How much of your website do you actually own?

Seven questions you NEED to ask your provider, before you get your new real estate web site design:

In comments to one of my recent posts, the discussion took off in the direction of control and ownership of design and web materials, so I thought I’d address the issue of ownership as well as a few other things I believe are important when it comes to purchasing a real estate web design service.  Most compare features on the basis of the number of plugins, design styles and inherent SEO capabilities, but don’t delve in beyond that, when making their purchasing decisions.  I think it’s a mistake.  These questions should help you evaluate providers on the basis that goes well beyond the look and feel of your new site, as those elements are the easiest to change, and deals with the important stuff, the back end.

1) Open Source or Not:  What platform is your real estate website going to be built on?  WordPress, Joomla and Drupal are some of the more widely used open source platforms on the market.  Unless you own commercial grade software for web development and you are comfortable with it, you want your site to be built on an Open Source platform.  While WordPress for real estate seems all the rage – there are other open source platforms out there that may be more equally suitable for your business, although WordPress real estate sites are the easiest to manage on the back end.

It seems that most of the agents nowadays are gravitating towards WordPress Real Estate Sites, so I’ll be using WordPress as an example here.  Please note that Genesis, Headway, Thesis etc. are all frameworks within the WordPress platform.  There seems to be some confusion here when it comes to that distinction. WordPress is an open source platform, which means any designer can create a theme or a framework that runs on WordPress and make it available to consumers either for free or for a fee of some kind.  While it’s simple enough, generally speaking, to change a theme, it’s not so simple to replace an existing framework. Most service providers that work in WordPress have their preferences when it comes to frameworks, and they should be able to tell you what they are using and why.  Most decent frameworks are flexible enough to where almost anything can be done design-wise, and most recent versions of premium frameworks have the same SEO capabilities out of the box.  It’s simply an issue of what your service providers are comfortable with. (or you, if you are doing it all yourself)

real estate wordpress site owned in full by the agent

2) Will you OWN the back end, in its entirety?  The back end of your real estate website is where all the magic happens.  This is where you can affect not only the look and feel of your site, but make modifications to the navigation and internal infrastructure.  What you want to know here is that regardless of the Platform or Framework that your real estate site is built on, you’ll have admin privileges to every aspect of the back end of your site when it’s done.  This means, for example, that you have control not only over the actual content (anything you can navigate to via the standard WordPress dashboard, for the sake of an example), but you can access the scripts and files that control how your site functions if need be, without any restrictions.  This means that should you need to change your link structure – you can.  Should you desire to change the navigation for your real estate website – you have access, if not necessarily the knowledge to do that, etc.  It is pivotal that you have this bit of control, because if you don’t – you will have to go to the provider for these changes or rebuild your site from scratch if the changes are major.

3) Will you get a how-to guide to your new real estate website?  This is important for novices and more experienced users alike, as all frameworks are different enough to where even if you know WordPress or Joomla by virtue of having worked in it before, a different framework or theme can mean a very steep learning curve, even within the same platform.  You will want to know which pages on your site are built as static and which are dynamically pulling posts.  You will need to know your navigation and categories structure and how to change/add to it.  You’ll want to know how to utilize or add to your sidebar and every other element on your site that’s important.  This guide has to go beyond “how to add a post” sort of thing.

4) How scalable is the real estate website design and infrastructure going to be?  This is especially important for brokerages that are in the process of building new sites.  You want to make sure that should your company grow, you can easily expand your site to accommodate that growth, whether it means by expanding your geographic reach or the ability to add agents and their content to your site – that flexibility is very important.

5) Standards vs. proprietary code?  It is very common for a service provider to build on a GPL license and create their own proprietary systems based on this open source software.  Generally speaking, when you purchase a template, there will be some code in it that is not quite ‘standard’.  The less of that code you have, the better.  You should ask whether or not there are any bits of code in the proposed site that you won’t be able to easily locate and modify if need be, and that should there be any proprietary code – you are given the source files for it and documentation that tells you what functions this code is responsible for. Example: we spent hours trying to locate code for header alignment not too long ago for a friend.  The code was buried in a rather unusual place and nothing we did worked.  Paying a developer to troubleshoot something like this can cost you hundreds of dollars, if you don’t know where to look.

6) Support/community/knowledge base.  WordPress has gained all sorts of traction and as a result, it seems that there are new themes and frameworks being released regularly, each sexier than the last. Before you jump on the new shiny framework bandwagon or concede to your provider using one, make sure there is a solid support base for it.  For example, Thesis and Headway have large enough following and you will generally be able to find an answer to a question relatively quickly on their forums.  PageLines, which looks great at first glance, lacks the support at the moment.  The best way to check that is go to the forum and look at the response rate to recent questions.  If you see an open question that was posted months ago, I wouldn’t recommend using the product.  It’ll end up costing you all sorts of time and money, where there are perfectly viable alternatives.  This last one applies to DIY-ers as well as those who’ll hire out their real estate website design.

7) What will the new site do for my business?  Not everyone NEEDS a new site.  Last, but not least, before you jump on the new site band wagon, think about whether or not you are doing it to help your business, or simply because everyone tells you to.  If you are in a market with virtually no buyers, no matter how nifty your new site can be, it won’t help you.  Real estate web sites are still mostly attracting buyers, not sellers, and in a market with no mobility from the buyers side, you should spend your money and resources to get listings instead.  A nifty web site here will not be the best use of your resources.  Should you make a business decision that you do need a new site though, do your research.  Look at the examples of sites from companies you are considering as a consumer would, and go beyond the surface look at a home page.  Click around and see if you’d want to stay on that site and maybe even contact the agent, if it were you.  And if you are paying for something custom, take a look at a few of the sites and compare them side by side.  If the only difference you can spot is in the images and text used, you are not really getting a custom site, but a slightly modified version of what everyone else has.  That, too, is ok, just so long as you know what you are paying for.

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2 Responses to How much of your website do you actually own?
  1. SEO USA
    March 19, 2012 | 11:21 am

    I am writing articles for a local real estate site – it is interesting to see the many different keyphrases that my client is trying to optimize. I have discussed with him how much more effective it would be if he focussed on a couple of phrases, but he is one of those who believes more is better. So, I keep writing what he wants – however, I am sprinkling in the phrases that will garner him a better share of organic traffic.

  2. Chris Olsen
    April 6, 2011 | 8:35 pm

    Hey Inna and Jon — This post should be part of Real Estate Technology 101 for brand new agents and experienced agents alike as I know first hand that most agents (myself included until I met you last year) don’t even know what questions to ask. Ownership, standards, subject matter expertise, creative design talents, there is so much that goes into making an educated decision, if an agent (includes brokerages — including mine) doesn’t know these things, then the total cost of ownership (TCO) will be much, much higher over the lifespan of their technical assets, than adopting your approach to technology solutions. Let alone your insane amount of creative talent that really knows how to capture consumers, etc.

    Had I run across you when I got started back in 2004, I would be so much further ahead on every level: financial, clients, lead generation, you name it. Plus, you and Jon simply rock, are so much fun to work with, you are truly one of a kind, okay two of a kind!

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