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 1 and Part 2.)

You don’t have to be a celebrity to Google yourself. The search results may surprise you — and that’s not always a good thing.

Some real estate professionals say it’s vital — especially this increasingly communicative and instantaneous Internet universe of gossip, ratings, reviews, photos and videos — to monitor the Web for content about you.

If you don’t keep abreast of the digital chatter, your online reputation may precede you.

Don Fabrizio-Garcia, a Realtor with Prudential Connecticut Realty in Danbury, Conn., who also works as an appraiser, said he was shocked to stumble upon an anonymous comment on an agent directory and review site that attributed a racist comment to him.

It was a comment, Fabrizio-Garcia said, that he never made. He described the humiliating experience at RealTalk, an online forum for real estate professionals. “These so-called ‘reviews’ are not moderated nor are they reviewed by the site owners. Each of you is probably listed on this site, and you could have inflammatory reviews against you and not know it,” he stated.

The experience taught a tough lesson in the pitfalls of anonymous comments at Web sites that rely on user-generated content such as ratings and reviews, he said.

Fabrizio-Garcia demanded that the comment and his profile be removed from the site, he said. “It kind of ruined the week for me,” he told Inman News, adding that he is now more vigilant about scanning the Web for potentially damaging statements. “I Google myself often,” he said.

“People are saying (user-generated comments) are the wave of the future to empower the consumer. If these posts are allowed up there anonymously and you’re not allowed to rebut them at all then we’re at the mercy of everyone. My reputation is all I have — that’s why I’ve stayed in the business this long. And once it gets damaged like this it’s hard to repair it.”

He added, “You have to be vigilant about checking your name on the Web and making sure nothing inaccurate is on here. And if it is you have to do whatever it is to get it off.”

Moderating the comments at such sites and verifying the accuracy of the information could help to prevent personal attacks and erroneous statements, he said, and sites that allow reviews and ratings should also offer the opportunity to respond to the accusations.

“If I screw up and someone wanted to write about it then I deserve it, but allow me to tell my side of the story as well — which might be an apology.”

He expects a shakeout for those damaging, freewheeling comments that are splashed across the Internet. “I expect the first class-action (lawsuit) will clean this up,” he said. “A lot of people, even real estate bloggers, don’t realize that everything you write — these personal attacks — reflect negatively on them and they’re on the Web forever.”

There are federal protections for Internet publishers against liability for allegedly harmful comments written by others, and the California Supreme Court has upheld, in the Barrett vs. Rosenthall lawsuit, the strength of protections offered by Section 230 of the U.S. Telecommunications Act of 1996.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a group that promotes free speech and consumer rights on the Internet, offers a legal guide for online publishers that includes information about online legal liabilities and defenses.

Consumers will sometimes plug in an agent’s name on the Internet if they are considering whether to use that agent’s services, so it’s a good idea to constantly monitor your online reputation, agreed Kristal Kraft, co-founder of The Berkshire Group Realtors Inc. in Denver, Colo.

“I think it’s a big priority, and right now it’s real easy to go out and destroy people by something that’s said on the Internet. If something does come up you need to jump on it and find out what’s wrong and make it better, make it right again or at least neutralize it. If (consumers) pull up something bad it could really be detrimental to your business. Unfortunately, people believe what they read — they don’t always consider the source,” Kraft said.

In a blog posting at the ActiveRain.com real estate community site, Kraft instructed other real estate professionals how to set up automated feeds to track how and where your name, Web site or company name appears in the wide world of cyberspace.

“Anyone who’s going to be in touch with consumers needs to know what is being said about them,” she said, whether it’s in the real estate business or another industry.

Agents should consider the potentially broad audience for things they share online, she said — insider talk intended for other real estate professionals could confuse consumers. “Consumers are holding their heads (saying), ‘What are they talking about?’ ” she said.

While there are several online venues that allow Internet users to comment about individual real estate professionals, there doesn’t seem to be any one site that has drawn a massive audience, said Leigh Brown, broker-owner for RE/MAX Signature Properties in Charlotte, N.C.

There are an estimated 1.3 million Realtors and an even larger number of licensed real estate agents and brokers across the country, and it is a tall order for any one site to gather reviews on every agent, she said. “It’s only going to be confusing to a consumer.”

While Amazon.com and eBay.com have been successful in employing ratings and reviews, Brown said it’s more challenging to apply those national formulas to the real estate business because “it’s so incredibly localized.”

If she ever senses a client is displeased with a transaction, Brown said she works to address the situation before it festers. In some cases that means taking less money on a deal, she said. “I call it ‘happiness money.’ Sometimes it costs me a little bit of money. I’ll invest that because that person is going to become one of my raving fans. Granted, you can’t make everyone happy but you can try.”

Brown said she checks herself when she is writing about poor practices she has observed. “If I have something negative to say I do protect the guilty,” she said.

Real estate professionals can in some cases damage their own reputations with their online presence, said Eileen Landau, a broker for Realty Executives, Realtors in Naperville, Ill.

A former English teacher, Landau said, “I know how to write, I know how to spell, I know how to compose a sentence. One of the things that irritates me — (some agents) can’t even spell with a spellchecker. They don’t know the difference in possession: its … vs. it is. A consumer who is intelligent … is going to read someone’s blog posting and say, ‘This person is uneducated.’ “

She added, “It’s like a job interview. When you do a blog posting you’re out there. If it’s not good, you’re not going to get people. It’s reflective of your personality, reflective of who you are and how you think.”

Landau is an opponent of anonymous comments on the Web. “I think they can be very detrimental. An (agent-review) directory is one thing but a directory that accepts anonymous commentary I don’t think is a good thing. It’s kind of dangerous, like yelling, ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater.

Internet commentary can linger for a long time, said Rich Jacobson, a Realtor for Windermere Real Estate/West Sound Inc. in Silverdale, Wash.

With the surge in user-generated content on the Web, there is a heightened need to monitor that content, Jacobson said. And while this monitoring can uncover content that others are posting about you, it can also reveal where your own content is appearing, he said. The Internet has made it easy to copy content, he said, and that’s happening without authorization in some cases.

Jacobson, who blogs at SoundBiteBlog.com, said he doesn’t mind if people grab content from his blog site as long as they give him credit.

Choosing your words is also very important in an era where so much information is at your fingertips on the Web.

“It has become huge to understand the impact of the things you say and what you put on the Internet,” he said, “Because you can’t just go and delete the stuff. You have to be very guarded and careful about how much information you divulge and what you say.

“The world has gotten significantly smaller. Most of us are realizing that the information we’re inputting is reaching a much larger audience.”

***

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

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