“Put the map interface front and center and you’re going to see value,” was one of many tips for real estate agents with regard to online mapping shared by a panel of industry participants Monday.

“Maps have gone from something that was buried multiple clicks down to something that appears at the beginning of a user’s (real estate) search,” added Ian Pilling, marketing manager of MapQuest and one of the panelists at the Inman News audio conference, “Mapping: Best Practices to Drive Leads & Accelerate Sales.”

Mapping technology is one of the hottest trends in online real estate, enabling people to search for homes in the same way they think about where they live instead of relying solely on ZIP codes or city or county names. The conference explored the value of maps on real estate agents’ sites and how to get them.

“Putting the map up front and letting the user engage with it gets the information to the consumer more quickly,” Pilling said.

The marketing manager said that research from the National Association of Realtors attests that the majority of consumers start looking long before they contact the broker.

“They could be on your site or your competitor’s site. If you provide them tools, if they can roll over a home without clicking to see whether it’s relevant to them, you are building brand loyalty in the process and increasing the likelihood they will contact one of your agents,” Pilling said.

Mapping started heating up about a year ago when Google began offering much faster, dynamic maps, according to Michael Adelberg, Google’s strategic partner development manager. Then people began creating “mashups” – matching up Google’s maps with other data such as, in the case of HousingMaps.com, real estate listings from craigslist, Adelberg said.

Now there are “tens of thousands” of sites offering mashups, offering information from the serious, such as the locations of sexual predators, to the slightly goofy, like GarbageScout in New York City, where people upload photos of unwanted possessions dumped in various locations for the taking.

Depending on your level of sophistication, it’s possible to install Google Maps or Microsoft and create your own mashup, the panelists said. For those with knowledge of basic HTML, there are three options for downloading free software to do so: you can use Microsoft Virtual Earth, available at http://www.microsoft.com/virtualearth; Mapquest, http://www.mapquest.com/businesssolutions; or Google.

“To download Google’s free API, go to Google.com and type in “maps API” in the search box,” Adelberg said.

It’s also possible to have a mashup created for you for less than $5,000, panelists said.

“I’ve seen it done in a few hours by savvy developers,” said Ken Miller, North America sales manager for Microsoft Virtual Earth. “In some cases, $5,000 would be excessive.”

Adelberg of Google agreed, saying, “If you have one reasonably experienced programmer, in less than a day they could have the Google Maps API and maps implemented on any Web site. It’s a few hours.”

While he agreed that it’s possible to build a mashup in less than a day and less than $5,000, Glenn Kelman, CEO of online real estate broker Redfin, had a different perspective.

“That can be done, but I would question what the objective is in the first place. If it’s to drive leads, you have to be competitive and you have to acknowledge there are companies spending millions of dollars,” Kelman said. “You have to have the most compelling application in the area. You want to be the best.”

Panelist Daniel Ruben Odio-Paez, broker-owner of DROdio Real Estate, a residential real estate brokerage in Arlington, Va., gave the Realtor’s perspective on adding mapping and other innovations.

Consumers can go to Birdsyesearch.com, Odio-Paez’s site, and search for properties using Google Maps. “We use the Google API to show local MLS data,” Odio-Paez said. Consumers can search for homes or rentals on a conventional map, a satellite map or a hybrid of both, specifying price, number of bedrooms and the like.

“We have a search option that says, ‘Show me only the properties that have open houses,'” Odio-Paez said.

When clients finish searching and have a list of properties to view, Odio-Paez has another innovation for them, he said.

“We give our clients GPS (Global Positioning Systems) machines – a way to type in an address in a portable computer you keep in your car, and it gives you directions,” Odio-Paez said. “Rather than being taxi drivers, we want to enable them to do it themselves.”

Odio-Paez acknowledged, “you don’t have a personal relationship early on and that’s scary to some real estate agents. But you also don’t waste your time driving people from place to place for months and then having them change their minds.”

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