The Emergence of Online Search in Commercial Real Estate Marketing

Learn how to effectively market yourself online.
Tim Thornton

Having begun my career in commercial real estate in 1988, I have seen what I consider to be the beginning of the application of consumer technology within the commercial real estate industry.  I remember going to the One-Hour Photo and picking up hundreds of copies of building photos, and systematically gluing them to property marketing flyers that were created on IBM Selectric typewriters.  The strange thing is this doesn’t feel like it was that long ago.  It must be though, because as I was drafting this, Microsoft Word’s online dictionary flagged “Selectric” as a non-word and subsequently tried to correct it.


Fast-forward several years to 1995.  This is the year that LoopNet was founded.  Many people reading this article will remember the office file drawer that was reserved for each office’s proprietary commercial listing database.  This database was usually nothing more than one office’s attempt to gather all of the broker mailers available and catalog each available property marketing flyer by submarket and property type.  At that time, it was common to hear brokers state, “there will never be a commercial multiple listing service like there is in residential brokerage.  We protect our information and our proprietary database is part of what sets us apart from our competition.”

LoopNet, CoStar,, Property Line, Xceligent and others paved the way for the proprietary office database to become a relic, and standardized the way in which commercial real estate agents share and present information.  Not only did we not know what the worldwide web was in the late 80’s, who would have ever conceived that a commercial multiple-listing service such as LoopNet would have over 37,000 visits every day? (Source:  To say that this type of technology has revolutionized the commercial brokerage business is an understatement.

Of course, there are many ways in which technology has impacted our industry. One area that is rapidly emerging is in the area known as Search or Online Search.  Simply put, Search means using an online search engine such as Google to help an individual find a product or resource on the Internet. Here are some facts gleaned from Google that will shed light on the role that the Internet plays in Search as it relates to the commercial real estate industry:


PHRASE                                                         AVERAGE MONTHLY SEARCHES IN U.S.

Commercial Real Estate Agent:                                33,100

Commercial Real Estate Management:                   8,100

Commercial Properties For Sale:                             74,00


By contrast, the number of searches on Google for these items in 1995 (the same year that LoopNet began) was zero.  This is because Google didn’t file for incorporation until 1998. As an interesting side-note, Google was previously named BackRub.

We can now expect that the next generation of commercial real estate specialists is very Internet savvy, and uses the Internet for virtually all facets of their lives.  This plays into the ideology that we need to make sure that more than just our listings can be found easily on the Internet, and not simply found but analyzed, compared, and displayed in a format that both novices and computer pros can understand.

We have moved past the era of websites functioning like simple, online brochures and into a period featuring high-level websites that allow people to search for commercial real estate service providers and properties that keep up with the pace of technological innovation.  Business owners and operatives in the commercial real estate industry have a lot of work to do just to stay current, much less apply some of the basic techniques to their businesses, but having a well designed, easy to navigate and properly search-engine-optimized website is a fundamental requirement these days.


With phone books on the way to becoming obsolete, the Internet has become the place of choice to search for commercial real estate information and service providers.  While it’s doubtful that we will ever completely stop phoning a peer to seek a recommendation, many people prefer to search anonymously and create short lists based on their needs, such as identifying potential specialists before entering a new market.  Another example of current search use occurs when making a broker or management change on a property or tenant-rep assignment.

There are numerous key factors that determine whether or not your information is found during a search online, without having to pay for display advertising within search results.  Three of the more obvious ways help boost your rankings are:

  • The amount of time your website has been indexed by a search engine
  • The number of links back to your website from other “relevant” websites
  • Optimization of certain industry specific keywords

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is really a specialty unto itself.  When your website is properly optimized and thus returned within the first few pages of an engine’s search results, the site is considered to have a high “organic” ranking.  In this context, the word “organic” means that no money or other artificial ingredient would be added to obtain high search rankings.  By contrast, Google and other top search engines typically reserve the top few search results for companies who pay to be placed at the top of search results and is known as Search Engine Marketing (SEM).  Sometimes, these are called sponsor ads or display ads but in any event, a company pays a certain amount every time a searcher clicks on their entry.  This is known as Pay-Per-Click (PPC) advertising and is a very common practice today.  Websites bid on certain keywords or search-phrases and how much they bid determines where in the search results they show up.  Ranking high on a search engine’s results can be very competitive, ranging from a few pennies per click to $50 or more per click.  It is both industry and phrase dependent, for example, the keywords “real estate broker” may be more costly to bid on than “commercial real estate broker” due to the larger number of websites that may be bidding on these keywords.  It is also imperative that you really understand your target audience, and only bid on keywords and phrases that are likely to bring the right customer or client to your website, because you will pay for every click, regardless of whether or not the user is looking for your type of business.

In closing, let’s not lose sight of the goal of technology, including Internet marketing and networking — which is to drive business. Too often, people can get caught in a vicious circle and chase their tails to keep up with the latest technology. Being actively engaged online is becoming critical as more people use the Internet to search for commercial real estate professionals. However, the key is to determine what works best for your desired goals, which innovation is most cost effective and which of these require minimal upkeep on your end.  With myriad ways to spend your marketing dollars, Search, and PPC are going to become more important than paying for “impressions,” as has been a traditional way of measuring online exposure in recent years. As in life, throwing all of your eggs into one basket may not be the best use of your resources.  Rather, cast a wider, smarter online net to ultimately create more leads for your business.


About the author: Tim Thornton has been a commercial real estate broker since 1988, and is the founder of, a web based application for the commercial real estate industry.  Tim can be reached at


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