Editor’s note: Mapping has quickly become an essential part of real estate Web sites as map-based searching offers a more streamlined, interactive way of looking for homes. Brokers and agents are still sorting out how to incorporate maps into their Web sites and turn them into a lead-generating tool. In this three-part series, we go beyond the buzz to uncover what mapping can do for real estate business.

Editor’s note: Mapping has quickly become an essential part of real estate Web sites as map-based searching offers a more streamlined, interactive way of looking for homes. Brokers and agents are still sorting out how to incorporate maps into their Web sites and turn them into a lead-generating tool. In this three-part series, we go beyond the buzz to uncover what mapping can do for real estate business. (See Part 1 and Part 3.)

Putting houses on a map is nifty. Putting maps online is niftier. Making those maps interactive and putting houses on them based on users’ search criteria is also niftier.

And turning those maps into a lead-generating tool for real estate agents and brokers could be one of the niftiest uses yet, say practitioners. As online mapping technologies come of age, more real estate companies are figuring out how to use this trend to attract more business.

Victor B. Lund, vice president of sales and marketing for Real Estate Magazine and Homes Magazine, said maps are not just pretty pictures for consumers to look at – they are actually boosting business for brokers.

Homes Magazine last year announced a partnership with WolfNet Technologies, a real estate technology company, to offer map-based home searches to agents and brokers in a number of California markets.

Research conducted by the companies has shown that map-based search capabilities can boost a Web site’s lead capture rate by about 12 percent. In other words, consumers are 12 percent more likely to inquire about a property listing, request a showing or sign up for automated e-mail notifications at Web sites that feature interactive property-search maps versus a standard text-based search form.

“Our customers report that for every 500 leads that are generated, every 500 visitors to your Web site, you’ll get 10 leads. And most will close business with one out of 10 of those. For every 500 visitors you’ll sell a house,” Lund said, based on statistics. “Twelve percent is a very significant percentage. If your competitor has a regular form-based search and you have a map-based search you stand to advance beyond them 12 percent.”

WolfNet’s MapTracks technology allows users to draw a rectangle on the map to define a search area that they want to focus on, and they can choose to receive updates on new property listings for that area.

Putting real estate maps up on a Web site can be a point of differentiation for real estate professionals when consumers are surfing online, and that can be important for business, Lund said. “Let’s face it – it’s hard to differentiate yourself as a Realtor.”

Joel Macintosh, WolfNet CEO, said that all of the company’s customers that are using the interactive maps find that the rate of repeat traffic to their sites in a given seven-day period increases about 20 percent.

Also, the average length of visit among consumers searching for properties has increased by about 13 percent for the WolfNet customers using the MapTracks service, he said, and there has been a 21 percent increase in the number of leads generated per seven-day period for customers using MapTracks versus a property search solution that is not map-based.

Another interesting trend is that sites implementing the company’s map-based search find an increase in the number of online visitors who are going directly to the site rather than through another Web site. This suggests that they have keyed in the Web site address directly, or otherwise accessed it without clicking a link from search-engine results or another Web site. “Generally there’s been a fairly important and notable trend in the increase in non-referring traffic to sites that employ MapTracks,” Macintosh said.

Anecdotally, Macintosh said that the company’s customers also have reported that the overall quality of leads through MapTracks is higher, with a shortening of the sales cycle to clients that have used the mapping platform to hone their property searches.

While MapTracks is based on the MapQuest mapping platform, many other real estate Web sites have based their mapping systems on the Google Maps platform or built their own proprietary systems. Most real estate sites that offer map-based searches also feature traditional text-based property searches so that consumers can choose to use either or both.

Mark Brandemuehl, vice president of marketing for iGenHome.com, a San Francisco Bay Area independent real estate brokerage that uses a Google-based mapping platform to display properties from local multiple listing services, said mapping is integral to the company’s business model.

The Web site prompts visitors to register to have access to all of the sites search capabilities. The company’s own agents will handle business in the local market area, and the company also plans to refer business outside this local market to agents in other parts of the country. IGenHome (soon to be rebranded) launched in December.

“At the moment we’re completely focused on buyers and for the foreseeable future that’s the plan,” he said. “The fundamental concept of the company all along has been that the tools that are out there to search real estate listings are not very good. They’re not complete … (and) they don’t have all the information that you would want in order to find the home.” When Google launched its platform, the company’s business model was still in its formative stages and the founders quickly integrated the mapping platform, he said.

The map is “the centerpiece of the search capability at the site,” Brandemuehl said, and the company is working to add additional information that combine other data with the mapping tools, such as school and demographics information and places of interest such as grocery stores, coffee shops and libraries.

The site is intended for consumers who are thinking about buying a house and those who are ready to buy a house, he added.

HomePages.com, a map-based property-search site created by real estate marketing company HouseValues.com, drives traffic to agent-branded and broker-branded Web sites as consumers drill down to a local search area.

Matt Heinz, senior director of marketing for HouseValues, said the site’s maps include a range of information that is intended to provide context about the neighborhood surrounding properties. “Our customers are saying they are winning listing presentations by making HomePages a core part of their marketing strategy,” Heinz said. “Customers intrinsically know it’s not about the house – it’s about the neighborhood.”

Real estate consumers want to know about schools, parks and other amenities in the neighborhood where they are considering a purchase, he said. For example, aerial images can show consumers where a lake, a grove of trees, a Thai restaurant or a high school is in relation to a house they are looking to buy, he said.

Maps can make people more interested and educated in specific property listings, Heinz also said. “They’re much more knowledgeable about what they want. When they contact an agent to look at a particular listing they are more motivated in the areas they are looking at.” Maps can serve to save agents’ time because consumers are doing more research about properties on their own, he said, making for a more efficient process.

Jon Strum, a Realtor for Boardwalk Realty in Marina Del Rey, Calif., said he has personally created an online map that he promoted in printed marketing materials. “To really test the interest in the map application, I put it on my Web site but didn’t’ provide any navigation to it from my home page, so in effect it was hidden,” he said.

The result was over 200 unique visits to the map application out of 500 households and four requests for comparable market analysis reports, Strum said. “As a result of this ‘experiment’ I fully plan on expanding my use of online mapping.”

Gea Elika, founder and CEO of CityCribs.com, a real estate site that offers for-sale and rental property listings in the New York City market, said, “It’s probably the natural way to find a home is to find it on a map.” The site integrated a mapping tool about a month ago, though it’s too early to tell how much traffic it’s driving to agents and brokers at this point, he said.

“I can say that people are using it,” he said. “Those properties (on the map) are definitely getting more exposure.” Maps can be particularly important for people who are relocating, Elika said, as they may not have a good sense for the area. CityCribs plans to add features on the map such as subway stations and schools, he said.

Trulia.com, a property-search site that launched last year, has taken a minimalist approach with its Google-based mapping platform. “We’ve done a lot of user testing. The temptation is to throw huge amounts of information on the map. Often it’s just a confusing experience,” said Pete Flint, Trulia CEO. “Location is obviously critical. The consumer experience when you have integrated mapping is just a massive difference.”

Mapping technology is still in its infancy, he noted, and he expects some major leaps for visualizing properties online. “At some point we’ll be going three-dimensional, and that will start to happen very shortly,” he said.

***

Send tips or a Letter to the Editor to glenn@inman.com or call (510) 658-9252, ext. 137.

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