It takes some real “cojones” — perhaps even a touch of hubris — to think you can take on Zillow at this point. The listing portal is now worth more than $5 billion, and it’s dropping $65 million on advertising this year.

But Ben Kinney, a Bellingham, Washington-based real estate entrepreneur, thinks his startup has got what it takes. And based on what partners at Google Ventures have said about “Blossor,” perhaps we shouldn’t rule him out.

They dubbed the fledgling listing portal a “Zillow-killer.”

Kinney’s credentials also inspire some confidence: He said he has come to own seven brokerages with 800 agents after 10 years in the business, has sold a real estate tech startup to Market Leader (now owned by Trulia) and has seen early success with another, the transparent task manager Brivity.

Blossor’s game plan for listing-portal domination hinges on three strategies: conquering natural-language search, insulating consumers from agents, and “gamifying” its user experience. 

The site is currently offering early access on a first-come, first-serve basis, but has plans to launch out of beta sometime this summer.

“We want to create a place for consumers where we can nurture them over time until they’re ready for an actual transaction,” said Kinney.

First, you have to reel them in. Kinney plans on doing that by optimizing Blossor’s rankings in “long-tail” search, or searches that use natural language, rather than key phrases.

Kinney doesn’t aspire to rank high for searches like “Seattle homes for sale.” What he’s shooting for are much more specific search inquiries like, “Seattle condos close to the highest-rated bars” or “Seattle homes over 1 million with a pool.”

“Long-tail search is not something that the major portals have focused [on],” Kinney said. “We want to own the long-tail first.”

The site has dumped “every word in the English dictionary” into its database in pursuit of that goal, and generates a URL for every search that a user types into the site’s search box.

Blossor’s database currently has about 90 percent of listings in Oregon and Washington sourced from MLSs, according to Kinney. By the year’s end, he wants the site to cover the “entire Western part of the U.S.”

Natural-language search may seem to jibe with real estate search, but Marc Davison, a partner at real estate consultancy 1000watt, notes that listing sites have already experimented with the technology for years.

“There are just so many variables to a home search that I believe users will miss out on properties based on their requests not matching up with the details the agents plugs in,” he said. “This feels gimmicky.” operator Move Inc. rolled out a natural-language search tool for real estate professionals, “Find,” in 2010, which it offers to MLSs. MLSs that have signed up to provide Find for members include Midwest Real Estate Data (MRED) in Chicago, MLS Property Information Network Inc. (MLS PIN) in Boston, and the San Francisco Association of Realtors.

Move recently revealed that it’s invested in a startup, Ylopo Inc., that’s out to build “the world’s most intuitive (real estate) search engine.”

Kinney thinks Blossor’s natural-language search blows away everything that’s come before it.

Blossor custom view showing thumbnails of homes by price -- in this case, homes in Seattle priced above $800,000.

Blossor can show thumbnails of homes by price — in this case, homes in Seattle priced above $800,000.

“Real estate sites and MLSs might do simple keyword searches like ‘with pool,” he said. “Blossor looks at MLS data, public data, and social and online databases to allow users to search in sentence.”

Blossor is also working constantly to improve its search tool, he said. Every time a user’s search turns up zero results, Blossor’s team tweaks the site’s algorithms so the tool supports the search the next time around, according to Kinney. 

Blossor’s beta testers have conducted over 40,000 natural-language searches that have helped Blossor support queries like: “I’m looking for a home in Seattle with a gourmet kitchen,” “I need a home in Bellingham where I can have horses,” and “Bellingham homes for whale watching.”

Blossor doesn’t just want to crack long-tail search. It’s also on a quest for loyalty from users. 

“In real estate search for consumers there’s no retention of customers” Kinney said. “People aren’t particularly loyal to a specific portal.”

Shielding consumers from lead-hungry agents is one way the site will build trust with users, Kinney said. Consumers who want to request a showing get to choose an agent from Blossor’s directory (which agents must pay $100 a month to belong to).

They don’t have to hand their contact information over to someone who’s paid to receive it, like on listing portals that sell leads to agents.

Blossor is “as agent-friendly as a national portal could be,” Kinney added. The site lets agents connect with clients, so that all of a client’s inquiries on Blossor go straight to the agent, not a competitor.

listing details page

Screen shot of a Blossor listing page. 

Sheltering users from agents on the prowl probably won’t hurt Blossor. But what better way to keep customers coming back than to hook them on your product?

Blossor has “gamified” the site to that end, serving up a rewards-based experience that ties into its primary revenue source.

Users earn “Blossor Bucks” and badges by performing different actions on the site including favoriting properties, describing photos and neighborhoods, and sharing listings on social media.

When users are ready to buy or do work on their home, they may trade in the currency for discounts from partner vendors on services and items including closing costs, mortgage costs, home furnishings, home repairs and moving costs. Blossor charges vendors membership and per-transaction fees.

The discounts should add up to a boatload of savings, Kinney said.

“We want the total value savings from using our [Blossor bucks] to be greater than any real estate commission that Redfin could refund,” Kinney said, referring to Redfin’s buyer rebates.

Users may also interact with friends on Blossor and produce photo collections that resemble Pinterest boards. The social and gameplay features of the site cater to consumers who make up the vast majority of visitors to listing portals: people who aren’t buying homes anytime soon.

About a billion real estate searches are conducted by users “who have no interest or ability to buy,” according to Kinney.

“Blossor is designed  to be a powerful tool for serious homebuyers and sellers, but also a fun, interactive place for the dreamers and decorators behind the billion searches,” Kinney said.

blossor rewards

Users can earn “Blossor Bucks” by performing different actions on the listing portal.

Blossor may have dreamed up features that could help set it apart from the heavy hitters, but all its bells and whistles won’t count for much if it can’t get its hands on inventory for users to search.

The startup plans to use both Internet Data Exchange (IDX) and virtual office website (VOW) agreements with multiple listing services to stock its database with listings.

Since IDX agreements allow companies to publicly display listings, those agreements will allow Blossor to pull consumers off search engine results pages and onto Blossor listing results pages.

But users that arrive on the site from search engines won’t be able to click from listing search results pages to listing pages. They won’t be able to navigate the site at all, in fact, unless they register with Blossor first.

That’s because the site taps VOW listing feeds to power its native search experience, not IDX listing feeds. Blossor’s use of VOW agreements represents a “strategic decision based on political feeling towards online brokerages,” Kinney said.

Kinney’s talking about the resentment some real estate professionals have expressed about “online brokerages,” also known as “paper brokerages.”

Paper brokerages join MLSs in order to publicly display listings and monetize the traffic that those listings generate by selling leads or providing referrals. But to many brokers’ annoyance, they do not provide traditional brokerage services to consumers.

The VOW agreements also allow Blossor to show MLS data to consumers (registered ones) that it can’t display under an IDX agreement, like recently sold homes, price changes and pending sales, Kinney noted.

To abide by the terms of VOW and IDX agreements, Kinney said Blossor will provide traditional brokerage services in the territories of all MLSs that it licenses data from.

“We have to,” he said. Because if a firm acquires most of its inventory through secondhand sources, “your information is inherently outdated.”

Kinney said he hasn’t decided how many agents Blossor will deploy in the territories of each of its partner MLSs.

In addition to Google Ventures, Blossor — which has spent $1.5 million to fund itself so far — is in talks with a number of firms that are considering backing the startup, Kinney said.

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