Like most real estate companies, Heritage Texas Properties has a robust, mature website offering a full palette of tools and information that prospective buyers and sellers have come to expect. The problem is those buyers and sellers typically want it the most when they aren’t sitting at their desk and that robust, mature PC-based website isn’t very helpful on a Blackberry.

However, the Houston, Texas real estate company thinks it may now have the perfect solution: an alternate website optimized just for mobile users, the first of its kind in their market.

“We’ve been live for four months. It’s been a delightful surprise. Prospects can spot a ‘for sale’ sign from their car and can be looking at pictures and listing information within seconds," says Robin Mueck, president and CEO of this tech-friendly real estate company that employees about 400 people. "Surprisingly, it’s the ease of use that has been a catalyst for spreading the word.”

Getting ready for the mobile Web

With mobile devices outselling PC’s four to one, the trajectory is clear which group of users accessing the Internet is on the rise. It’s only a matter of time before those mobile Web users reach critical mass. “Mobile Web use is just less than a fifth of the size of PC-based Web use in the United States. Obviously, it’s going to be very important,” says Russell Buckley, a veteran mobile marketing executive who covers that industry on the popular blog, MobHappy

While any Internet address can be optimized for mobile surfers, many early adopters are betting on the new .mobi (for mobile) extension. Dot-mobi is the first top-level domain dedicated to mobile Web access and approved by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). Since becoming available in September 2006, more than 500,000 .mobi domains have been registered. Most of the major hosting companies, such as GoDaddy and Network Solutions, now offer .mobi registration and site building tools that are mobile specific.

“You really have to look at the mobile Web as an additional distribution channel. Just like 10 years ago, businesses had to realize the Internet was a separate distribution channel from traditional catalog sales,” says Alexa Raad, vice president of business development for .mobi.

Before taking the plunge, business owners need to develop a mobile Web initiative that is part business plan and part website design strategy. Be sure to include the following:

  • Benefits to customers. Why would a customer away from the home or office need access to your website? Perhaps they might need directions or to book a reservation, contact information, project updates or small doses of information while waiting for a plane. “It’s easy to get a mobile site. But, if you don’t have an objective, its money down a rat hole,” says John Gaunt, a senior analyst from eMarketer.
  • Technology assessment. Are you building from scratch or adding onto the existing infrastructure of your PC-based site? Will the company host the site itself? What additional technologies and equipment will you need? Will you design it with free site building tools or will you need a designer? Your webmaster or IT director needs to be the first person you consult.
  • Short-term and long-term budgeting. Along with start-up costs, what will be the company’s commitment to a monthly budget and future expenses for upwards scalability. The cost of technology and design is only part of it. “For us it was a modest investment compared to other ramp-ups. We already had the manpower of a full-time IT staff. The education, training and public marketing dollars will be the real cost,” Mueck says.

Differences in a mobile website

“First of all, you can’t cram information designed for a 19-inch screen onto a mobile site,” says Raad. Paring down information for a screen the size of your fist is just the beginning. Here are other considerations:

  • Vertical scrolling. Think about your own cell phone usage. Mobile users scroll up and down, but not side to side. Content needs to be laid out accordingly.
  • Fewer clicks. In the PC world, Web users typically have a broadband connection and can click through content seamlessly. For mobile users, going deep is slow and, therefore, expensive.
  • Keep it clean. If you think its tough reading a thin calligraphy font on a dark background on your widescreen laptop, imagine what it would be like on a Nokia. Nothing beats a simple white background with a familiar easy-to-read font, like Times Roman or Arial.
  • Just the facts. Less is more on a mobile website. Remember, your visitors are on the go. They are typically looking for very specific information or completing a very specific task. Nothing will alienate them faster than too much information. “With Web-based browsing, if you don’t like the content you hit the back or forward button. On a mobile browser, you hit the stop button," says Gaunt.

Here’s where the care and feeding of a mobile website is like an already existing PC-based site: user testing. Test the site yourself on a variety of handhelds. Involve as many customers as possible to do it right in front of you while getting their reactions and feedback. Remember, both are a never-ending work in progress.