Houzz_Body.jpgby Erin McDermott.


Amanda Bertele has a much simpler office these days.


As a designer, she spent years thumbing through stacks of magazines, brochures, and portfolios to get ideas for kitchens, bathrooms, and other home-interior projects to show customers. She asked clients to do the same, by keeping photos or ripped pages or color strips in scrapbooks so they could share their ideas.


Now she’s got Houzz, and so do many of the customers at Superior Woodcraft in Doylestown, Pa. Bertele says she asks clients to add photos and comments to their online “ideabooks,” which both of them can see instantly. She shares projects that she finds inspiring, letting others in on her design sensibility and opening new conversations.


“It’s completely changed the vocabulary of design,” Bertele says. “It used to be so time-consuming, a ton of work, and expensive to go out and buy all of those design books. Now, it’s ‘Go on Houzz. Save what you like and make comments.’ The images take away the barrier to what everyone’s trying to convey in words.”


If you’ve yet to tune in, Houzz is a beautiful and highly addictive website that brings a social-media element to residential remodeling, design, decor, and landscaping. For users, it’s a resource book, inspiration point, and fantasy island for those looking to improve the look and feel of their homes. As of early 2013, more than 150 million photos have been uploaded that 14 million Houzzers comment on, ask questions about, or save to their ideabooks, which are personal stashes of images any member can hold for later reference.


Houzz’s images come from nearly 250,000 businesses in the U.S. and Canada, showcasing their work, creativity, and goods—and serve as an entry point to interacting with clients and future clients. The site lets professionals ask and answer questions about products and projects and lets them chime in on lively discussions that include tradesmen, contractors, designers, as well as homeowners with an itch to upgrade.


The site was launched in late 2009 by a husband and wife team who’d struggled to renovate their Bay Area home. Many Houzz pros interviewed for this article say they first learned of it by looking at their Google Analytics data—after Houzzers shared photos of their work and cited them as the designer, driving traffic to their website. It’s all proving to be a disruptor in the $300 billion a year home-remodeling market.


Houzz_PQ.jpgAnd that’s why it’s quickly become a must-have for anyone in a host of businesses, from architects and landscape artists to swimming pool installers, electrical contractors or anyone tied to just about every room in a house or apartment. Or even a dog house. (And the best news: it’s largely free. The site’s now accepting ads and there’s a paid tool, Houzz Pro+, that breaks down traffic statistics to individual pictures, for example.) 


How can you get your Houzz in order? Here are a few tips from other Houzz pros on using the site to engage customers:


Think of it as a communication tool.

Bertele says photos communicate in ways that words never can when it comes to a look or a feel that a homeowner is trying to achieve. She says Houzz bridges a gap between a designer’s technical knowledge and vocabulary and what a client is trying to express. While insiders may throw around words like mullion, Palladian window, or waterfall island, such terms can fly over the heads of customers. “Or someone can say ‘French Country‘ style, but that has so many different meanings,” she says, noting that’s something that can be easily cleared up with an image that establishes a common language. “If you don’t have good communication, you don’t have a happy client.”


It’s also a much more nimble tool when compared with the steps required to update a business’s homepage. On Houzz, all you have to do is point, click to add to an ideabook, and voilà: your showcase is freshened up with a half-dozen new pictures of a completed job.


Show you’re a problem-solver

Jeffrey Veffer, a Toronto-based architect and co-owner of Incite Design, says the best ideabooks give clear explanations for how a project was commissioned and the clients’ expectations, which he says has elevated the dialogues he’s had with some Houzz-using customers. “Clients are coming to us with a bit more literacy in terms of style, which we find is helpful,” he says. “We’re advising people to use these sites to help clarify their ideas before they engage designers. And it enhances the value of what designers really do.”


By contributing to the site’s conversations and articles with his own expertise, Veffer says he hopes it shows potential clients his willingness to be involved and solve any inevitable issues that arise in a project, qualities that are highly sought after and can help to build an initial relationship. 


Gloria Franklin, the Cleveland-based owner of Colom & Brit Interiors, agrees with that approach. In Houzz’s discussion section regarding design dilemmas, she often weighs in with possible solutions, sometimes including items from her own home accessories and furniture business, but more often with links to other room shots, to illustrate her point. “I’ve found that giving free and valuable content builds trust and a loyal following,” she says.


Remember, it’s the Web

When you create your professional profile, fill out all available fields with the most up-to-date information, including your name and company, location, website, and personal Houzz page, if you wish. When a consumer does a search on the site, the Houzz algorithm puts a high value on the number and quality of the photos posted, the number of reviews from clients and colleagues, how many questions you’ve responded to, and if you have a Houzz badge—the widget to let clients link back—on your company’s site. Those with the most interactions become the top of the search results.


The rules of search-engine optimization apply here, too. When you post a photo, think about your keywords you’re using to describe what’s in it. More important, think about how a consumer would be searching. (Fun fact: The words “white kitchen” are among the most searched on the Internet.) If the standout element of a living room you’re highlighting is the red wallpaper, add “red living room” to the list. And consider the emotions that certain rooms might conjure for users and the words they’d use to describe it. Bertele says she was trying to come across a bedroom that she considered “rustic,” but had trouble locating the snapshot. She thought again and typed in “sexy bedrooms” and it popped right up.


Build up a community

All of this sharing—isn’t this just giving away your tricks of the trade? Not at all, says Robin Baron, an interior designer in New York whose page was voted Best of Houzz for 2013 by the site’s users. An industry veteran, she says roughly 80 percent of her clients are now Houzzing, and she finds it to be a huge improvement when hunting for just the right piece for a project and collecting the results in one place.


She answers all questions posed to her on the site and reports what materials she used in all of her photos, from furniture makers and chandeliers down to her color choices for the walls. “There’s no harm in giving them a paint number. I’ll give them the price category, and if it’s something they can afford or not is their decision,” Baron says. “It’s about building on the engagement.”


And that’s one of the keys to succeeding in social media, in Baron’s industry and elsewhere. On Twitter, Facebook, and Houzz, she often promotes other designers‘ projects, just as she refers out small jobs to fledgling colleagues whose work she appreciates. “Supporting each other is critical. The more that do well, then we all will do well,” she says. “It’s an important way to live your life—on Houzz and beyond!”