Editor’s note: Real estate search has entered a new phase with the emergence of applications that narrow the hunt for consumers, pool from multiple sources, and enable consumers to search without having to register at a broker site to gain access. In this four-part series, we examine the latest tools and how they’re impacting where brokers market properties and how consumers find them.

Editor’s note: Real estate search has entered a new phase with the emergence of applications that narrow the hunt for consumers, pool from multiple sources, and enable consumers to search without having to register at a broker site to gain access. In this four-part series, we examine the latest tools and how they’re impacting where brokers market properties and how consumers find them. (See Part 2 and Part 3.)

“Vertical search” has quickly become the real estate buzz term for 2006 and a panel of industry participants peeled back the buzz Tuesday to give concrete examples of what this means for the real estate industry and consumers.

“Vertical search is really just a more refined and specialized way to find content in a certain category,” said Jamie Glenn, director of product management at Yahoo! Real Estate. Glenn pointed to Yahoo! Real Estate as an example of a vertical search application within the real estate industry where consumers can go to browse homes for sale.

Ninety percent of all Internet users today are using search engines, Glenn said, and they typically start with broad terms and then selectively narrow the search because they get too large a set of results. Glenn spoke Tuesday during an Inman News audio conference, “Vertical Search: You and Your Listings.”

One example of a vertical search application for real estate is Trulia.com, which launched nine months ago to offer consumers a place to search for listings using unique search criteria and interactive mapping capabilities. Sami Inkinen, Trulia’s co-founder and chief operating officer, used the analogy of a Leatherman tool to explain the concept of vertical search.

“If you think of generic search as a Leatherman tool, you can do almost anything with it,” he said. “But it’s not the best knife, the best screwdriver or can opener,” for instance. By “generic search,” he was referring to a general search in a major search engine like Google or Yahoo.

Trulia’s real estate search application is available in California and in New York City, and the company has plans to expand to other regions. Trulia partners with local real estate brokers who want to gain exposure for their properties, and links to the broker’s Web site so that consumers who find a good match can connect with them directly.

“We don’t scrape listings,” Inkinen said, addressing what has become an evil term for real estate practitioners in maintaining control over their data.

Trulia’s aim, Inkinen said, is not to become a portal or destination site where consumers come and stay. The company aims to package and organize property information that’s easily searchable so consumers can find what they need and then connect with the broker or agent.

Home listings from Weichert Realtors will soon be available on Trulia, said Mike Montsko, president of the Weichert Lead Network.

Montsko said it is important for brokers and agents to consider partnering with some of the vertical search sites and lead generators, but they need to do their homework first. He suggested closely examining the company’s business model and reputation, as well as best practices for handling data. “Make sure you have a way out,” he said, because “it’s not uncommon for companies to flip their business models at some point.”

Panelists discussed another hot topic in real estate this year: online mapping. Yahoo’s Glenn pointed out that maps can do a lot more than just plot where available homes are located; they can show local school information, neighborhoods, where the local drycleaners are located, and more. “This helps users really get informed before they go on the tour with the agent,” he said, and helps people relocating from other towns.

“Most of the (Web) portals have maps and most now have APIs as well,” he said. APIs are a way for Web developers to easily integrate existing mapping applications into their Web sites, Glenn explained.

User-friendly mapping and search functions are commonly used in new online real estate offerings like HomePages.com, Zillow.com and Trulia, to name a few.

“We started off with a map right away,” Trulia’s Inkinen said, noting that consumers really want to search by neighborhoods rather than city or ZIP code.

Inkinen cautioned that while it’s easy to add maps to a Web site, it’s important for whatever is layered on top of the map to be fast. “When you look at how consumers search, they change their search criteria many times,” he said, advising that “if you add a map to your Web site, make sure you optimize the experience for the consumer.”

Vertical search applications have been around for some time and have become popular in job search, travel and retail industries, to name a few. But paid search in general search engines remains a popular marketing mechanism among real estate practitioners.

Brokers and agents also can utilize Yahoo’s paid search program for search-engine exposure by purchasing keywords at a price per click. Google has a similar program that is popular among individual agents and brokerage companies.

Ira Serkes, a Realtor with RE/MAX Executive in Berkeley, Calif., provided an agent perspective on vertical search, online marketing and converting online leads to sales. Serkes uses search-engine optimization techniques on his Web site to achieve high placement in the organic search results of major search engines.

He said he has no shortage of leads using these techniques. “I find that I have way more leads than I can handle,” he said, and he is now looking for ways to increase the conversion rates.

Serkes said he’s tracked more than 1,800 people who’ve clicked on properties since the beginning of the month, but only five or 10 per week have inquired about a specific property. “I’m not so much interested in paying for leads,” he said. “I’m interested in converting what’s coming in.”

Weichert Lead Network answers the problem with its call center that responds to Internet leads as they come in and then puts them on a path for follow-up depending on their needs. But individual agents like Serkes likely don’t have the funding it takes to build and maintain such a service. Serkes’ answer, he said, is to hire a licensed agent to do the lead follow-up for him and other agents.

Asked how a slowing real estate market may impact online real estate search, panelists said that marketing and measuring will continue to be important.

“I hear two things from listing brokers,” said Inkinen. “The first is ‘measure, measure, measure,’ and the second thing I hear is that buyers are becoming more attractive to agents and brokers.” The business then becomes more about attracting buyers to listings.

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Send tips or a Letter to the Editor to jessica@inman.com or call (510) 658-9252, ext. 133.

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