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Applying SEO to Smarter Housing

This article on Search Engine Optimisation (or Optimization to the non-brits reading this) comprises extracts from a document I put together for Smarter Housing Ltd. As I was learning SEO for the first time, I wanted to document different theories and their impact on traffic to the Smarter Housing website.

Please note: all figures and appendicies have been removed

Executive Summary

This document introduces an internet marketing project undertaken by Adam Arnold, relating the theory of Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) to Smarter Housing, a student property agent, offering accommodation to rent in Leamington Spa, Coventry, Birmingham and Nottingham.

Short and long term project objectives are identified and the methodology used for addressing them is justified, using a combination of basic marketing concepts and by utilising newly acquired knowledge on the topic of ‘Search Engine Optimisation’.

Comparable statistics are used to assess the success of the project, prior to some reflective discussion on the overall process.

Smarter Housing Limited: Background Information

Smarter Housing Limited (‘SmarterHousing’) specialise in the provision of high quality student accommodation. The company was founded in 2005 to address three failings in the market:

-    the majority of student properties in any given town or city are brought to market by a plethora of local estate agents who, once identified and located by potential tenants, would produce nothing more than a paper-based list of accommodation on offer. The ‘house hunt’ is not only time consuming and stressful, but also expensive once estate agent fees become due;

-    student accommodation is stereotypically dismal and although there are some good properties on the market, estate agents do little to signal  these; and

-    the quality of service received by students is not satisfactory .

Subsequently, the service offered by SmarterHousing has three unique selling points:

1) Quality of information available

All properties managed by SmarterHousing are listed at www.smarterhousing.co.uk, where they can be viewed in detail, compared and then reserved. Appendices 1a and 1b illustrate that students can quickly identify properties relevant to their university, group size or budget, and can then make comparisons before proceeding to a reservation. Appendix 1c highlights the level of detail on offer, which includes:

-    rent, deposit and tenancy information;
-    numerous photographs;
-    a location map;
-    a floor plan which is used to navigate a virtual tour; and
-    a detailed description of room sizes and contents.

2) Quality of accommodation on offer

SmarterHousing only promote and manage properties of a certain quality, specifically those which have:

-    spacious bedrooms and communal areas;
-    well equipped kitchens (oven/hob, fridge/freezer and washing machine at the very least);
-    well maintained décor, fixtures and fittings;
-    ample shower/bath and toilet facilities; and
-    a safe and relevant (i.e. local to campus or specific public transport) location.

3) Quality of service

As the company is committed to improving the overall experience of living in private rented student accommodation, tenants benefit in 4 areas:

-    reservations are free and there are no estate agency fees at any point during the tenancy agreement (presuming it is adhered to);
-    all properties come with free wireless broadband;
-    it is possible to contact Smarter Housing in person, via telephone, e-mail or via a 24/7 on-line reporting system; and
-    students also get access to exclusive offers and discounts arranged with local businesses.

The company began trading on 1st September 2006 when tenants moved into 24 properties, which had been marketed to students at the University of Warwick between February and June of the same year. At this stage all aspects of the company were handled by company founder, Adam Arnold, with part-time assistance from a telephone operator at the University of Warwick Science Park.

With the first year of trading successfully negotiated and in accordance with the business plan, three staff members were brought in for the 2nd year of business, commencing on 1st September 2007.

Applying SEO to Smarter Housing: short & long term objectives

This particular project comprises short and long term objectives, covering both the corporate and competitive aspects of the business:

Short Term – Competitive Strategy

Using the internet as a route to the target consumer (i.e. students in full time education seeking private rented accommodation) I had to ensure sufficient enquiries were generated to secure the 3rd successive year of 100% occupancy.

The task is deemed as part of competitive strategy since it involves day to day duties which create a competitive advantage over competitors; the specifics of which are detailed in the ‘Methodology’ section.

Long Term – Corporate Strategy

The second aspect of this task relates to the development of SmarterHousing over the coming five years. The primary objective was to increase exposure on the World Wide Web to generate higher levels of traffic to www.smarterhousing.co.uk. Inherent within this is the need to improve performance in the leading search engines across a range of keywords, for example ‘Student Housing Coventry’.

Although there are some overlaps between the two strategies, the key differential between the two is that short term strategy is carried out in a repeated fashion on a daily basis, with instantly noticeable results, whilst the long term strategy is an ongoing process involving different tools in conjunction with one another, with results not apparent for 3 to 6 months.

It is important to note that all actions had to maintain the quality of the brand and that their effects must be closely monitored to ensure growth did not outstrip capacity, which would result in a deteriorated service and the potential loss of a key unique selling point.

Relevant theoretical work

There are a myriad of tools available to academics wishing to analyse SmarterHousing, either as an individual company or as an entity within the overall economy. Although the majority of these tools are retrospective, the insights gained from them can still be utilised in strategic decision making.

For instance, one may utilise a SWOT analysis to asses the internal strengths and weaknesses of the company. Doing so would reveal that all staff members are either current students or very recent graduates, which gives each an element of specialist local knowledge that relates to enhanced performance within the marketplace. Other providers of student accommodation would be required to conduct market research (at a cost) to obtain the same information, which gives SmarterHousing an element of competitive advantage. On the other hand, the same point could be considered a weakness when making the move into mainstream sales and lettings, which is why the company is taking on staff with previous experience of that market to compliment the current team.

SmarterHousing is able to directly influence factors identified in SWOT, but what about uncontrollable market forces? A PEST analysis could be used to investigate the implication of factors on the overall environment in which a company operates, for instance:

Economic Factors

As SmarterHousing’s core revenue is derived from the student rental market, demand has been unaffected by the overall economic decline. The combination of stalling house sales and the significantly increased competition, and thus reduced prices, in the residential lettings market has badly effected estate agents, with many forced to downsize or cease trading.

Technological Factors

Since 2002 there has been a 26% increase in the number of households in Britain with internet access, meaning 57% of the total population are now ‘online’ . It could therefore be argued that SmarterHousing’s focus on the provision of letting via the internet has been particularly timely.

Grant  uses an extension of the PEST analysis, ESTEMPLE, to consider additional factors, such as:

Legal

SmarterHousing’s focus on high quality accommodation has been beneficial in a time when Government legislation is becoming increasingly stringent, with ever improving minimum standards. The amount of work required to adhere to regulatory guidelines was less than for many existing companies, allowing the company to focus on expansion whilst others had to tend to their existing portfolios.

Environmental

From 1st October 2008, a prospective tenant must be able to view a copy of the Energy Performance Certificate (‘EPC’) for a rental property.

An EPC essentially scores a property for energy efficiency and although it is not yet known whether owners of poorly rated properties will be subjected to penalties, it is plausible that this may be the case. It will be interesting to see whether a focus on high quality, predominantly new or recently refurbished properties, will have additional benefits in time.

Dibb et al. suggest success in this project would require a pre-emptive and proactive approach, rather than a retrospective one as in the concepts already discussed. To do so, one must start by identifying the target consumer and then formulate a marketing strategy based on a bespoke marketing mix . As will become apparent in ‘Methodology’, it was possible for me to apply existing knowledge to achieve the short term objectives however I was required to investigate a new subject, search engine optimisation, to fully address the long term targets.

Methodology

This section provides an account of actions taken in order to meet the project objectives, making reference to any academic theory which has been relevant during the decision making process, and is limited to the methodology used to deal with the short and long term objectives in isolation. A description of the relationship between short and long term methodology and some implications for the overall project are discussed in ‘Reflective account of the project process.’

Methodology for short term objectives

With the objective of generating sufficient enquiries to secure the 3rd successive year of full occupation, my primary task was to the most efficient method of contacting the target consumer: students seeking private rented accommodation. It is important to note that students would begin searching for accommodation for the 2008/2009 academic year as early as November 2007, so a strategy had to be devised quickly to avoid missing any potential business.

As of October 2007, SmarterHousing was already using Accommodation for Students (‘AFS’) as a means of contacting potential tenants. AFS is essentially a portal intended to bring together students and landlords. Both can post and reply to messages in basic categories such as ‘property wanted’ and ‘property available’. As well replying to wanted ads, SmarterHousing were paying £1,000 for a banner advert on the Coventry and Leamington Spa messageboards, which came with the option to list unlimited properties in a directory.

Using Google Analytics (see Figure 1) I was able to identify that only 0.8% of traffic to www.smarterhousing.co.uk was originating from visitors clicking a SmarterHousing banner on the AFS messageboards or by viewing a property listed in AFS’s directory.:

Figure 1

Although the figure is not directly comparable, 84% of students who were contacted via AFS would contact SmarterHousing to enquire about certain properties. It is therefore not unrealistic to deduce that direct messaging is a more efficient method of contacting the target consumer. Consequently, it was decided that the advertising agreement would not be renewed for 2008 and, effective immediately, SmarterHousing would integrate use of the AFS messageboards into competitive strategy.

Rather than scouring the messageboards and responding on an individual basis, I devised a number of templates for Property Managers to use when posting new vacancies or replying to wanted ads, and justify the decision as follows:

1)    It takes approximately 60 seconds to list a vacancy on the AFS messageboard compared to 4-5 minutes using the AFS directory; and
2)    It takes approximately 30 seconds to reply to a wanted ad using a template, versus 2-3 minutes starting from scratch.

The time saving occurs because the AFS directory requires many individual fields to be filled in, for example: rent; property address; number of bedrooms; heating information; bathroom facilities and so on, where as the messageboard allows the entry of prose to convey relevant facts and figures.

Unlike the directory service, where the information entered is converted into a structured page, the messageboard requires the use of basic HTML to obtain any level of formatting: even line breaks, usually produced by hitting ‘return’ or ‘enter’, have to be generated using code. As a consequence of this, many threads (the term given to individual exchanges of messages going on in a particular messageboard) often look cluttered as they contain long sections of unformatted and unbroken text. By implementing the necessary HTML code into the templates used, I was able to ensure all posts made by Property Managers maintained a specific structure and were clearly identifiable as posts originating from SmarterHousing.

Figure 2 illustrates how the AIDA  concept was integrated into the template, to convey pride of ownership  and fear of loss  into messages posted by SmarterHousing; each of which can be treated as an advertisement for the company.

Figure 2

A number of additional websites  were identified as a means of contacting students and the same process was applied, with minor modifications to the templates where necessary, to post new vacancies and respond to wanted ads. It was possible for Property Managers to monitor these sites in addition to AFS due to the time savings generated by implementing templates.

Due to substantial growth in the number of users signed up to Facebook, which has only recently been opened up to non-academics, the site was identified as a valuable tool for contacting the target consumer. Facebook can facilitate well targeted advertising in addition to the creation of mini communities, specific to a particular product or service. A series of adverts were placed, between January and March 2008, which were only displayed on the screens of students attending universities at which SmarterHousing can provide accommodation. Furthermore, a Facebook group was created, however this was intended to create general awareness of SmarterHousing, as opposed to handling individual properties and enquiries, and as such becomes the realm of corporate strategy. It does, however, provide a convenient link to addressing the long term objectives.

Long Term strategy

Applying some basic concepts in search engine optimisation (‘SEO’), I was able to satisfy both long term objectives, simultaneously increasing exposure on the World Wide Web whilst improving performance in the major search engines.

The basic concept of SEO is to focus, at first, on the website which is to be ‘optimised’. Content on the site, in this case www.smarterhousing.co.uk should be relevant to the target consumer and the service they require: in this case student accommodation. It is important to make the text ‘keyword heavy’ by including relevant search terms (possible combinations of words typed into a search engine by a target consumer) as often as sound prose will permit. Unnecessary repetition of keywords on the same page, or ‘keyword spamming’ is penalised by many search engines, so the aim is to repeat certain phrases throughout multiple pages.

As would be expected of a website listing student accommodation, the bulk of content consists of similar property pages, with separate pages detailing company history, how to use the website, news and student testimonials. The property pages can be edited for free, without any web developer involvement, so I considered these first.

In terms of overall layout, all of the property pages are identical, as per the example shown in Appendix 1c. However, there was no standard structure to the information provided in the property description. I created a single template which was then applied to each property in the database, to achieve standardised content throughout the website, thus enabling the repetition of target keywords throughout multiple pages.

Keywords were targeted based on statistics available through Google Analytics, showing the terms most commonly used when search engine users try to find student accommodation.  The most relevant were implemented into the template, namely:

-    “X bedroom student house/apartment to rent in town/city;”
-    “student accommodation in town/city;”
-    “student accommodation for university/college;” and
-    facilities such as the number of bathrooms and kitchen appliances, access to a garden or the availability of parking.

Furthermore, each property page includes a paragraph detailing the benefits associated with renting through SmarterHousing, which caters for searches involving broadband internet and those seeking the company directly having seen or heard the name.

In order for the content on a page to have any value in this context, search engines must be able to find and index those pages. By running the search ‘site:smarterhousing.co.uk’ in Google, it is possible to identify 110 pages on the website have been indexed by Google. With 214 properties listed on the whole website there are clearly pages which are not being picked up and thus content is being wasted.

To understand the cause of this problem I had to investigate the inner workings of the website, which required me to liaise with the company responsible for creating it in the first place, Atelier Studios. By chance, Atelier Studios had just brought in a full time SEO specialist to cater for the increasing demand for this type of consultancy and I was able to arrange a free review of the site, which identified:

-    ‘keyword density,’ the number of times a particular phrase is repeated relevant to the overall text content of the site, had improved since templates were implemented; and
-    search engines were not indexing all of the pages (property, general information, news and testimonials) contained on www.smarterhousing.co.uk.

There are two ways to ensure new content is indexed: firstly, it is possible to directly notify search engines when new pages are created by submitting a sitemap ; alternatively, search engines can find the pages automatically, if there is a link to each of them on a page (not necessarily on www.smarterhousing.co.uk) which has already been indexed. The existing website did not utilise a sitemap so pages were only being indexed if linked to directly.

Appendix 1 shows the three stages involved in reserving a property through SmarterHousing’s website. The second of these is a results page, http://www.smarterhousing.co.uk/search.aspx, which is indexed by the search engines and would seem to provide a way for new property pages to be detected. However, this is not the case due to the type of code used when developing the original website. Results pages are generated by a database, in response to students entering a specific set of search terms. From the perspective of a search engine, which will manually trawl indexed pages on the World Wide Web, the links generated in the results page are invisible.

A two pronged solution to this problem has been agreed with Atelier Studios, who are providing a sitemap and altering the workings of the database to provide a set of ‘natural’ results pages as opposed to a single ‘dynamic’ one.

SEO theory implies that there are benefits associated with any particular website having a large number of ‘sub pages’. Running ‘site:accommodationforstudents.com’ in Google gives a comparison for SmarterHousing’s 110 indexed pages: AFS have 50,100, the majority of which comprises user generated posts on the AFS messageboards. This prompted instructions being given to Atelier Studios to implement a blog (www.blog.smarterhousing.co.uk) and messageboard (www.forum.smarterhousing.co.uk) which would enable additional content to be created by SmarterHousing and allow the site to attract user generated content.

With the internal aspects of SEO dealt with, the second phase is to increase the total number of links to www.smarterhousing.co.uk on the World Wide Web. Appendix 2 highlights a selection of websites used to achieve this goal, each of which was identified by conducting searches for the target keywords. As content is only beneficial in terms of search engine performance if it is indexed, it is logical that external content is posted on popular, well indexed, websites.

Results

In ‘project objectives’, I outlined short and long term targets to be addressed in isolation. The former were satisfied by implementing changes in the day to day duties of Property Managers, including the use of numerous messageboards as a means of contacting students seeking accommodation, with templates to ensure content maintained a fixed structure and to reduce the amount of time taken per property listing or responding to specific requests. The latter required a rethink of the format and quantity of content on www.smarterhousing.co.uk, combined with promotion of the company on relevant external websites.

Short Term Results

As illustrated in Figure 3, traffic to www.smarterhousing.co.uk increased rapidly, from 50-75 visits per day throughout October, to in excess of 450 per day towards the end of November 2007. Visits declined throughout December in conjunction with the Christmas Holidays, and peaked again in January at around 300 visits per day.

Figure 3

The increase in traffic was matched by a greater number of enquiries for the same period in the previous year. Over 1200 enquiries were received in relation to the 2008/2009 academic year, compared to 600 for The 2006/2007 and 2007/2008 academic years combined.

Ultimately, all properties were let for the 2008/2009 academic year and thus the short term objectives were met

Long Term Results

There are two limitations which must be considered prior to discussing the impact of methodology used to address the long term objectives:

-    the effects of SEO usually can take 6 – 12 months before they have any impact; and
-    this project is ongoing, with Atelier Studios currently working on the website to impact changes on the database as well as create a blog and messageboard.

However, it is still possible to gauge the initial impact of addressing the use of keywords on property information pages.

Figure 4 compares two extracts from Google Analytics, highlighting a growth in traffic due to improved search engine performance for certain keywords, in particular ‘student accommodation Leamington’ and ‘student housing Leamington’.

Figure 4a
Keyword generated traffic Oct 06 – Mar 07

Figure 4b
Keyword generated traffic Oct 07 – Mar 08

First and foremost, an additional 2,500 visitors originated from search engines compared to the same period in the previous year. As an indication that efforts to target specific search terms, including ‘student accommodation Leamington’ and ‘student housing Leamington’, have been effective, there is a noticeable increase in the proportion of visitors arriving at www.smarterhousing.co.uk further to entering those phrases in a search engine. For example, last year 1.2% of traffic originating from search engines was directly attributable to ‘student accommodation Leamington’ compared to 11.1% this year.

Similarly, it is possible to measure the initial impact of efforts taken to increase exposure of www.smarterhousing.co.uk on the World Wide Web. Figure 5 compares traffic originating from external website before and after the project began.

Figure 5a
Traffic from external websites Oct 06 – Mar 07

Figure 5b
Traffic from external websites Oct 06 – Mar 07

The total number of external websites now generating traffic for www.smarterhousing.co.uk has increased from 129 to 160, providing more than twice as many visitors compared with the same period in the previous year.

Although it is not yet possible to analyse the full effects of methodology used in addressing the long term objectives, it is clear that search engine performance for relative keywords is improving, and that www.smarterhousing.co.uk now has greater exposure on the World Wide Web. It is too soon to deem this a successful project, however it is certainly on track to be.

Looking back on the project

The primary goal of the competitive strategy team is to establish a competitive advantage against rival providers of student accommodation. Utilising internet based messageboards to contact students seeking accommodation provided a source of competitive advantage as it allowed SmarterHousing to contact a greater proportion of the target market.

By using templates to standardise the way in which content was posted to the internet, the daily actions of Property Managers contribute to the SEO element of the project. All content is referenced to SmarterHousing, thus providing additional exposure on the World Wide Web, and is ‘optimised’ for various keywords, improving search engine performance. The importance of messages on sites such as AFS was noted when assessing the long term objectives of the project and the original templates were amended to reflect the basics of SEO. Interestingly, only minor changes were necessary to the structure of the templates, which had been created giving consideration to the AIDA concept.

Finally, it is interesting to note the impact that minor changes in marketing strategy can have relatively large implications for day to day company operations. To put a real value on the time savings obtained by bringing in templates for posting internet content, consider that 214 properties had to be promoted for the 2008/2009 academic year. On AFS alone, 14 to 15 staff hours would be saved using the template method compared to the previous focus on the AFS directory. If 4 to 5 websites are used, this reflects a whole month of staff time saved.

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