SAN DIEGO — Call it the real estate Web portal arms race.
With consumers now expecting to see a comprehensive set of for-sale listings, agents, brokerages, multiple listing services and third-party aggregators are seeking to differentiate themselves from their competitors by pulling onto their Web sites anything and everything from the growing universe of information that might conceivably be connected with a home purchase.
Public property records, foreclosure filings, sold listings data, comparative market analyses, Census data, demographics, psychographics, school ratings, "walkability" scores, crime stats — it seems hardly a week goes by without a major real estate portal announcing it’s adding to the arsenal of information at the beck and call of users.
"Listings are almost so ubiquitous today, they are not a differentiator," said Sara Bonert, Zillow.com’s director of brokers services. Zillow has about 4 million listings, and it’s become "pretty easy to get them," with MLSs and brokerages feeding the site directly. "The next question is: ‘OK, we’ve got listings … what else?’ "
Bonert was among a panel of experts who agreed to share their views on the subject during a "Going Beyond Listing Data" panel discussion at the National Association of Realtors’ annual convention in San Diego.
Before it joined the ranks of powerhouse listing aggregators, Zillow created a sensation with consumers by offering access to a database of public property records and property valuations, or "Zestimates" derived from those records. Suddenly, it was possible to go online and see what your neighbors paid for their house — and get a rough idea of how much your own might be worth — with the click of a mouse.
In addition to building up its listings, Zillow has continued to tweak its business model and offerings to consumers, notably with a mortgage marketplace where consumers can solicit loan quotes from thousands of participating loan originators.
NAR, seeing an opportunity to get into the business of providing public property records and valuations to its members, has purchased some of the technology and licensed data used by one of Zillow’s competitors: Cyberhomes.com.
If MLSs agree to provide active and sold listing data — which remains to be seen (see story) — NAR’s Realtor Property Resource database is expected to eventually include records on every parcel in the U.S., residential and commercial, combining public property and other records with active and sold listings data from MLSs and commercial information exchanges (CIEs).
NAR says its RPR database will be available only to Realtors — helping them to better serve their customers as the most knowledgeable source of information in their marketplace.
But Seattle-based brokerage Redfin — which offers one of the most sophisticated consumer-facing real estate Web sites on the Internet — recently began offering registered users access to MLS sold data, which the company thinks consumers can use to build their own comparative market analyses, or CMAs (see story).
As real estate Web portals make more information available to consumers, it can become increasingly challenging to deliver it to consumers in a meaningful way.
Sites that overwhelm consumers with information may lose them to other, easier-to-use sites. Those that offer a simple interface but don’t deliver the depth of information consumers have come to expect may also find themselves at a competitive disadvantage.
Eric Bryn, vice president of strategic development for the Leading Real Estate Companies of the World, a network of about 600 local and regional real estate firms, brought a mock-up of a hypothetical state-of-the-art real estate Web portal to the discussion.
The site’s home page was a mix of elements allowing users to see the results of "long tail" searches with links to pull them deeper into the site; a quadrant displaying a "tag cloud" of neighborhoods where other users are doing the most searches; links to videos about neighborhoods where they might be interested in buying properties; and many other options, including an invitation to follow site updates via Twitter.
Bryn’s mock-up had Jim Marks, president and chief executive officer of Virtual Results, a Laguna Beach, Calif.-based Web site design firm, yearning for something simpler. …CONTINUED
"The vendors are all racing to see who can get 2020 technology the fastest," he said. "Your consumers want 1920."
Marks said consumers want to go to a Web site, "crank the handle on the screen once, and their ideal property comes out. They don’t want tag clouds … they don’t want to go to school — they want to sit in their underwear and find a home."
Information is good — give them as much as possible, Marks said — but in the most simple user interface possible. Most importantly, a user interface should deliver what consumers expect when they click on it.
"You better give them what they expected, or they are going to bounce off," he said.
Sophisticated Web site interfaces, combined with Web metrics — the monitoring of Web site usage — can help deliver the results consumers expect.
At the other extreme of the simplicity-complexity scale, Bryn cited an earlier presentation by San Diego-based broker-owner Kris Berg. He said Berg has a very simple Web site, but it also includes a chat box capability that Berg says has generated business for her since she installed it nine months ago.
In Marks’ view, a chat box — like Yelp or other social media sites — is more 1920 than 2020.
"To me, that’s conversation, and referral and recommendation" — techniques Realtors have always used to land business, Marks said.
Darrin Clement, founder and chief executive officer of Maponics — a provider of custom mapping services and geographic information system (GIS) data — defended the concept of putting power in the hands of users through a sophisticated interface.
"For me, personally, the last thing I want to do is talk to somebody," Clement said. "I want to be in control, navigating that dashboard, so I can do all my research ahead of time and make my decision."
Maponics provides neighborhood boundary data to companies like Trulia and Roost, allowing users to search for and compare homes by neighborhood, and target advertisements from real estate agents to users looking for properties in neighborhoods they specialize in.
While individual Realtors may be hard-pressed to employ such technology because of the back-end infrastructure required, the big portals that are using it are finding users spend more time and convert into leads at a higher rate with maps, Clement said.
"Just because you put a map on your IDX (Internet data exchange, a data-exchange format for brokers) and time on site goes up, that’s not necessarily a good thing," Marks countered. It may only mean people are having more trouble navigating the site, he said.
For Marks, the technology that’s "really cool right now" isn’t on the front end — it’s back-end capabilities that allow Web site operators to determine their users’ interest level by looking at what’s going on behind the scenes.
Bryn agreed that demographics and Web analytics tools have demonstrated their value in other industries, and said real estate brokerages are also getting into the game.
"Insurance companies, the first thing they do is ask you for your ZIP code and your last name, and they start building a profile," Bryn said. "They build a quote … based around a demographic of who I am." …CONTINUED
He said a small boutique brokerage in Spain that’s a member of the Leading Real Estate Companies of the World network "forces" registration by users of its Web site, and tracks how they use the site. When users submit an inquiry, the agent can see what properties and neighborhoods the prospective client is interested in.
"The broker trains the agent to make a more favorable first impression," which tends to generate better conversions, Bryn said.
Bryn said "lifestyle listing searches" — in which users identify what they are looking for in a community, rather than specific characteristics of a home — "are a very hot topic right now."
Onboard Informatics LLC offers a "Lifestyle Listings Engine" that it offers as a Web site application programming interface, or API.
Bonert said Zillow decided it had to define neighborhoods because that’s how people were looking for listings.
Zillow has created a database of nearly 7,000 neighborhood boundaries in the largest U.S. cities, which it shares under a Creative Commons license.
Now, users can not only conduct searches in a particular neighborhood, such as Chicago’s Wicker Park — Zillow can target ads by neighborhood, too.
"Psychographics" — a breakdown of buying and consumer habits by market — will be displayed in NAR’s RPR database.
While there’s seemingly no limit to the type of information that consumers might find useful — the idea of providing earthquake plate tectonics data was raised half seriously — there are practical and legal limits to what sellers and real estate professionals will find acceptable.
Providing information on the racial composition of a neighborhood could conceivably raise steering issues, and sellers might object to crime data being displayed next to a listing, panelists said.
"What happens when you go to a listing presentation, and the (seller) sees your Web site showing that a sex offender lives in the house next door?" Marks asked.
Spencer Rascoff, Zillow’s chief operating officer, who attended the session as an audience member, said Zillow has school data, but not crime statistics.
"The question is: How important do you think it really is for consumers?" Rascoff said.
Onboard Informatics can include crime statistics among the many datasets it collects and distributes for real estate clients.
The company provides community information for the recently released Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate iPhone application, Home Selection Assistant, including crime statistics, average income levels, education and school information, and church locations (see Inman News article).
"We’ve had neighborhood data, including crime statistics, for years, and we haven’t lost any business" said one Realtor attending the session. "I don’t think of crime data as a negative — it is what it is."
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