SAN FRANCISCO — Google isn’t looking to take on the role of a "universal MLS," but is developing increasingly sophisticated search tools that will someday allow consumers to snap a picture of a house and conduct a "visual search" for information about it and similar properties.
Briefing attendees of Inman News’ Real Estate Connect San Francisco, Carter Maslan, Google’s director of product management, provided a big-picture overview of where real estate fits into the company’s overall strategy.
"What we are doing in real estate is really (no different than) what we are doing in (other areas of) local search," Maslan said. If there’s a property for sale, wherever it’s mentioned on the Web — whether on "Rotten Neighborhoods" or Trulia.com — Google wants to put those pages at users’ fingertips.
Google makes money by putting paid ads next to "natural search" results generated by users’ keyword searches. The company’s continued dominance depends, in large part, on making sure those natural search results are as relevant and objective to consumers as possible.
But refinements Google has made in the way it delivers search results for real estate listings has made some real estate professionals wonder if the company is preparing to take on big listing sites like Realtor.com and Zillow, rather than just serve as a gateway to them.
Google Maps has integrated listings submitted by agents, brokers and third-party vendors to Google Base into "place pages." Now, all the information Google has about an individual listing can be viewed on a single landing page that links back to the source of information.
That’s led many in the industry to wonder if Google’s listing aggregation capabilities will come to rival those of national property listing sites — or even parcel-based databases that also provide information about homes that aren’t on the market.
The National Association of Realtors has even weighed in on the issue, saying that the way Google currently indexes listings in order to speed search results is not tantamount to the unauthorized "scraping" of data that some third-party search portals have resorted to.
One problem brokers and agents have with Google’s current approach is that the links served up to consumers often take them to sites of third-party vendors who submit listings to Google, rather than to the agents or brokers who actually represent the listings.
Steve Skinner, vice president of information technology at the San Francisco Bay Area-based brokerage Alain Pinel Realtors, said that Alain Pinel sends listings to Google, as do many vendors who work for the company’s agents. The click-through on a high percentage of those listings goes to third-party vendors like TourFactory, Skinner said.
Google has been unresponsive to complaints about the issue, he said.
"When will you provide a higher level of broker relations, like we get on Trulia, (Yahoo Real Estate) and Zillow?" Skinner asked Maslan. "When we try to work with you, it’s like sending our listings into a black box."
Maslan said Google is looking into implementing "role based views" to improve its ability to direct consumers to the best source of information on a listing. He said Google gets listings from multiple listing services (MLSs) and technology vendors that power MLSs. Other sources include vendors that syndicate listings for agents such as Postlets and vFlyer.
"We are no more in the real estate business than we are in the cafe or the museum business," Maslan said. "We view as key … to get (the information) right, but what we really want to do is show it in context."
One Silicon Valley-based Realtor and investor said she wished Google would make its listing search capabilities more like a "universal MLS." With housing markets served by hundreds of MLSs, it would be nice if clients looking for properties in say, New York City, could search for properties "without being bounced from agent to agent," she said.
Maslan said Google will remain focused on helping consumers find information, serving as a waypoint on the way to the source of information.
"We have had the same issue with business listings, schools and parks — there are tons of sources" of information, Maslan said. "What we really focus on is making sense of all those sources," rather than creating a single destination for consumers.
Google does offer a set of real estate tools to help agents and brokers make their listings more visible on Google Maps, and to use YouTube to showcase listings.
Although Google pays its bills by selling AdWords and other advertising, "We want to make it easy for you to publish and distribute your property listings without a fee," Maslan said. The process can be as simple as publishing a spreadsheet and distributing it via Google for properties to appear on Google Maps, he said.
Most of Maslan’s presentation was dedicated to a big-picture overview of how Google approaches search in general, beginning with the satellite and aerial imagery that serves as a substrate for the overlay of more information, such as street grids, landmarks, businesses and photos — much of it user-generated.
Google users are "annotating the planet" at the rate of 10,000 changes per hour, he said, showing a timelapse video of user-generated changes to a map of Davao City, Philippines.
Google is taking its own car-mounted "street view" cameras off the road and onto trails and into interior spaces so businesses can show off their ambience or other attractions to consumers.
Google recently acquired a visual search company based in the United Kingdom, called Plink. Inman News founder and Publisher Bradley Inman asked Maslan if Google’s budding visual search capabilities will someday allow users to take a picture of a house — or even a person — and submit it to a search engine to get results.
Such capabilities are in testing now, and should eventually reach fruition, Maslan said.