Editor’s note: This is the first of a three-part series. See Part 2.

An issue that is becoming increasingly more contentious is the role of third-party publisher (syndication) websites such as Realtor.com, Trulia and Zillow. Do these sites really serve the industry well or are they actually harming the consumer experience?

The answer depends upon who is answering the question.

On May 21, 2012, I attended the Hear It Direct conference in Dallas, Texas. Sue Adler and Rob Hahn provided us with a firsthand look at how buyers and sellers actually experience the listing and sales process. One of the most fascinating surprises was that the buyers and sellers interviewed had never heard of Trulia or Zillow. However, several of the buyers did mention Realtor.com as a site they had visited.

How do consumers decide to hire an agent?

Based upon all the real estate ads on the various third-party portals, as well as those on Google and Facebook, the real estate industry seems to have decided that advertising on these sites is a wise ad spend, but is it?

The panelists at Hear It Direct suggest that it may not be. When the panelists were asked about whether they would consider hiring someone from an ad, the response was unanimous:

  • "We don’t pay any attention to those. We go straight to the organic search."
  • "When I get ready to hire someone, I will ask a friend or someone I trust about who they recommend."

Michelle Holt, the Gen Y marketing director for REDX, a real estate lead generator, recently relocated and has been searching for a home. When I asked about her experience, her remarks dovetailed with what the Hear It Direct panelists had to say.

"My generation knows when we see a third-party data feed. I tried calling some of the agents who were listed on these sites, and it was very frustrating. For example, one agent who called me back said, ‘Hey, I saw you called on that listing. What are you looking for? What price range are you in?’"

Holt’s response to the agent was, "Have you seen the property?" (No). "Do you live or work within a five-mile radius of the property?" (No.)

Holt was clear: She wanted the listing agent, and here’s why. The Google generation wants transparency and authenticity.

As Holt put it: "We want to get to the source. We want authenticity. We want to know who the man behind the curtain is, and we won’t be likely to trust until we understand what is real and what is not real. That’s what makes Facebook and Twitter so cool. Even if the person doesn’t follow me back, I feel like I am directly connected to that person. There’s no filter."

I asked Holt, who used to work in finance at Goldman Sachs, to elaborate more about how she was going about searching for a home. Her response again dovetailed with the Hear It Direct conference:

"When I want to find a property, I go to Google search on an area; I don’t go to one of these other sites."

Mike Parker, managing director of Blackwater Consulting Group, echoed the same sentiments:

"When people search for homes, they don’t go to third-party portals or social media sites to locate property. They go to the major search engines such as Bing, Google and Yahoo."

But what about all the traffic on third-party sites?

According to eBizMBA, Realtor.com, Trulia, and Zillow generated 30.5 million unique visitors in May. That’s a huge amount of traffic. However, no matter how much traffic you generate, there’s a much more important issue.

As one Web marketing expert put it: "You know who else gets a lot of traffic? A billboard on the freeway. The traffic isn’t what matters. It’s whether or not that traffic creates ROI (return on investment.)"

Parker echoed the same sentiment: "There are 6.4 billion real estate-related searches every month. The amount of traffic these sites generate is infinitesimal as compared to the total of all real estate-related searches."

To be precise, the 30.5 million unique monthly visitors that Realtor.com, Trulia and Zillow generate are less than half of 1 percent (0.48 percent) of all real estate-related traffic. In other words, of all the real estate-related searches taking place, 99.5 percent are taking place on sites other than Realtor.com, Trulia and Zillow.

Are mobile apps the exception?

While some consumers may not use a third-party website to find an agent or property when they are searching on their computers, many download a real estate search app for their mobile device when they are out looking at property. Given that up to 50 percent of the real estate searches are now occurring on mobile devices, can you afford to ignore the apps from these three companies who garner the most use?

Would you like to know more about how syndication may work in your business? If so, don’t miss Part 2 of this series.

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