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Is Your SEM Strong Enough to Pull You Through the Real Estate Bubble?

To make it out alive — and to actually end up doing well — in the mess that the world is predicting for the real estate bust, real estate sites need to start getting very, very serious about search engine marketing.

Act now: SEM might be your only ticket out of the mess you don’t realize you’re in.

A word about bubbles. Why is that so? Because busts are the most Darwinian of all financial phenomena. On one end of the gene pool, winners end up as the one, two or maybe five powers in a highly lucrative industry. On the other end, everyone who doesn’t win gets eaten.

Think about Google, Amazon and eBay and compare their mega-success with how just about everybody else fared when The Revolution That Wasn’t took a dive around 2000. Or think about the earlier botched financial Brave New World, the electricity bubble of the 1920s, which produced a whole lot of roiling financial blackouts — but also made General Electric.

The point is that bubbles don’t last, but they change things in lasting ways. The electricity bubble burst, but we still use GE light bulbs instead of oil lamps. The Internet bubble burst, but we use Google instead of phone books, encyclopedias and (often) word of mouth.

So the goal of every business is to be in the small group of brands that, when the bubble is over, owns the new product, service, idea or way of doing an old thing differently that the bubble makes popular.

And the Internet fallout from the real estate bubble, if we’re in a real estate bubble, should look the same. Now’s the time that everybody’s interested in real estate; so now’s the time to get market share and brand loyalty. It’ll really cash in when people buy and sell houses like it isn’t going out of style anymore — and there will be far less market share to go around, and real estate transactions will be infrequent enough that getting markets to switch brand loyalties will be awfully hard.

Good SEM is a great property. Meanwhile, search engine marketing has proven to be a crucial driving force in online real estate. According to a recent study by Internet tracking firm Hitwise, 22.1 percent of direct visits to real estate sites were search-engine-driven. And 5.5 percent of people who leave real estate sites go to search engines as their follow-up destination.

And Hitwise’s data suggest that people with a median income of $60,000 and up, and a home value of $200,000 and up, are 12 percent more likely to search for real estate information online. So the people searching for real estate sites are the most lucrative consumers.

And there’s another issue. In search marketing, the vast majority of traffic is most likely to go to the best advertising spots. A study our firm, Enquiro and eye-tracking firm Eyetools did jointly this year led to an interesting discovery: When people look at the Google page, the vast majority of their attention goes to the top three paid search spots. Very little attention goes elsewhere. Put that fact into a largely search-dependent industry that could turn winner-takes-all any day, and you’re looking at some seriously fierce competition to survive in the search engines.

A final key piece of information: Again according to Hitwise, a lot of the top online real estate competitors are running neck and neck. In slots 6-9 of the top 10 real estate sites by traffic, RealtyTrac gets 1.8 percent of the real estate market share at slot 6, followed by RE/MAX with 1.7 percent, Apartments.com with 1.69 percent and Century 21 with 1.68 percent. Those are awfully slim leads for the winners.

And just in case you were wondering how rough the real estate game already is, think about this: RealEstate.com, owned by Internet giant IAC (owner of Match.com, Ask Jeeves, Expedia) and perhaps the most aptly named real estate Web site, didn’t land in the Hitwise real estate site top 10. So it’s a rough game.

The good news, if there’s a bubble, is that a few real estate sites will win, and will win big. And just getting your SEM right is a move that could decide the whole game. The bad news is that some firms could get totally wiped away — and, again, SEM could be the deciding factor there, too. And if you’re not on top now, it’s going to be hard — but crucial — to catch up.

If you’re a Web marketer at a real estate site, it’s the kind of tight situation that could have a serious impact on your entire professional future (or lack thereof). And, for a lot of online real estate businesses, it will mean the difference between Fortune 500 and Chapter 11.

Your next move. No matter where you are on — or off — the Hitwise list, the next move you make with your site is going to be crucial. How crucial it is, of course, depends largely on how quickly you think the bubble will burst: The more time you have until the game’s up, the more time you have to wait and see where things go next.

But a lot also depends on how scared your competition is of an upcoming burst. If they get worried, they’ll act as aggressively as possible, hoping to push everyone else around them off the top of the hill. Remember, even in the best of times (like the way it seems to be this very minute), the competition can always get fierce; when the competition gets frightened (rationally or irrationally), things get even fiercer. So even if you’re at the top, you shouldn’t be comfortable.

And if you’re ahead — or behind — by the smallest of margins, that shouldn’t be a source of great comfort, either.

The key to doing well is an honest assessment. Ask yourself what your site is doing for your business. Ask yourself what it could be doing for your business that it isn’t now. See how the competition is doing.

And see how the competition, and you, are fairing in paid search. If you aren’t sure of how you and your competition are doing, maybe it’s time to rethink your SEM strategy. At Did-it, we study what our clients’ competitors do, which is crucial in tight situations like the current — or near-future — real estate climate.

And whatever you decide to do, the important thing to keep in mind is that you need to act fast.

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