June 3, 2016

Someone wants to charge me for apartment SEO services. What does that get me?

Posted by Jake Meador

 

In the past we have warned apartment marketers in various ways about the many apartment SEO scams floating around in our industry.

We live in something of a perfect storm when it comes to marketing scams: Property manager and leasing agent positions, which often execute marketing tasks for a community, have a high churn rate and, thus, low experience levels. Marketing directors and regionals are often over-worked and probably not trained in the finer points of search engine optimization.

Meanwhile, SEO itself is an industry naturally predisposed to attract scammers because of the highly technical nature of the work, the massive importance of the work, and the relative ignorance about search in the general population.

In other words, our industry is uniquely susceptible to scams coming from an industry that is especially prone to attracting scam artists. Put simply:

everything-is-terrible-apartment-seo.jpg

What should you get when you pay for apartment SEO work?

Since we've already covered some of the scams out there, we want to use this post to initially take a more positive approach to the problem before noting a few significant dangers.

We're going to do this without using industry-insider language so that the post can hopefully be useful to anyone, even a person with no prior SEO experience. We want to avoid this, basically:

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 Let's start with the basics: SEO is search engine optimization or, to de-jargonize it, it is work done to help a website, app, or other web property achieve greater visibility on search engines. Functionally speaking, since Google bosses something like 80-90% of all organic search traffic, SEO means "doing whatever Google says in order to be more visible on Google."

So before we can talk about what good SEO work is, we need to talk about what Google wants to see from websites. (NOTE: "SEO" can be used to refer to both the work of optimizing a website for search engines and to refer to an individual person who does that work. If you see me referring to work "an SEO would do," I am talking about work that a person specializing in search engine marketing would do.)

What is a "good" website according to Google?

Let's start with a simple premise: Google wants to give its users results that they find helpful, relevant, or interesting. If a search engine gives its users bad results on the search page, then they'll lose users. (Say "hi", Alta Vista, Lycos, Yahoo, and Ask Jeeves!) So what makes a website "good" in the eyes of Google? Here are some basic answers:

  • The site technically works well—it loads quickly, images are formatted quickly, text is sized appropriately, navigation is clear and easy to use, etc.
  • The site has original, high-quality content.
  • The site is relatively easy for their search spiders to crawl—so title tags and header tags are utilized correctly, images are named with relevant, accurate names and alt-text is included, and page URL structures are easy to read, amongst other things.

In addition to this work, which only touches on how to perform well in Google's organic search rankings (the big blue links on the page whenever you search something on Google), there is also another growing SEO field: Local SEO. Local SEO is work done to increase your business's visibility in the local search results on Google. The two screen captures below show what part of the search result page is organic vs what is local:

local-vs-organic-apartment-seo.png

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Local SEO in the apartment industry basically means working to ensure that your community's Google My Business listing (shown on the right side of the search result page in the image immediately above) is set up correctly.

The category, address, and phone number need to be correct and you also should have photos uploaded and a link to the community website.

Unfortunately, Google is ultimately who controls your local listing. You can suggest to Google what it should display as your phone number, address, or profile picture and most of the time they'll listen.

That said, there's no guarantee on these things. This is unfortunately the state of local SEO right now—local search is both enormously valuable (because of its value on mobile devices) and entirely dominated by Google. So when Google says "jump" all we can do is say "how high?"

How can you find out if your site is meeting Google's general guidelines?

Well, there are technical tools out there you can use to assess your site as well as some basic web user tricks that are worth knowing.

  • You can use Google's page speed test to identify any technical issues with your site.
  • You can use Google's mobile-friendly test to determine if your site meets Google's mobile friendliness guidelines.
  • For a more comprehensive SEO test, this tool is pretty slick.
  • Finally, if you need something industry-specific, you might consider using our Community SiteScore Tool. It's an all-in-one multifamily SEO testing tool that you can use for free.

That being said, there's also a relatively easy way of testing that doesn't require any tools: Hop on google.com and search for your community by name. Then look at the resulting search page. Is you rcommunity in the top organic search result? If not, you're doing something wrong and should use the tools linked above to find out what it is. Do you have a big business listing on the right side of the page? If not, you're doing something wrong and should use our SiteScore tool to figure out what it is.

What work should SEOs be doing for your site?

When someone says they are going to do SEO work on your site, these are the sorts of things they should be doing:

  • Any technical SEO work required to make sure your site loads quickly, that links on the site work correctly, that title and header tags are appropriate, and that images and other content are formatted correctly.
  • Reviewing any references to your business online to make sure that the name, address, phone number, and website are as consistent as possible. (Tracking numbers can mess up phone number consistency. The benefit of using tracking numbers is such that it's probably worth it in this case to be inconsistent with phone numbers. But that makes it even more important that your other information—address, community name, website, etc.—is accurate and consistent.
  • High-level strategic thinking about improvements that could be made to your overall SEO strategy to help your community be more visible on Google if it is not currently performing well in local or organic search.

What things should SEOs not be doing for an apartment website?

This is actually a more interesting question. One of the things we have found is that because of the quirks of the multifamily industry, most SEOs are not really prepared or equipped to do all the things that need to be done. Here are a few examples of things an SEO would typically do that you probably don't want them doing for a multifamily website:

SEOs often will create content to promote a website they are working on. In the multifamily industry you don't necessarily want them doing that, however, because the most important content you produce is going to be photos and videos and those are things that an SEO won't be set up to do.

SEOs will often brainstorm new content ideas, such as infographics, social media campaigns, or eBooks and whitepapers. But in our industry the type of content you need is pretty much the same across the board—videos and photos.

Apartment websites are hyper-niche sites so the traffic you can attract is always going to be relatively limited and focused on a single thing. So you can produce all the infographics and Instragram photos and Facebook posts in the world and it almost certainly won't do much for you.

SEOs will often help review performance metrics to see how your website is performing. But this isn't necessarily as good a fit in our industry as others because multifamily has a weird sales model due to the unique traits of our product. Put another way, an SEO can look at traffic patterns, but she likely won't have the industry-specific knowledge to know how that web user data translates into your business.

To make things even more complex, pulling all your relevant data in our industry into a single report is not easy. In a typical e-commerce business, for example, a canny Google Analytics user can do a little work in Google Analytics and probably have most of their data accessible in that one place.

But in multifamily you aren't just tracking web user behavior; you're also tracking phone calls and leasing performance. Simply put, there's far too much to review and a generic SEO will be lost in trying to help you make recommendations.

Conclusion

The challenge of doing good search engine marketing in the multifamily industry is considerable. The work itself is more challenging due to the quirks of our industry and the realities of both multifamily and SEO industries is that there are a ton of things that can go wrong.

So before you pay for someone to do SEO work for your community, be sure that you understand what the person is going to do for you and that it is something they should be doing.

Sometimes SEOs will scam you and sometimes SEOs can just bite off more than they can chew because they don't understand the industry. This means that it's on you to know what you need done and to determine if the vendor is able to provide that service.

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