The Anatomy of a Google SERP and Apartment Marketing

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Let's say you're a property owner or property manager who recently decided to focus more on your community's marketing.

You've started talking to your staff about making marketing more of a priority, you're working more closely with your marketing director or property manager, and you're starting to increase your marketing budget.

Unfortunately, you've been at it for awhile now and after an initial bump you're now starting to see less and less of a return on your increased spending.

What's gone wrong?

One possibility is that you're losing people on Google before they ever call your community. So people are looking for you online, but for one reason or another they aren't taking the next step in the sales process.

To understand how this works, we need to talk about how the rent process works today for a prospective resident and how the tools they are using to find your community currently work. In other words, we need to talk about apartment shopping and specifically about how Google has changed apartment shopping.

Specifically, we need to take a very close look at how Google displays information on their search result pages, which is where many of your prospects are doing their apartment shopping, and talk about how that influences your work as an apartment marketer.

From there, we will then turn toward the future and ask how people might find apartments in the years to come. To do that, we'll review the different things Google is doing with the search result page design and talk about how these changes are relevant to multifamily marketers.

Part One: The Renting Process

If you're looking for an apartment, you likely start your search in one of two ways:

  • You get on Craigslist.
  • You google "apartments in (your location)"

Once you've finished that step, you likely have a list of 6-8 apartment communities that looked promising to call and follow up with. But before you call, odds are good that you'll Google each of the communities to see what you find--no point calling a community with a dozen one star reviews and no positive reviews, right?

Plus if you find a community that has lots of photos and vidoes that you couldn't find on your first step of the search process, you may bump them up your list and call them first. All of this happens because you're searching for a community by name and are allowing the results to inform your buying process.

The Ingredients of the Google SERP

There are three types of results displayed on any Google search engine result page:

  • Ads results (paid search, in other words)
  • Organic search results
  • Local results.
The screen capture below shows what each of those result types looks like.


Now, when you look at these results, there are a few things you want to specifically look for:

  • Are there any competitor ads ads at the top of the SERP?
  • Is my community/corporate site the top organic result?
  • Is the Google My Business listing functioning correctly?

If all three of those things are in order, then you can really build a lot of trust with a prospect simply by looking professional, competent, and knowledgeable about how to use technology to market your community.

If you look at this page, Brookside at Fallbrook is dominating all three result types. They have the top paid search result, the top organic search result (with sitelinks causing that organic search result to fill more of the page), and their local listing is on the right side of the page. This is what every apartment community's brand-specific search engine result page ought to look like.

When you lose on Ads, you're losing at the first step.

One common problem we see is when a community has their organic and local search in order, but isn't doing anything on Ads. The result here is that even though they are doing some good things, the top result (the first thing users see, in other words) is a competitor's ad.

This is an example of what that looks like. The screen capture is older so the ad design is different, but the basic problem has not changed. There are multiple ads at the top of the page pushing the other results further down the page.


So the good news is that they are winning on local and organic search. Unfortunately, they are losing on Ads--and half of all internet users can't distinguish between paid and local search. So if you're losing on Ads, you're losing in a massive way. And on mobile devices it's even worse:


Here we once again have a community that is losing on Ads--but note that on mobile search the Ads results are the only thing you can see above the fold. Note also that one of these ads includes a push-to-call button that mobile search users can use to call the community directly. So on mobile the easiest thing for a person to do when searching for Community A by name is call one of Community A's rivals. Yikes. You can't afford to ignore Ads.

Losing on organic search hurts you on multiple levels.

If you have a community website, then you almost have to be trying to not be the top organic result on branded keywords. The more common issue here is with communities that don't have a community site, but instead simply rely on a corporate site that may (or may not) have a community-specific page on it.

In these cases, it's not unusual for a search engine to decide that ILS listings are more useful. A similar problem arises if the community has no website at all, corporate or community. The screen capture below shows what this looks like:


It's also worth noting that a community that has a poor organic search presence almost certainly isn't using Ads. I've analyzed hundreds, if not a thousand plus, communities online and I've never seen a community that is under-performing on organic do well on Ads. So if you lose on organic, you're likely losing on Ads as well.

Losing on local search can hurt you in more direct ways.

Local search is a slightly different animal in that local search is going to be more closely aligned with specific real-world behaviors than organic or paid search. Organic/paid search results will, in most cases, send people to a community website where they can basically do what they want--look at a few pages, watch a video, see some photos, etc. It's an unstructured, DIY process.

Local search, on the other hand, involves more immediate actions: You see the phone number or address and act on it by calling or driving to the community.

What this means is that not having a good local profile (or an inaccurate profile) can hurt you in very tangible, direct ways. Consider this first example we came across recently: The community we're searching for includes the word "Point" in their name. Unfortunately for them, a local competitor has a very similar name, two of the three words are the same with the only difference being that "Oaks" is swapped for "Point." This shouldn't be a problem, but because of the negligence of the first community it is. Look at the search term we keyed in and then look at the local business listing that appears:


Note that in this case the community being searched for--Vintage Point--is not the community showing up on the right side of the SERP. We've changed the names of the communities, but we saw this exact scenario recently.

Two communities in the same city with similar names, one has a Google My Business listing, the other doesn't. When a person searches for the one that does not, they get an organic result for that community, but the local search result is their competitor.

Put another way, Vintage Oaks is getting free advertising on a competitor keyword simply because Vintage Point doesn't have their local apartment SEO in order.

There are other ways that a bad local business listing can affect your image on the search engine result page. Here's another example of a result we found when searching for a specific apartment community by name:


In this case, there's nothing particularly cataclismic happening in terms of advertising for a competitor, poor placement on the page, etc. But there's a bizarre picture of a random guy in the business listing which is also the most dominant element on the page. So the community isn't losing leads to a competitor; it just looks unprofessional and unable to control its own marketing presence online.

Part Two: What comes next for apartment marketers on Google?

Next we need to talk about how Google is experimenting with different search features and how that could change apartment SEO in the future. So far we have only talked about three relatively basic search result page features: basic paid search ads, classic organic blue links, and local business listings. 

SERP #1: Basic Paid and Organic Links

Let's start with one of the most basic SERP results you'll find--this is what we get today if we search for "apartments in omaha ne":


There are two features to note on this page, both of which we have already discussed:

  • Paid Search Results
  • Organic Search Results

This is a very basic, classic search result page. It's still the most common sort of search result page when people do more general searches in the apartments/multifamily vertical on Google.

That said, we are seeing more complexity on branded search terms as we have already discussed. We are also seeing far more diversity and complexity in Google's broader approach to search result page design. So let's talk a bit about that now.

SERP #2: The Knowledge Graph, Local Data, and Organic Site Links

Our second sample shows a typical search result page on branded multifamily searches. We have already showed it above, but so you don't have to scroll up we'll show it again here:


We have already discussed this result page at some length above so we won't spend much time on it here. The one thing to note is that we now have a local business listing on the right side of the page. This is a very common occurrence with searches that reflect some kind of local intent.

SERP #3: Local Business Answer Box

Here's a particularly interesting SERP. As mobile devices have become more popular, search engine users have begun relying less on conventional keywords and more on actual questions. So now instead of entering "mad max show times" into a search engine we might ask "when is mad max showing at (local theatre)?"

The result is that Google has adapted their search engine to answer specific questions for which there is a single right answer.

So if someone asks "who was the third president of the usa?" Google gives them this: 


Likewise if you google something like "(local business) phone number" you get this:


This highlights how important it is that you have accurate location and phone number information in Google My Business. If someone googles "(community name) directions" or "(community name) phone number" Google will give them an answer box with exactly that information--and it's pulling the information from your business listing.

SERP #4: Local Search Results

Local search results are what Google displays on searches it judges to have some local commercial intent. Thus:


In the past, these results were used when someone searched "apartments in (city, state)". The results looked like this:


This is no longer how Google handles these searches in the apartment industry. However, there is every reason to think that they will go back to something like this at some point.

Why? Because those local apartment listings exist within Google's information ecosystem. The listings on popular internet listing services do not. Google benefits more from sending people to their own web properties than they do from sending them to someone else's. So at some point I expect to see a return to something like what you see above. This is one of the many reasons your local listing is so important.

SERP #5: Local Shopping Results

This is the most interesting result of all. It's probably going to be years before we see anything like this in multifamily, but it's worth being aware of now so you know what search engines are capable of and where apartment SEO may be headed in the future:


In this case, Google has built in options to help their users actually book a hotel from the SERP. Obviously this is far easier to do with hotels than with multifamily.

But the point to take away is that Google can be very innovative when they are trying to find ways to make it easier for users to do specific tasks. This is just one result of the form that innovation can take.

Is there anything else I need to know?

Sort of. This post has covers what is currently normal in apartment search and where apartment search is most plausibly headed in the near future.

That said, if you want to learn more about all of this, we would highly recommend reviewing this post from Moz about the 100% Conversion Rate. It goes more into the weeds than we have here, but some of the thinking going on in the post is really valuable for people who want to peer into the mind of Google a bit more than we have in this post.


We hope this extensive guide to the Google search result page has been helpful. This is where most of your prospects are finding your community when they do their apartment search so taking the time to understand where the search result page is today and where it may go tomorrow is certainly worth it for any apartment marketer.


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