Editor’s note: With some three-quarters of real estate consumers going online to look for property listings, neighborhood information, home buying and selling advice, and tips on how to choose a Realtor, it’s become crucial for real estate businesses to gain a sense of where people are going, what they are looking for, and what kinds of information they are contributing to online forums and review sites. In this three-part series, Inman News looks at various aspects of tracking online real estate trends.

Editor’s note: With some three-quarters of real estate consumers going online to look for property listings, neighborhood information, home buying and selling advice, and tips on how to choose a Realtor, it’s become crucial for real estate businesses to gain a sense of where people are going, what they are looking for, and what kinds of information they are contributing to online forums and review sites. In this three-part series, Inman News looks at various aspects of tracking online real estate trends. (Read Part 2.)

Content may still be king, but long gone is the day when that’s all that was needed to ascend into the ranks of top real estate Web sites.

Like a team of mountain climbers scaling dizzying heights, the fastest-rising real estate Web sites — and most of the established giants — depend on their partnerships with others.

While establishment sites like Realtor.com and upstarts like Zillow may battle for eyeballs, what’s interesting is how often these sites and others send each other traffic.

About 30 percent of all visitors who leave a real estate Web site go to another real estate site on the Internet, said LeeAnn Prescott, research director for Hitwise.

“That’s also typical of the travel industry, where people are trying to find the best deal” on airline tickets, accommodations, meals and ground transportation, Prescott said.

A look at Hitwise’s downstream traffic reports drives home just how incestuous the business has become.

According to Hitwise, Realtor.com delivered 31 percent of its downstream traffic in March to real estate sites. Zillow was the seventh-most-frequent destination for traffic leaving Realtor.com, after Realtor.com’s own rentals site, VirtualTour.com, Obeo, CirclePix, Realtor Resources Center and RE/MAX Real Estate.

Zillow, in turn, routed about 14 percent of its traffic to other real estate Web sites. Topping the list: Would you believe Realtor.com, followed by Housevalues.com, Owners.com, ZipRealty and RealtyTrac?

“People are really staying with the category,” Prescott said. Given the number of tasks involved in buying a home, from qualifying for a loan and getting a mortgage quote to finding a home and assessing its worth, it’s no surprise that real estate sites are a key source of traffic for other real estate sites, she said.

While some of the Web’s top real estate destinations are rivals, it’s increasingly common for sites to send each other traffic by design.

There’s perhaps no better example of the phenomenon than Yahoo! Real Estate, by some measures the fastest growing of the major real estate Web sites. Thanks in part to many partners who “power” features like listings, Yahoo! Real Estate sends 36 percent of its downstream traffic to other real estate sites, Hitwise reports.

The top beneficiaries — which, according to Hitwise, are Prudential Real Estate, LivingChoices.com, RealtyTrac, CIS Data Systems, Zillow, Move.com, Visual Tour.com, Homes and Land Magazine, HomeGain and Apartments.com — are Yahoo! Real Estate partners.

Yahoo! Real Estate’s content partners allow the site’s developers to focus on fine tuning the way information is provided and making it easier for consumers to find.

“We don’t acquire traffic or do search-engine marketing to drive traffic to us,” said Michael Yang, senior director of business development for Yahoo! search and marketplace. “The only way we’re really going to move the needle is by improving our product, or engaging in a search-engine-optimization approach.”

The strategy is apparently working. According to Hitwise, which ranks sites by their market share of total visits based on a sample of 10 million Internet users, Yahoo! Real Estate moved up from the seventh-biggest site to the number six position in January.

According to comScore, which ranks sites by unique visitors, Yahoo! Real Estate had 3.3 unique visits in March, up 80 percent from a year ago. That was good enough to push the site past another giant, AOL Real Estate. Nielsen/NetRatings ranks Yahoo! Real Estate as the seventh-biggest real estate Web site, with unique visits up 53 percent from a year ago.

Some brand name sites are so well known consumers search for them by name. Hitwise reports that six of the top 10 real estate search terms in March were brands, including Realtor.com, RE/MAX, Century 21, Coldwell Banker, Zillow and Remax.com.

Yahoo! Real Estate benefited from a major overhaul in August and constant improvements since then, said another Yahoo! executive, Steve Schultz.

Key factors in growth include major investments in search-engine optimization, which resulted in 400 percent growth in search-engine traffic, Schultz said. Consumers also see the Yahoo! portal as a place for “highly topical” content.

“We’ve seen a lot of activity simply grow out of topical browsing at Yahoo! network,” Schultz said, noting that traffic from that source has grown tenfold in the last year.

Once people are on the site, property listings dominate, Schultz said. About two-thirds of activity on the site is users searching for listings, filtering by location, price and type.

Listings are a big part of Realtor.com’s seemingly rock-solid status as the preeminent destination for real estate on the Web. Although Nielsen.Net Ratings reports that Realtor.com saw its unique audience slip by 23 percent in March from the year before, competitors such as Zillow (down 29 percent) and AOL Real Estate (down 30 percent) fell more.

ComScore Media Metrix, which reports traffic at Realtor.com as part of parent Move.com, puts the decline in traffic at Move Network sites at 3 percent for the year ending in March.

Part of the reason for the slowdown was the slow growth in traffic to real estate Web sites. With the record sales numbers posted during the housing boom a thing of the past, the total audience for real estate Web sites grew by only 3 percent, to 177.3 million visitors in March 2007.

Despite the cooling market, HomeGain is another site that’s managed to hold its place near the top of the heap with a combination of content and partnerships. In the eight years the company has been in existence, it’s forged more than 300 partnerships, among them some major names like Yahoo!, USA Today and Classified Ventures LLC, the online joint venture of newspaper giants Belo Corp., Gannett Co. The McClatchy Co., Tribune Co. and The Washington Post Co.

“Not any one partnership or any one source of traffic constitutes a large percentage of our traffic,” said HomeGain General Manager Louis Cammarosano. “Keeping a large number of oars in the water is what’s keeping us at the top, and having the best content.”

Although comScore says HomeGain’s traffic was down 20 percent in March from a year before — and Nielsen/Net Ratings estimates a 15 percent decline, Cammarosano said the site’s traffic is up 1 or 2 percent in recent months, with more than 5 million unique visitors in March. Hitwise, which does not track AOL Real Estate, reports that HomeGain moved up from fourth to third in January.

Partnerships alone can’t generate traffic. While Zillow may have been a media darling and forged new partnerships in 2006, comScore estimates the site’s traffic was down 16 percent in March from the year before. Nielsen/Net Ratings reported that with a 29 percent decline in unique audience, only AOL Real Estate (down 30 percent) shed more visitors between March 2006 and March 2007.

Cammarosano said while HomeGain makes an effort to cover all the bases — including home valuations and mortgage and moving centers — it’s geared to referring visitors to a Realtor as the ultimate source of information.

“The difference between us and other sites is that you might not get the info on our site, but we’re always going to direct you to the Realtor to get more,” Cammarosano said.

Zillow, in contrast, is “trying to get consumers to stay on the site, and to flip through as many pages as possible,” he said. “They are not going to buy 40 houses, they’re going to look at their neighbors’ houses. Is that what you want, as an advertiser, somebody who spends four hours a day on Zillow?”

As a lead-generation site, HomeGain doesn’t go after traffic just for the sake of boosting numbers.

Unlike a site that depends solely on ad revenue, “Just having big traffic numbers doesn’t make me money,” Cammarosano said. “We are just as focused on quality as quantity. We are constantly trimming off underperforming partners. The consumer that goes to the partner’s site has to truly want the HomeGain offer.”

Cammarosano said HomeGain selects its partners, doesn’t allow incentives, and encourages partners to accept tips on how to structure offers on their Web sites.

One company that’s something of an anomaly on the list of top real estate Web sites is Rent.com.

While other real estate Web sites can count on high-tech centers on both coasts for traffic, Rent.com makes most of its money in cities in the flyover states where there are plenty of rental units and property owners must compete for tenants.

The site has steadily grown traffic since it was founded six years ago and acquired by eBay in 2005, but exists mainly to serve the property owners and managers that provide its listings.

Although Rent.com can claim more than 4 million rental listings in 860 markets, the company says the cities where residents are most likely to rent housing they found online live in Houston, Phoenix, Denver, Chicago, Charlotte (N.C.), Atlanta, Orlando, Dallas, San Diego and Las Vegas.

One way Rent.com, which earns a $375 commission whenever a renter uses the site to find an apartment and sign a lease, has attracted more listings is by providing its clients with insight into the way they market their properties.

By tracking Web site use and creating a unique e-mail and toll-free number for each apartment listed (calls are routed to the client), Rent.com can tell its customers how many phone calls and e-mails a property generates, and how many of those contacts lead to leases.

This information allows clients — who typically manage large buildings with many units — to compare themselves against the competition, or see how one building stacks up against another.

“We can say, they looked at the property detail page on a certain day, contacted you about your property on this date, and you talked to them for 2 minutes and 46 seconds,” said Rent.com General Manager Drew Marich. “At a large apartment complex, the phones are ringing, e-mails are coming in, and the property manger is trying to do all these things while servicing these leads that come in. One thing we’re able to do is show that while property A is doing very well in getting back to their customers, property B is not doing as well. There’s a lot of information we can provide back to the properties to make them perform better.”

Marich said Rent.com has a “very robust” search-engine-optimization program, a “very healthy” paid search budget on Google, Yahoo! and MSN, and that “having links from our parent company (eBay) doesn’t hurt.”

Although Rent.com features some targeted advertising for services such as credit scores and banking, it sees potential for expanding the existing model into other areas. Having already moved into providing quotes from movers on Gigamoves.com, Marich said eBay sees growth opportunities for Rent.com in corporate and senior housing, vacation rentals and international rentals.

“All of those are intriguing to us, and present great growth opportunities,” Marich said.

Most visited real estate Web sites

*Not ranked Nielsen top 10 or Hitwise top 20
^ One-year change as of March 2007 according to comScore


Send tips or a Letter to the Editor to matt@inman.com, or call (510) 658-9252, ext. 150.

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