Future of Broker Websites
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.
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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.