I had wasted my ad money with, served me well in terms of ROI for a short time and gave me a foundation to build on.
What happened next was sad. Over an eight year period, I slowly added features, pages and design tweaks. I spent hundreds of hours of my time and $100K+++ of total investment giving people what I thought they wanted.
The result was less visitors and a pitiful ROI. How could this happen? I am a smart guy. I have a web development background. This should be an easy play for someone like me, right?
Wrong. Keep on reading for the laundry list of mistakes I made to get me to the hole I am digging myself out of today.
Build with a Pure Heart
I originally built my site almost out of an “I’ll show you” attitude instead of a true desire to offer a product that gives the consumers what they want. That type of mindset might motivate you get started, but without a more purely customer-driven purpose, you are not destined to rise to the top. I have learned that the hard way.
Make a Real Commitment
I always had one foot into developing my website and one foot out. Between servicing clients, growing my brokerage, trying to build other little apps here and there, I never really committed 100% to making my site truly great until recently.
If you want to build a site that delivers something unique and powerful to your ideal client, then that will mean an intense dedication to excellent usability and a dedication to make sure that every aspect of your site is designed to service your ideal client.
If you are not ready to do that, then spend your money on an excellent out-of-the-box or semi-custom site. And then be laser-focused on getting visitors.
Know Your Competition
Since the debut of my site in 2008, many local and national condo and real estate portals have flourished and advanced, and having a decent out-of-the box or even semi-customized IDX site is pretty commonplace and inexpensive to start and lease on a monthly basis. In 2008, my rinky dink starter site was quite an achievement for a local miami condo agent, but that advantage gradually diminished as the market was flooded with pretty good options anyone with a reasonable budget could launch fairly quickly.
Have a Strong Team
I have heavy web development experience, so when I came into this project, I had this idea that I could build a Miami condo directory site from scratch by piecing together a web development and design team on-the-cheap. I grossly miscalculated the time, energy and money I would have to put into it while also trying to build a brokerage and be a producing agent. If I had to do it again, I would likely have hired a marketing or web development company with real estate IDX experience and proof of great UI/UX capabilities so that I could have an experienced team to rely on. I may have even foregone a fully custom web site and instead taken one with a few key customizations, just so I could instead focus on visitor-and-money-producing activities, like creating content, optimizing for search engines, and advertising via pay-per-click.
Work with First-Rate Designers
It is really easy to find a designer that is “decent” and/or really inexpensive, but what do they bring to the table? I have worked with second-rate designers from start to finish (I still haven’t learned my lesson), and all that left me was a smaller hourly costs but many more hours wasted on redesigns.
Love Your Developers, or Leave Them
I have gone through 3 development firms since I started developing condoblackbook.com 8 years ago. The first was an group from India who did the first rendition cheap and dirty. It worked, but it had no scalability and was coded poorly.
I then graduated to a team of eastern European folks led by a Russian guy living in Paris. It started out well, but over time the hourly rates increased and the quality of service diminished. Instead of firing them quickly, I let my fear of losing the knowledge base (and possibly the code base) get the best of me. Not dumping your sub-par development team out of fear of will end up costing you time and money.
I now am working with a development team that is dedicated, skilled and has great communication. Wish me luck.
Have a Strategy
When I decided to build my site, I thought about what I could do to compete with the big guys like Zillow on a local level. Since I did most of my business in miami area condo sales, I decided to create a site strictly focused on Miami condos and forego single family homes, commercial, townhomes, etc. That felt like a pretty clear strategy and a niche I could win at. But I was naive.
The Ideal Client
My target audience wasn’t fine tuned enough. I hadn’t truly determined who my ideal client was other than someone who was interested in buying a Miami condo.
Without imagining your ideal client, you will never know what design appeals to them, what features are important to them, or what content interests them. To figure out who your ideal client is, you should create a “User Persona” and then make sure that everything you do focuses on pleasing that person.
I very recently made the decision to redesign my site to target second homers and transplants from the northeastern U.S. Since that profile of client is typically older, they need everything to be easy to read and simple to navigate (all problems on my site as I am writing this, but we are working on it). They also may not be 100% familiar with Miami, so we need to help them explore and compare the different neighborhoods. And when I write my blog posts, I can now ask myself if a 50 year old from the northeast would care. If not, I don’t write it.
Give The Customers What They Want
I built and rebuilt my site with the features and flow that I, Sep Niakan, wanted. I didn’t think to ask my customers what they wanted until 8 years into the darn process. How silly is that?
Recently, I organized for a small handful of my past clients who fit the profile of my ideal client to sit down with me for 45 minutes each. I asked each one to go through condoblackbook.com and my commissionsinc site viewmiamihouses.com and give me their feedback. (I showed them two sites so they wouldn’t feel like it was personal and also to use a battle-tested site template from commissionsinc as a baseline). I asked them to “think out loud” as they used each site for certain tasks that I would give them, like “You want to buy a waterfront condo in Miami Beach for $1M max. Go!”
Listening to what they were thinking and watching them navigate my condo site (and the other site) was an amazing eye-opening experience. I learned more in those sessions than I did in the past 8 years. Knowing how much time and energy I had wasted in features none of them even noticed almost brought me to tears.
Different is Not Always Better
I learned the hard way that different is not always better, especially when it comes to UI/UX and web design. Have you noticed that most real estate portal and lead conversion web sites look pretty similar these days? There is a reason for that. There are UI/UX fundamentals that offer better conversions and overall repeat visitors.
Well, I had this crazy notion that I am smarter than everyone else and could build something “different”. The result was a site that was not user-friendly and was poor at converting.
Content is King
These days more than ever technology has made presenting basic listing information as easy as 1-2-3. And competition for buyer/seller eyeballs is intense. The Zillow Group is dominating, and there are many other strong national and local players jockeying for position.
A key way to really differentiate from the crowd is to create amazing content. There are a few ways to go about this:
- Curate and uniquely package data that users are interested in.
- Create a site that has high community involvement and have your users be the content-drivers.
- Write your own unique content.
I dabbled and failed in all three while incessantly adding more features that my users really weren’t looking for. If I had instead laser-focused on one of the three content strategies, I would have given myself a much better chance a success.
Oh, and by the way, Google’s search algorithm loves content too…So if you want free clicks to your site, unique content will help you get there in a big way.
What’s Next Step?
To sum it up, in a few words, do the opposite of what I did the past 8 years, and you have a pretty good chance of succeeding.