One of the greatest things about the Internet is that it extends your company's reach so that you can nearly market one-to-one with your potential renters. The downside: So can your competitors.

Still, despite the competition, Internet marketing efforts have become critical for multifamily companies—and with good reason.

“We converted a higher rate of Internet traffic than print guides, which converts at a higher rate than walk-ins,” notes Kevin Thompson, director of marketing at AvalonBay Communities, a REIT based in Alexandria, Va., that owns more than 42,000 apartments around the country. “Since 2002, the Internet has gone from [generating] 19 percent of our total leases to [generating] 34 percent of our total leases.”

But how do you stand out on the Internet and, most importantly, those search engine listings?

The answer is search engine optimization, and a growing number of multifamily owners are taking advantage of this strategy to generate the most powerful presence possible for their Web sites and properties. As fuzzy as searches (and their results) sometimes seem, there are some powerful technologies behind them. Basically, search engines employ complex algorithms to seek out and categorize information at the far-flung reaches of the Internet. While the search results partly depend on the query and how specific it is, companies can improve their search engine odds by using better keywords, linking their sites to related sites, and keeping traffic high with fresh, dynamic content.

Use Your Words At the heart of any Web search are keywords—those words and phrases that best encapsulate a site's most crucial information and are used by search engines to direct surfers to the (seemingly) most appropriate sites.

Multifamily owners should choose those keywords carefully, consider what prospective tenants want and what message the property wants to send. Want to check the effectiveness of your keywords? Just type them into Google or Yahoo! and see where your site shows up—if at all. “Search engines look for keyword density,” explains Ross Freedman, an executive at West Monroe Partners, the professional services company that helped AMLI create “keyword-dense” pages and further optimize its site for Google and other search engines. A reporting function “goes through search terms and analyzes various rental-related words” to see how effective they are, says AMLI CIO Steven Small. Chicago-based West Monroe then builds content related to the most important keywords to get search engines to notice. Those pages, built off AMLI's Web pages, are called landing pages.

Steve Lefkovits, principal of Joshua Tree Consulting in Oakland, Calif., notes that United Dominion Realty Trust of Richmond, Va., has trained its energies on buying up city-specific, formulaic domain names for every city in which it operates so that United Dominion properties will come up during a search. The firm purchased, for example, so anyone keying in “Atlanta rental apartments” should find United Dominion properties among the search results. The strategy has been successful in driving prospective renters to those properties, Lefkovits says.

Trading links with other relevant sites can also improve your search engine chances. “The first approach is to promote want ads of local papers and apartment database Web sites,” advises Jim Sterne, president of Target Marketing in Santa Barbara, Calif., and president of the Web Analytics Association. That's the route that AvalonBay took, listing its properties on RentNet,, and “It is part of our multi-pronged approach,” Thompson says.

Increasing traffic to a site—through online promotions, advertisements, or just really good content—also can boost a property's standing with the search engines.