It probably comes as no surprise that, when queried, most rental prospects will list “Internet search engines” as their primary source for finding an apartment. So even if the eventual ILS, community website, or social media page they end up on plays a critical role in their decision-making process, the starting point is unequivocal: Renters call up Google, Yahoo!, or Bing and simply search for what they’re looking for. According to “Evolving Resident Demographics,” a survey conducted by Houston-based apartment marketing research firm J Turner Research, search engines are the most frequently used source for finding apartments, with 73 percent of renters ranking them as one of their three primary apartment sources. Apartment listing sites (ILSs) and drive-bys/walk-ins were the second- and third-most popular sources, mentioned by 56 percent and 46 percent of renters, respectively. The survey, results of which were released in September, polled some 4,275 renters nationally.

The survey results further emphasize the vital need for so-called “long-tail” search engine optimization (SEO) coupled with investments in property upkeep and marketing, says Cleveland-based Forest City Residential’s director of marketing Scott Villani. “If you Google ‘Manhattan apartments,’ you’re not going to get anything but ILSs, no matter how SEO-optimized your individual website is,” Villani says. “Prospects are going to find you better through long-tail keywords like ‘apartments lower east side Manhattan.’ That’s where SEO becomes critical today: For the vast majority of your renters, location is going to be submarket- and neighborhood-based. So if I’m going to be on a search engine, how should I prioritize how people find me? Location still seems to be No. 1.”

The bottom line is that search engines are still mostly a gateway for prospects to begin their search, not complete them. With drive-bys still considered by all age demographics to be an essential aspect of the apartment hunt, multifamily operators would do well to beautify their properties and make sure all of their marketing channels feature real-time availability. “Especially for the younger generation, this is where mobile comes in, so drive-by s­ignage and street presence is something I really try to concentrate on,” Villani says. “The customer at the curb expects to be able to Google your website and see that Apartment 304 is available for move-in next week and the rent is $1,700 a month. That’s where your customers of the future are already at.”