Eight out of ten house hunters in the UK start their search for their new home online. Yet the Internet represents only 4% of all house sales. This amazing pairing of bits of data was provided this morning in the BBC Radio Five Live programme, Wake Up To Money.

What this information tells us is the fact that the online estate agents must be doing something wrong. If the vast majority of people head to the Internet to search for a new home, yet only a minority of people actually buy their property online, then something, somewhere is going wrong with online estate agency.

The estate agent speaking on Radio Five Live was from Brightsales. So, off I go to their web site and imagine I am looking for a house. Before you see the “search” button (in the wrong place according to eye tracking information anyway) you see the words “log in/register”. These two words are known to be amongst the most off-putting words online. They appear to prevent engagement with a web site, rather than enhance it.

Even so I plod on and search for something in my home town, Reading. Nothing available. Never mind, I think, I’ll use UK Property Shop. Take a look at their web site where they list properties by town – nice and handy. Except Reading is not listed. Now Reading is the largest town in the south of England outside London. It has the European HQ of Microsoft there, nearby is the world headquarters of Vodafone, plus Oracle’s Europe base is there as well. In other words, Reading is a large thriving town, with plenty of people with high disposable income, and property prices that rival London’s. This should not be a place that is ignored by online estate agents, yet it is.

Most people who want to move home have an idea where they are going to move to. Either it’s because of job moves, or they want to be closer to family, or they’ve decided the town is no longer for them and they want the countryside. Whatever the reason, almost everyone knows the area they want to move to. Yet online estate agencies are frequently taking a national approach, as though we want to move anywhere.

True, they have search facilities, but if the search proves fruitless, as in my Reading example, I may well end up going to High Street estate agencies because my Internet search has failed to find anything. So what do the online estate agency failings tell us?

Firstly, at first sight it seems that the world of online estate agency hasn’t yet realised how its customers behave on the Internet and is therefore failing to match their requirements. Secondly, it reveals one thing that many online businesses have failed to grasp – most business in the world is local. Business owners set up their web sites full of excitement that they can gain customers from anywhere in the world. Few seem to realise that their targets are the people just down the road from them, where most of their business has come.

For example, what kind of printer do you have attached to your computer? Is it a Hewlett-Packard one, for instance? If so I bet you didn’t buy it from HP in Palo Alto, California. I got mine from my local Staples store, eight miles away – just like most people whose experience of buying things is local, not global. Few online businesses have realised that our buying behaviour is local and are phased by the global attractions of the Internet.

If your business wants to do well online, do the reverse of the estate agents. Do not think national or global, think very local. It’s niche marketing all over again. So anyone want to set up an online estate agency just for properties in Reading? There’s obviously a gap in the market..!

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