You may think your properties’ websites effectively attract traffic. But a leading expert in marketing via search-engine optimization says many multifamily developers and apartment managers aren’t fully tapping into social media, which determine how Google ranks the relevance of a property or company link for users in its SEO pecking order.

Kerry Kirby calls delving into social media “community advocacy.” And his company, New Orleans–based 365 Connect, where he’s CEO, has been helping developers and property managers “connect the dots” so they’re getting the maximum benefit from their online presence.

The first step, of course, is getting the location of a property listed on Google Maps, which “isn’t rocket science,” says Kirby. It’s simply a matter of creating a listing on Google Places for Business (which is how locations show up on Google Maps). That listing, he says, can be as robust as the lister chooses.

Google will then mail a postcard to the address to verify it exists. The building must demonstrate that it can handle inquiries from current and potential residents. And it might take several days after the property manager inserts the verification code online before the listing is activated.

This system offers analytics, such as number of impressions, and registers “actions” such as clicks requesting more information, links to the company’s website, or driving directions.

Tweets Drive Traffic
However, too many developers and managers, says Kirby, mistakenly believe their property’s position in a Google search is determined by certain keywords. In fact, “Google doesn’t pay attention to keywords,” says Kirby, quoting Google distinguished engineer Matt Cutts.

What it does pay attention to is what social media users think of that property. This is where Google + comes into play in a major way. Google + is where real estate companies set up Local Place pages, and where their businesses can interact with customers, create Google ad campaigns, and so forth. Google +, Kirby explains, uses “social signals”—content flowing back into social media, such as “likes” or “retweets”—to determine search-engine optimization.

“Google wants users to get to the source the quickest,” says Kirby. So 365 Connect has developed a platform that elevates a property’s online presence in Google’s ecosystem through content management that stimulates conversations with other social media.

“If I build an apartment complex, what’s important is the property and what’s around it,” explains Kirby. The goal is to make that building a source of information for what’s going on in the surrounding neighborhood and community by posting such things as upcoming events, so that the building ultimately gets recognized and appreciated by local residents on their own social media sites.

“Content is the new SEO,” says Kirby. “It’s what pushes projects through the search engine. But managing that kind of content”—which he calls “shared publicity”—“is an untapped piece that the multifamily sector hasn’t fully engaged yet.”

Hide and Seek
Jenifer Paneral can attest to the power of this social media loop. About a year ago, her property management firm, Houston-based Concierge, began testing 365 Connect’s platform at one of its buildings, Élan Apartment Homes in Austin, Texas. That platform tied together Google Maps and Google + with the property’s Twitter and Facebook pages, so that the building became “more of a hub” for residents and prospective tenants, says Paneral, Concierge’s COO.

In the first 90 days of this test, her company enjoyed a 45 percent increase in traffic on that building’s website. “And we were running a Google [ad] campaign at the time,” says Paneral. Concierge expanded the test to properties in Chicago and Virginia, which over 120-day periods experienced traffic increases of 103 percent and 105 percent, respectively. Concierge recently put the last of its 30 properties on 365’s platform and is considering hiring someone to produce property-specific content for each site.

“It’s all about getting to your site,” says Paneral.

That certainly was a major problem for Block Multifamily Group when it acquired a 400-apartment property in Kyle, Texas, in March 2012. That building, located between Austin and San Marcos, was off the highway without much visibility. “And it had virtually no online presence when we bought it,” recalls Justin Larson, vice president of operations for the Leawood, Kan.–based company. In fact, the first thing that popped up in an Internet search for that building was a customer complaint from the prior year.

On top of that, 50 percent of this building’s leases were set to expire the following June or July.

Block had been working with 365 Connect for about four years. “Kerry has always been a few steps ahead of the curve when it comes to seeing where Google was headed,” says Larson. So it was eager to try 365’s new platform to market the Kyle building. That platform, coupled with a property management system called Rent Push, helped Block “stabilize” the building, known as The Settlement, to the point where it only lost 2 percent of its occupancy.

By posting articles and events pertinent to the surrounding community, “Google thinks your website is engaging and active and [therefore] prioritizes it,” says Larson. The Settlement is now one of the top three links that pop up when people search for rental units in that market. The property’s website now gets, on average, 10,000 page views per month.

By improving its search-engine optimization, Block was also able to reduce its use of “locators,” real estate agents who work exclusively in the rental market and, in Texas, play a significant role in apartment leasing.

Block also invests in development and is about to break ground on its first construction project, a 500-apartment building in Kansas City. Larson says his company would “definitely” use 365 Connect’s platform to market that property. “Their platform helps us achieve this Web-based synergy and develop communities that add value to our residents' lives.”

John Caulfield is a senior editor for MFE’s sister publication Builder.