Independent vs Corporate agency websites

Fight, fight, fight!

In this article we explore the relative advantages and disadvantages large agency groups have, versus a smaller independent, when it comes to their websites.  Can a single-branch agency ever hope to compete against the might of a corporate agent with well over £100k to spend on their web build?  How should a one-brancher play to their local focus and quality?  And, conversely, what can a larger agency group do to take advantage of their muscle power to take the game up a notch?  Let’s investigate…

Resource Advantage

At Homeflow we build dozens of sites for agents each month, so we get to see all creatures great and small when it comes to web builds.  Whilst in volume terms most of the work we do is for single branch agents, (rarely spending more than a low number of thousands of pounds on their website), we get disproportionate interest from the larger agency groups completely out of balance with their share of the overall UK market.  Why is this?  We put it down to the luxury these larger groups have in employing online marketing teams, whose job it is to understand the difference in quality, capability, and commercial advantage that building a website properly can release.  They tend to ask tougher questions, and appreciate things like the importance of speed, more advanced SEO structures, and the importance of a properly flexible content management system.

They also have a natural advantage when it comes to buying a properly powerful website: scale.  It’s not 100 times more expensive to build a 100 branch agency website, than it is to build a 1 branch website.  Sure there is more content to worry about, more branch data, bigger geographical searching capability, often a bit more business complexity to represent, and more hosting and data integrity questions to worry about, but fundamentally both sites will have a content management system, both have to be designed to respond well on a phone, and search across property data, etc.  Yet the bigger businesses have more financial fire power.  It’s not uncommon to see them coming through with £50k to £100k budgets, and the really large agency groups will be spending into the low number of hundreds of thousands on really big site builds.

That financial weight translates into; better functionality, more attention to detail, more content copywriting budget, and likely a bit of a budget to commission a proper photo-shoot.  They can afford higher end graphic designers, they can build a properly responsive website with numerous “break points”, rather than a basic responsive site, and, critically, at the really high end, they have the headroom to engage in proper user testing, wire-framing, and information architecture work.  Once they launch, they understand the importance of continual evolution, and their marketing teams have the time to read and worry about this stuff.  In sum – they can take delivery of a faster car, and they have the luxury of the time and resource to maintain it and learn how to drive it really hard.

So, one-nil to the corporate!

Local / Simplicity Advantage

However, it’s not all bad news for the one-brancher, which is good, given the UK market is 80% driven by truly focused independents…

The focus and singularity of the independent makes the job easier.  They don’t need multiple branch pages.  They can run their contact phone number front and centre in the header.  They can run local photography on the homepage.  And they can keep the content beautifully simple and focused.

The team will often be closely in touch with their local market.  With a bit of attention to decent photography (so key to making a website stand out above the cheaper end sites) a single-brancher can communicate their local team knowledge and connection to the community.  They can focus their twitter and facebook on local issues, and they don’t have to be all things, to all men.

A one-brancher only has to write a few local area guides.  The site navigation is likely to be simpler, as there is less complexity and typically fewer departments in the business.  Visitors are less likely to suffer usability issues, as there should simply be less to trip over in the websites.

So, the independent scores an equalizer… 1-All going into the second half.

SEO Advantage

Next we turn to one of the key battlegrounds for commercial value from a website: Performance in Google.  It doesn’t matter how well established your local brand is, if you have any competition in your town, then your ranking in the Google search results WILL be having an impact on how often your phone rings with new valuation enquiries.  Of course, there is a proportion of business that had pre-determined they were always going to sell or let through you, that’s great, but at the margin, if you can hunt business and intercept a few calls for customers just wanting to “check the fees of the other agent they were intending on using”, then you’re winning opportunities to convert them to your instruction.  If you are an insurgent, this is going to be critical.

And this one isn’t so clear cut…

On the side of the large agency group:  As we explored above they have the firepower and resource to buy a proper quality platform.  There’s little point in doing SEO work on top of a platform that doesn’t have clean URL structures, and a high page-speed score these days (just witness how Foxtons and Savills clean up, even in quite a few town / areas where they don’t even really have a branch).  They’re also going to have a massive root “domain authority” advantage – meaning Google counts more back-links pointing at them, sees more traffic on their website, has a higher trust-ranking for their domain etc.  Check out the SEO benchmarking stats in our resources library of the for more information on this, and compare / measure your own domain authority against an average sample of agents in a mid-market city.

However, there’s an advantage for the independent too…  Great news; you only need to optimise for one town (and arguably a few surrounding village or sub-town area names).  We’ve done quite a bit of analysis to suggest that Google is perfectly cogniscant of, and compensates for, this “narrower target”.  Think of it as taking your overall “energy” from the domain authority you have amassed and only needing to focus it on a few town pages.  The corporate on the other hand, may have a faultless SEO foundation, but they have to spread their “energy” over a much wider set of town targets that they are optimising for; a tougher ask.

So this cuts both ways.  As an independent, if your platform has a structural problem from an SEO perspective, you’re wasting your time doing any optimisation on it (ask us, we can check it for you in minutes and explain it).  But if you invest in getting that foundation sorted, then accumulate even a few natural back-links, coupled with doing a bit of social media and content writing, then you’ll quickly rise above the multi-branch agents in your town in Google.

2-all, so this goes to penalties…

How to win on Penalties?

So, how should both the independent and the larger agency score the deciding goal?

FOR THE INDEPENDENT:  TAKE ADVANTAGE OF PLATFORMS TO LEVEL THE PLAYING FIELD

If you believe in the importance of online marketing, and, moreover, the intrinsic role a proper website platform needs to play at the heart and foundation of this marketing, then you need to be taking the quality of your website structure seriously.

As an independent, in the increasingly digital world we live in, it’s simply not adequate to take an out of the box website solution from a second tier player or a by-product from a non-specialist.  Indeed it’s a completely false economy to do so.  It’s also very dangerous to invest with a local designer, who has to re-invent the wheel on the whole system – at best that’s a huge risk, and at worst, it’s an incredibly inefficient way to spend money.

But the good news for agents is that a proper platform layer is now emerging which levels the playing field for the independent, and the corporate alike.  The emergence of open platforms, like Homeflow, now allow you to work with your own local designer, on top of exactly the same quality of core engine that is used to improve the foundation of a 100+ branch business.  Or you can choose from a range of pre-existing themes, which bring costs down to easily within any agency’s reach, yet still affords you the exact same underlying engine and capabilities.

All that said, it is essential that you dig to understand the differences, in speed, capability, SEO structure, content management system, lead conversion efficiency, email alert systems, and so forth of those platforms.  This can be hard as you have a full time job to take care of, but you need to be confident you are understanding these differences before you jump based on gut feeling.  All too often websites are bought on the “look”, as that’s easy to assess and get your head around when it’s not your day job.  Design is very important, of course, perhaps even half the battle.  And now you no longer need to compromise: platforms allow you to get exactly the look you want, and great service from a local designer.  However, if you aren’t digging to understand the quality differences in the underlying engine, then you risk missing very important commercial advantages or pitfalls in today’s market.  Put simply:  All cars have 4 wheels, not all cars are a Porsche 911.  You need to be able to work out the difference to maximise the success of your business.

FOR THE LARGE AGENCY:  LEAN HARDER ON YOUR SCALE ADVANTAGE

And what if you are a large agency group, and your marketing team have already fully understood all the various platform “hygiene factors”?  How do you win, against the local advantage of an independent who is thinking this through carefully, with focus and care?

You need to take the game up a notch, and continue to press home on your scale advantage.

You might want to think about proper software integration.  The web front end is really just an intrinsic part of your marketing conversations with customers.  It should be acting like your best negotiators, ruthlessly getting contact information and needs, from whatever source, channelled directly into your back office system, where your email marketing, call centres, and front line teams can be harvesting it.  If someone so much as breathes on your website, you want to be working out who they are, what their implied search was based on what they have viewed, and you want to be getting that back into your core CRM.

Or you might want to break new ground.  Invent new features.  We have a few good ideas in here, which we’re happy to explore with more innovative agents.  There is a next wave coming of techniques to use your property data more effectively for SEO, which goes a lot further than simply delaying data going to one portal or another.  Or you may want to get more systemic about how you deal with customer accounts on the front of your websites, and what communication you push down through those accounts.

And if nothing else, you need to push really hard on quality content, through your CMS.  Several of the larger agency groups have started getting much savvier in how they use proper, inter-related local area guide content pages, sometimes with video, to help keep visitors longer, encourage one more click, lower their duplicate content ratios with other sites, and help overcome the SEO dilution risk of having to optimise for numerous towns and villages described above.

It’s anyone’s game.  Good luck.