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A new real estate search site rivaling the likes of Realtor.com, Trulia and Zillow has pounced on the scene. Roost.com launched its public beta site Wednesday.

The San Francisco-based company bills itself as a vertical search engine for property listings in the 14 market areas it currently covers. The idea is that consumers go to Roost to search for listings in those markets, see property basics in search results, and then click over to brokers’ IDX (Internet data exchange) sites for the full details on homes.

Though the space for online real estate search sites is already crowded, the slow real estate market has many brokers looking for more ways to market listings online, measure those efforts and cut costs where the return on investment isn’t matching expectations.

While Roost’s search platform resembles many of its predecessors’, the venture-backed company’s business model differs. Rather than sell banner advertising or featured listings spots to brokers, the company charges brokers for Internet traffic it pushes to their IDX sites on a cost-per-click basis, much like Google charges for its AdWords program.

“From a Realtor perspective, Roost is essentially a targeted search-engine marketing vehicle,” Roost CEO Alex Chang said.

Listings indexed at Roost come from partnerships the company has with local multiple listing services, according to Chang. Brokers who want to receive traffic can then create an account with Roost and set up their pay-per-click campaign budgets. The revenue generated for Roost is based directly on the amount of traffic sent to a broker’s Web site.

Asked how many listings Roost has indexed, Chang estimated 800,000 to 1 million, but he cautioned that was just a guess.

“We don’t see ourselves as a destination,” said Chang. “Roost is really a platform play,” that consists of two pieces, he said. One piece is the network of broker IDX-compliant sites and the other is the search engine.

Chang said Roost doesn’t consider itself a media company and won’t be focusing on building content. The company is focused on providing search results and connecting consumers with the information they’re seeking via the IDX listings sites.

Agents will also be able to partner with Roost, Chang said, though that service hasn’t launched yet. Plans for agent services include the ability to set up individual agent IDX sites that reside within Roost just like the broker sites. Like the broker model, agents would also set up pay-per-click campaigns for targeted traffic.

MLS regulations in some markets do not allow agents to set up their own IDX Web sites and Chang said Roost won’t be able to offer this service in those markets.

The Roost platform currently covers Atlanta; Baltimore; Boise, Idaho; Boston; Chicago; Dallas; Houston; Minneapolis, Minn.; Orange County, Calif.; Philadelphia; Portland, Ore.; Sacramento/Modesto, Calif.; San Diego; and Washington, D.C. The company plans to double the number of markets it covers by the end of the year.

Roost so far has launched only in markets where it has local broker partners and relationships with the MLS, Chang said. “The MLS has to be OK with what we’re doing,” he said, and all brokers must be members of the local MLS in order to participate at Roost.

“The MLS is really the definitive hub … (its) core mission is the integrity of the data,” he said, which is why Roost decided to operate via these relationships in each market rather than rely on brokers to send listings feeds to the site.

Launching in a soft real estate market in a space that already has a handful of similar Web sites seems like a roll of the dice. But Chang said the expected shift in real estate advertising dollars to performance-based online marketing is significant.

“We’re all looking for ways to provide innovative marketing channels,” he said. “The assumption is that Realtors need to focus on this in a softer market … we’re all trying to vie to get them more cost effective marketing.”

To join a discussion about the launch of Roost, visit the Inman News blog.

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