Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article contained an error. The Houston Association of Realtors maintains agent ratings on its HAR.com website but disabled a feature soon after launch that displayed agents’ transaction histories.
NEW YORK — 2010 marked a turning point in online real estate, said Realtor.com President Errol Samuelson. It was the first year that more consumers "found the home they ultimately bought, rather than the agent finding it" — 41 percent vs. 37 percent.
Samuelson spoke as a part of an online panel during the Real Estate Connect conference last week. He was joined on stage by Pete Flint, co-founder and CEO of property search site Trulia; Ian Morris, CEO of marketing software company Market Leader; and Spencer Rascoff, CEO of property valuation and search site Zillow.
And while consumers may be more empowered by the growing body of real estate information online, "The fundamentals of business have not changed," Samuelson said. "It’s about creating a very compelling consumer experience."
He described Realtor.com as "the top dog" in online real estate traffic, though Web analytics firm Hitwise ranked Yahoo Real Estate higher in its latest monthly report.
"We have a very engaged audience. We do focus on circulation, but also on engagement — not just how many people come to the site, but how long do they stay, what do they look at," Samuelson said.
"I agree with the sentiment, but scale (in online traffic) is important for a media company," Zillow’s Rascoff said.
Zillow, Trulia and Realtor.com let agents post their listings for free, and sell advertising. Rascoff declined to disclose how many leads Zillow generates, though Flint and Samuelson each said "hundreds of thousands," and Flint said "many more than Zillow."
"The fundamental question is if it works," Flint said. "Does the phone ring?"
Samuelson pointed to a mobile explosion in lead generation.
"The mobile user is very, very targeted," Samuelson said. While desktop users tend to browse listings in general more, mobile users tend to view a lot of specific home listings, he said.
He forecast that some of the big trends in real estate this year would be: data rights and protection, agent performance, mobile tech and social media.
"There’s a lot of talk about social (media), and don’t believe as an industry that we’re using it correctly," Samuelson said.
One audience member asked what the portals were going to do about the duplication of data throughout the sites.
"I think (duplicate data) is sort of a big, unappreciated problem. I think mobile is going to make this issue more apparent," Samuelson said.
"We update listings every 15 minutes. We don’t have that problem," he added.
One audience member asked Samuelson why he, as a dues-paying Realtor, couldn’t be on an "equal footing" with other agents, in terms of advertising on Realtor.com, unless he paid more.
Samuelson responded that Realtor.com enables any multiple listing service to add its listings to the site, and the site offers multiple advertising options.
The company heads also commented on the services that make them stand out from their competitors.
Rascoff touted Zillow’s new agent ratings system, for example.
"It’s been wildly successful so far. We have thousands of agents and thousands of reviews up. I use that example to subtly differentiate what Zillow does. Zillow is for consumers, Realtor.com is for Realtors. (Realtor.com has) not launched agent reviews. It’s been 15 years — I’m sure the idea has occurred to them," Rascoff said.
Samuelson said that he did not believe Zillow’s system would ultimately flourish.
"With (HAR), you had to have had a transaction with (the agent). With Zillow, I don’t think their implementation is going to work, and here’s why: You don’t have to have had a transaction with them. The spam ratings on the site will devalue the concept of ratings," Samuelson said.
Brian Copeland, an agent from Nashville, Tenn., said, "I love getting reviews. I feel that Yelp is great for reviews. Why not let review sites be review sites?"
"With all due respect to Yelp, if you’re going to be searching for real estate, you’re going to go to a real estate site," Rascoff said.
On Trulia’s site, agents generate leads by demonstrating their expertise publicly on Trulia Voices, not through ratings and reviews, Flint said.
Trulia will also offer international home search to its users in the first half of this year.
"We notice in many cities that people want to look for purchases across borders. The world is getting smaller," Flint said.
Two audience members commented on the unreliability of Zillow’s Zestimates.
"Zestimates are imperfect. They are generated by computer three times a week and they’re only as accurate as the underlying data," Rascoff said. The Manhattan market proves especially difficult to gauge because "co-op data is not public and Manhattan is such a high-end market. (That’s) a perfect storm of less accurate Zestimates here in Manhattan than in other parts of the country," Rascoff said.
One audience member went so far as to thank Zillow for its inaccurate information so that she had the opportunity to show off her expertise to her clients.
In response, Rascoff said, "That’s the way to use it. We call it a Zestimate, not a ‘Zeppraisal.’ You’re using it correctly."
Market Leader’s Ian Morris said, "I don’t look at these guys as competitors, (though) we are trying to get consumers to engage with our real estate brokerage sites rather than to their portals. We are a software company.
"More and more of our revenue is coming from brokerage companies. Our customers know who’s driving the most leads because we track. Frankly, these (portals) are all great sources of traffic," Morris said. Formerly known as HouseValues Inc., Market Leader changed its name in 2008 and has transitioned from a being primarily a lead-generation company into a provider of subscription software and advertising products.
Market Leader will be one of the providers of a new platform Keller Williams Realty plans to roll out this year. The deal brings Market Leader’s customer base to more than 90,000, Morris said.
Market Leader reported in a regulatory filing it will receive $10 million during the initial five-year term of the agreement, and expects to generate additional revenue from premium "software as a service" (SaaS) solutions and lead-generation services that will be made available to Keller Williams agents, teams and brokers.
Inman News reporter Matt Carter contributed to this report.