If builders want to capture the attention of today's limited pool of home buyers, they should concentrate on their Web sites, using everything from search engine optimization strategies to partnerships with real estate portals to get this great company's name, homes, and other details out there.

Why spread the net so wide with so many specifics? Well, most prospective home buyers start their research online, and it’s not usually at a builder’s Web site. They’re starting at places such as AOL Real Estate, Yahoo Real Estate, Trulia.com, and Zillow.com, and typing in locations and price ranges, not the names of specific builders.

“Go into Google logs and see number of people typing in, ‘new homes Memphis’ versus ‘David Weekley homes Memphis,’” says Tim Costello, chairman and chief executive officer of Austin, Tex.-based Builder Homesite, a consortium of the nation's largest home builders. “The number of people looking for specific builders is infinitesimally small compared to generic search. You’ll never make sales goals if you only go after people just looking for you.”

Until fairly recently, though, the major real estate portals were set up to feature existing homes, not new-home communities, Costello says. “Their technology doesn’t know how to search for communities,” he says. “They’re mimicking MLS; that doesn’t serve builders very well.”

Builder Homesite has partnered with both AOL Real Estate and Zillow.com, providing them with new-home listings in 9,000 communities across the country. The prospective buyers who are shopping for a home via those portals--or those who do directly to a builder’s Web site from there--aren’t going to be satisfied with a static Web site and architectural renderings.

“If you just focus on trying to get people to your Web site, you’ll likely fail,” says Joe Pulizzi, founder of Junta42.com, an online community that focuses on content marketing, and co-author of “Get Content, Get Customers.” “If all your customers are going to your Web site, that’s where you put content, but that’s not true at any company I know. They’re going to search engines, AOL, MySpace. You have to have content wherever your customers will be, and it has to be the best content you can provide.”

Costello says he breaks online marketing into three phases: attraction, engagement and selling. The first phase is making sure that people who are looking for a house can find you. Once they’ve done that, the second phase--engagement--is designed to get buyers to “stop, pause and consider you as an option,” he says. “You have to convince them you should be on their short list.” That’s where content comes into play.

What kind of content are buyers looking for? Pulizzi says it should be “valuable, relevant and compelling” with the intent of creating a behavior change, such as registering for more information or making an appointment to see a model. 

Brett Widness, editor of AOL Real Estate, tells BUILDER that, more than anything else, visitors using his portal want high-resolution interior and exterior photos that look authentic. “More and more, they are looking for video as well,” he says. “You can’t rely on generic lifestyle images to sell your development.” Along with photos, would-be buyers also want an exact location of the community, something that Widness says that some builders inexplicably leave out. "Sometimes, builders seem to want to conceal the actual location of the site,” Widness says. “Don’t try to guess what buyers want to be near. Give them at least a crossroad to refer to.”

For builders catering to first-time buyers, Widness recommends offering a section of content with detailed information on the home-buying process, particularly as it relates to financing.

The most engaging content for home buyers is interactive tools that let them explore on their own, says Sheldon Moore, director of communications for Rolling Hills, Ill.-based Kimball Hill Homes. One of Kimball Hill’s more successful content offerings is Envision, which allows prospective buyers to browse and compare the available options and upgrades and put them on a wish list. Since February, the builder has tracked seven sales from individuals who started the process by browsing options in Envision. “The more content you can give them, the more interactive you can make it, the better,” he says. “We have interactive floor plans, interactive furniture. Anything that engages is a strong, strong tool.”

Pat Curry is senior editor, sales and marketing, at BUILDER magazine.