Real Estate Search: Why Agents Don’t Need To “Win”, Just Earn

This article was originally published on Geek Estate Blog:

Drew wrote a great piece earlier on the state of real estate search.  I was at Inman Connect in New York last week as well, and it appears that not only did we share a few drinks, we also shared some of the same speaker “takeaways” in terms of the dynamics of portals and agents in the online arena.

What we didn’t share was the same reaction to the speakers’ positions.  By and large, the message was “Portals have already won search.  Stop trying to compete in that space. Focus on other things.”

I think that a lot of our disagreement may be more in semantics than actual strategy, but for a word-nerd like myself, it matters.  Telling a real estate agent to “cede” the real estate search arena, in whichever platform, is a dangerously overemphasized position, in my opinion.

Even still, we can start from Drew’s points, most of which I agree with in concept:

1. A “decent” web search is the cost of doing business in 2014.

Without a doubt, this is true.  Having a website with search was unique last century.  The cost of most decent-quality websites is minimal compared to most agent/brokers’ other advertising budgets, but most don’t apply the effort or the resources to make it usable and friendly.

Your site is not going to be anywhere near as good as a portal’s in terms of UI and design.  You don’t have an L.A. agency working for you.  But, if it’s clean, easy, and full of unique local content, your users still might prefer it to the big boys.

2. There is room for Agents/Brokers in Web search.

Glad we agree here.  Agents don’t need to “beat” a portal.  They just need to garner a handful of leads every week.  This isn’t particularly expensive, it just requires some marketing strategy and ongoing upkeep.  Being the 4th or 5th website that a buyer visits allows you to differentiate from a national organization and sell to a consumer who is likely closer to purchasing than they were when they visited their first real estate search site (likely a portal).

3. We live in a mobile world.

Increasingly so…

4. Building great mobile products is a lot harder than web.

…and costly.  There are fewer options available at the moment, fewer providers, and fewer folks who really know how to do mobile well.  This translates into a much larger expense for a decent quality product.  Moreover, if it’s a one-off product that doesn’t have built-in updates available (i.e. the provider will create a new version for iOS7 without breaking your bank), it’s going to be sinking from the day it goes live.

5. Building great consumer products is not a broker’s (or agent’s) core competency.

True.  This goes back to the need for some focus and integration of web search into the basic company strategy.  Without intently creating a quality search experience, the efforts will be in vain.  At the same time, it doesn’t have to be Zillow, or Trulia, or Realtor.com.  It just needs to be a user-friendly search that provides unique content from your local market.

6. Zillow, Trulia, Realtor.com (& Redfin) are dominating the market.

It’s true, the portals get over 100 million leads/year.  Only 5 million homes/year are actually sold.  Not all leads are equal.  The consumer is searching lots of sites, and your leads will be more focused.  When a buyer searches on John James Realty and then signs up with John James Realty, he or she is probably more likely to recognize John’s name when he calls back, as opposed to when he was one of four agents on a portal listing page who happened to get the lead.  Are your five local website leads leads worth ten of theirs?  I don’t know.  But, I’d wager that your local site’s leads offer much higher conversion rates.

7. Mobile Distribution is Insanely Hard.

This may be the biggest point of the discussion.  If the scarcity and cost of quality mobile developers wasn’t bad enough, the task of garnering consumer adoption of apps is exponentially more difficult than generating website visitors.  It requires an entirely separate marketing strategy for the mobile product, and it has to continue long-term to keep the product viable.

My slightly different answers to each real estate role:

  •  Agents:  Start with the best IDX you can find.  It doesn’t need to cost $1,000/mo.  It doesn’t need to outpace a national portal.  It just needs to be so easy to use that you’re convincing a handful of consumers, every week, to contact you.  As Drew rightly said, a mobile app should probably be nowhere near the top of your priorities…unless you’re already doing very well at search.  If you already have a large enough following/user list to market an app to early adopter/reviewers, and you have the resources to purchase a product that will continue to be improved over time, it might be worth a shot.  In the meantime, don’t ignore mobile web.  Get your website responsive if you don’t have an app (or even if you do).
  • Brokers:  Go build an app with a smart developer.  It might not make you a lot of money for a while.  But, over time, the democratization of mobile app technology will happen much like it has for other technologies.  It will get cheaper.  Try it out, don’t break the bank, but understand how it works so you’re prepared for the future.  It may not be “found” by tons of consumers, but your agents can get their clients to use it and keep them in the fold.  For a broker, it’s not a huge expense.
  • Franchises:  You’ve got the funds, but you need a better reason to build a great, high-end app.  If you’re going to do it, find a way to make it unique.  Search is great, but if you can tie another information source or local service model into the app, you’ll have something consumers will talk about.  Create a service that ties real estate search to an idea that generates word-of-mouth traffic in your offices’ local markets and faster services from your agents to their clients.

In the end, my drive for agents is in continuing to hold their ground where a sliver of traffic might seem insignificant to others but is enough to make their next year a record year.  Drew’s points are salient for the industry as a whole.  For the individual, there are exceptions to those rules, but only where real dedication and focus on the search process is part of the strategy will there be worthwhile financial returns.