It’s an odd thing to be involved in the real estate industry, working with some of the top agents, companies and technology providers in the industry, and then going through the consumer experience firsthand.

My wife and I are looking to buy an investment property in the Charlotte, N.C., area, and we’re working with a couple of Realtors in that area. They’re both delightful people and so far I have no complaints.

But today, looking through the VOW (Virtual Office Web site) that one of them has directed us to, I was really struck by how horrible it is.

Seriously? This was really a "personalized for you" private Web site?

Why this sucks

Speaking only as a consumer, I know what real estate search looks and feels like. I’ve been to Trulia, I’ve been to Zillow, I’ve been to Roost, I’ve been to some of the brokerage sites like and Public-facing search has never been better on the Internet.

Outside of real estate, I’m used to sites like Amazon, NewEgg, Kayak and SimplyHired. It’s almost 2010, and searching for stuff is what consumers do online — day in and day out.

So when I got to this "private" Web site, I was expecting something better than is available to the random public. Instead, I got something that a Web designer from back in 1999 would be embarrassed to put out. It would be difficult to make the site be less user-friendly.

On the listings page, the "Agent’s Notes" section is relegated to tiny, 6-point type buried below other property information.

Within the listing detail page, one of the most important pieces of information that just about any homebuyer wants to view is the school information. Again, that information is buried. What’s more, it’s almost 2010 but the school names are not linked to more information. …CONTINUED

Sending a lead elsewhere cannot be a concern for a VOW, since I’m already a client working with you in order to see this in the first place.

There is a list of rooms, which is cool and all, but where’s the floor plan? What good is "Bedroom2" to me when it isn’t linked to a floor plan showing me which one is "Bedroom2" and what its dimensions are, where the door is, and where the windows or closet is?

There is no mapping — it’s almost 2010, and real estate is local, local, local. But there’s no map! There isn’t even a link to view the property on a map.

There is no neighborhood information at all. On the public Web site, I can get all sorts of links to information about the town, the residents, the median household income, education levels, etc. But now that I’m signed up, I have to go to a third-party Web site — or back to the public Web site — to get the information? Why did I sign up?

Why you should care

Now, a response might be that even though such VOWs aren’t very user-friendly, there’s a reason for it. The private VOW type of Web site really just pulls the info out of the multiple listing service, which is intended for professionals to use in letting other professionals know the details about a property. So the information doesn’t need to explain what "Zoning: R15pud" means, for example.

That’s a fine excuse, but here’s why you as the real estate agent should care: Because the consumer doesn’t care why a Web site is so bad. They just know that it’s bad, and they care only that your "customized private Web site" is a piece of junk compared to the search experience they get from almost every other Web site out there.

This is, to put it mildly, a problem for your brand, for your image, and for the industry as a whole.

The problem is so much worse if your brand stands for technology, as so many real estate brands do today. It seems that virtually every brokerage company’s Web site boasts of sophisticated technology tools to help me, the consumer, navigate the real estate market.

Many of these Web sites are indeed quite nice on the public-facing side, with sophisticated search, links to all sorts of resources, and so on. But the minute I sign up to become an actual client, you’re going to subject me to that? I would have been better off just using the public Web site. …CONTINUED

You should care. The consumer expects something better from a private site, customized to them, than they do from a public Web site. There should be a benefit of some sort for giving a real estate professional my personal information. The relevant information about the property and the neighborhood and the schools should be easier to find, not more difficult to locate.

I shouldn’t have to copy and paste addresses to a separate browser pointing at Google Maps — you should be doing that for me.

Real estate companies spend millions building the best public Web site they can; then they ruin the consumer experience with the private Web sites. This is unacceptable. The strong impression I get from this experience: Now that you’ve "converted" me from a lead to an actual customer, you really couldn’t care about me at all.

Hope for a change

So here’s what I hope to see happen, as the result of this column. (Yeah, that’s not too likely, but hey, a man can dream.)

Every large brokerage with the resources should be developing the equivalent of their expensive, technologically advanced public-facing Web sites for their agents to use with their clients. In most cases, the code is already there; the branding is already set. It would not be all that difficult to create private VOW sites for the agents when the company already has a great public Web site.

Every small brokerage or independent who is relying on third-party Web site providers to provide a private VOW for clients should be demanding something a whole lot better than what they’re getting today.

Every agent who is relying on the MLS to provide these private VOWs needs to go to the MLS boards and demand that they improve the user experience. The MLS in this instance is actively hurting your business and your reputation and your brand. If the MLS won’t improve, then you need to be getting a VOW feed and setting up a better Web site for your clients.

Every enlightened MLS executive in the country needs to put more thought into the private VOW for its members. The public is not just a lead at this point; these are actual clients of your members, and they are alternating between laughing at your members and cursing them.

This is my hope for a change. May it come true soon.

Robert Hahn is managing partner of 7DS Associates, a marketing, technology and strategy consultancy focusing on the real estate industry. He is also founder of The Notorious R.O.B. blog.


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