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Future of Broker Websites

March 29, 2009

Matt Dollinger, of @Properties in Chicago, raised a very interesting question at the Leading RE conference that just concluded.  He then raised it again over Twitter (Matt is @mattdollinger) and the discussion threatened to overwhelm the 140-char limit.  It’s time for bloggery.

Matt’s question was this (in essence):

In 2015, with companies like Trulia, Zillow, Roost and others really advancing the technology of real estate search, should brokers have their own search site?

Since the panel was titled “Real Estate 3.0”, it naturally lends itself to these kinds of speculative questions.

This is an important question.  Money is not unlimited.  Brokers have to make decisions today to align their strategy going forward.  And as Matt himself pointed out during session, brokerages are not technology companies at heart.

The answer seemed to be from the panelists that brokers have to do both: create a top-notch brokerage website that is optimized for SEO, has great user experience, and captures leads all over the place, but also send listings to all of the aggregators to drive additional leads, because the big guys have national (global) reach and can grab so many more eyeballs than a single brokerage site could.

Trouble is… that just doesn’t jive logically.

Internet is Not Local

Fact is, while a brokerage may be local, and real estate may be local, the Internet is most assuredly not local.  There is no reason why someone searching for “chicago real estate” from New Jersey would not find a local website.

Google Search on "Chicago Real Estate"

Google Search on "Chicago Real Estate"

Granted, @Properties apparently needs some SEO consultancy love, seeing as how it doesn’t appear on page one, two, or three, but other local brokerage sites are right there: Baird & Warner, Rubloff, Dreamtown Realty, etc. all show up.

And Trulia also shows up.

As a consumer, if I go into a local brokerage site like Dreamtown’s, then go into Trulia, there is a world of difference there from a user experience standpoint.

Dreamtown Homepage

Dreamtown Homepage

Trulia Chicago

Trulia Chicago

The one has all manner of busy advertising, bullshit marketing messages that I would immediately ignore, and so on.  The other has a clean interface, a nice Google map mashup, and easy to use search filters right there on the page.

For Dreamtown to come up to par with Trulia, it would need to spend a pretty serious amount of money and time.  And the Dreamtown website is actually pretty darn good as far as local brokerage sites go.  Having worked on corporate brokerage sites, I think it is no stretch to say that a top-notch custom-coded website with developers, designers, UI design, SEO, and the like can easily top $250K in cost.

That isn’t even taking into consideration what it would cost to develop something actually new and innovative.  A new kind of search, a totally new way to interface with listings data, etc. could mean literally millions of dollars in R&D costs.

In theory, the aggregators and web portals like Trulia are technology companies first and foremost, and have core competencies in design and development.  They should always be ahead of the brokers in terms of technology and user interface.  (And in theory, they should dominate the brokers in SERPS… though often, they do not.)

Branding & CRM

Matt would argue — and correctly — that a brokerage company still needs a website for branding and CRM purposes.

For instance, you have to have a site where your existing seller clients can go, login, view all activity reports on their listings, see where the transaction is, download paperwork, upload paperwork, etc.  (You all do have this, right?)

And it would be difficult to brand your brokerage and your agents as local experts (since real estate is local, even if the Internet is not) without providing some heavy duty in-depth information and data about your local market.

But neither of these things need a SEARCH experience.

In theory, @Properties could have an awesome local website, filled with information about the area, a series of hyperlocal blogs written by their agents, and so on.  But rather than a search experience, just offer a “Search Our Chicago Listings on Trulia” or some such.

Either/Or?

Of course, most folks would assume that like in all debates, the real answer is a “bit of both” rather than an “either/or”.

So a broker would go invest a few thousand bucks to get a templated site from some low-cost website creator, or frame in a search solution from some IDX search provider, and still spend thousands more to feature listings on Realtor, or on Trulia, or pay for leads from some aggregator.

This is, however, a case of “either/or”. One of the following is true:

  1. The money spent on putting in a search into the local broker site is wasted, since consumers would naturally prefer (and only find by year 2015) the tech-sites that emphasize the whole search user experience and functionality, and leads would be sent directly to the broker.  Instead, spend that money on enhancing local info, the brand presence, and the CRM applications.
  2. The money spent buying traffic/leads from Third Parties is wasted, since all searches begin with Google anyhow.  The name of the game is to rank higher in Google, and not having search and all those results pages kills you.  Plus, you don’t need super-duper search; you just need good clean intuitive search that connects the consumer to your agent as quickly as possible.

Both cannot be true as a matter of logic.

Traffic vs. Lead

An important distinction here is between ‘traffic’ and ‘leads’.  Louis Cammarosano of HomeGain is fond of pointhing this out.  A broker or agent, in his view, could care less about a site sending him a billion visitors if all of them are bored-ass tirekickers who wouldn’t convert to a customer anyhow.  They would rather that HomeGain (or whoever) send them ten people who are solid ready-to-buy or ready-to-sell consumers.

In theory, the third-party sites can send enormous amounts of traffic to the spiffy brokerage site with a great search experience.  Since these are just random visitors, the brokerage site would need to do a lot more — including offering a search experience — in order to convert them to actual leads.  And it is possible that these sites could send millions of visitors, not one of whom will ever hit “Request More Info” or “Request a Showing” or pick up the phone.

That traffic, however, is sourced more or less from Google, which brings us right back to “SERPS are what matters, not SEARCH”.

Or, the third party sites are sending enormous amount of leads, which are consumers asking to be contacted.  In which case, they’re past the whole “search for a home” deal and into the “I need more information” deal.  And the brokerage’s spiffy new search technology is completely bypassed.

Real Estate in 2015

So let’s fast forward.  2015.  Hard to make assumptions based on technology today, with our rapid speed of change.  But let’s go with it.  Let’s assume that search technology is so advanced by 2015, and computing has totally changed, with multi-touch computing the norm.

What happens to search-based broker/agent website then?  The answer is directly related to what happens to the big aggregators by then.  And where search technology is by then.

As the fast and furious twitterstream on this topic indicates, this is a bigger issue than one might think initially, with implications across the entire spectrum of online real estate.

I’m looking forward to the discussion and exploration.

-rsh

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15 Comments leave one →
  1. March 29, 2009 9:23 pm

    I think the biggest Problem is giving up you leads to the zillows,trulias,roost and others. who is google and yahoo credit the address to. I have google based search on a google service appliance. I get leads form someone googleing an address that is in my MLS. I get questions on specific properties because google thinks it is mine.

    it comes down to location location location. I do not want to give up my Real Estate (on the Net) just to become beholding to the Realtor.com’s of the world.

    someone does not need to search 3 million listing if they are moving to a specific area. they need the local MLS that is it. I want google and yahoo to think I’m that guy

  2. March 30, 2009 6:28 am

    I’m just an agent, not a broker. My personal local real estate website makes me a six figure income. If I had to depend on Realtor. com and the Trulia’s of the world I would probably have less than a $20K income. Maybe things will be different in 2015 but till then I’ll be promoting my own local real estate site and badmouthing those who wish to take my listing data and sell it back to me and those who produce zestimates that are off by 10% -20% which do a good job of filling consumers heads with erroneous information. If I want to buy a home in Tahoe California I’d like to talk to a real estate professional in Tahoe California, not some tech company that makes websites based on faulty, scraped or incomplete data.

  3. March 30, 2009 7:43 am

    Interestingly, there is a broker website in Chicago which describes itself as Chicago’s Best Real Estate Search Engine http://www.dreamtown.com/
    When I visited an open house in Chicago and asked the visitors how they found it, many referenced this “search engine.”

    • March 30, 2009 1:10 pm

      Doubly interesting, Dream Town comes up in the top five of search results for “Chicago Real Estate” on Google. Ahead of Trulia.

      So it does raise a question as to whether SERPs or search experience is more important.

      -rsh

  4. March 30, 2009 12:33 pm

    Great post Rob, but nothing moves faster than a viral news storm…especially when you have a mention of President Obama, as a CENTURY 21 Agent? http://twurl.nl/boboih. Newsday says, “he shows off the White House grounds like a Century 21 agent.”

    Quality viral marketing opportunity for the CENTURY 21 PR Team!

    • March 30, 2009 1:09 pm

      Heh, nice job on that mention.

      Although… you just might have lost 48% of the country in terms of customer-base. 🙂

      -rsh

  5. March 30, 2009 8:30 pm

    At the end of the day, brokerages make money from selling houses on the list side and finding buyers on the buy side. As long as a listing sells, they get paid. I 100% agree that seo is important to finding buyers, but I don’t think a brokerage needs a killer search interface to do well at SEO (I’m sure we’ve all seen sites with crappy UIs show up high in search results).

    Don’t get me wrong – a website should be important to a brokerages marketing plan; but (IMHO) not to the point of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on a search experience. You’ve got to do the ROI analysis before making that kind of financial commitment.

  6. March 31, 2009 8:46 am

    Great post.

    I think the question comes down to how many consumer search sites do we need as an industry? Are consumers better served at the national level or the local level? Given that local search is still in its infancy, it may even be too early to decide.

    What is good for the independent search sites may or may not be good for the brokers and agents who use their marketing services. It depends on how the advertising contracts are structured and how many leads flow to the brokers and individual agents.

  7. March 31, 2009 9:58 am

    As a consumer, techy-geek and a real estate agent – here’s how I’d like the layout of a broker home page to look.

    Small company description at the top, then have the page broken down by area with a 5-10 line description of each with price range and some photos. Then for each specific area I want to see stats – maybe 5 year and 1 year, prices, # purchased etc…then be able to search that specific area, have links to local services, restaurants etc…then a picture and a description of the Real Estate expert in that area with link to their email, Twitter and blog with public comments/reviews about them. Possibly links on the side to real estate related service providers that we work with (NOT paid advertisers) and a description of each. In this way, we provide some of the information Trulia/Google provides but with the Local Flavor and ability to connect with a person. My company site isn’t there yet but as soon as the market picks up, we intend to move in that direction. http://www.dunesproperties.com/

    • March 31, 2009 10:57 am

      FWIW, I love the website you’re describing. If it only added Lifestyle Search, it would be a rockstar. 🙂

      -rsh

      • March 31, 2009 11:22 am

        Oh yeah! For those who don’t know where they want to live – ask a bunch of lifestyle questions (schools, walk/drive, activities, price) and then match them up with the area/neighborhood. Kind of like eHarmony for real estate!

  8. April 1, 2009 12:06 am

    So, I’m totally slacking on my post for this and instead wrote a post called “Jerry was a real estate Broker” to the theme of Primus instead… sorry broham.

    Anyway, love to read what you write of course… and will be adding my version soon enough. I think that it all comes down to the numbers in the end and it’s going to be kind of a “this and that” situation. The brokerage is never going to give up the search function, and until Trulia begins forcing the registration of its visitors, it can’t actually provide the client with all of the listings.

    So i believe it will come down to having a killer site with all of the local information that client could hope to have (onboard, everyblock, outside.in) plus a trulia voices style internal blog generated by the agents, plus a simple (but accurate) search function over a google mashup.

    But… all of this HAS TO be an extension of the company brand. I guess I’m talking about my post already… stay tuned!

    • April 1, 2009 12:10 am

      Hehe — can’t wait to read yours, bro.

      BTW, I don’t think Trulia is subject to VOW, is it? Do they qualify as a “participant” under MLS rules post-DOJ ruling? I didn’t get that sense.

      So registration or not, I’m not sure it makes a big difference to Trulia. I always thought they get listings direct from brokers, franchisors, and MLS who don’t want to slap handcuffs on ’em like they do their members.

      Could be wrong though.

      -rsh

    • Kevin F. permalink
      April 2, 2009 10:21 am

      Matt, I was wondering about those names you dropped and did a little research… Wow, everyblock.com is amazing! Thanks for indirectly turning me onto this!

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