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

real estate mobile searchDrew 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  It just needs to be a user-friendly search that provides unique content from your local market.

6. Zillow, Trulia, (& 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.

About Sam DeBord

Sam DeBord is a former management consultant and web developer who writes for for Inman News and REALTOR® Magazine. He is Managing Broker for Seattle Homes Group with Coldwell Banker Danforth, and 2016 President-Elect of Seattle King County REALTORS®. His team sells Seattle homes, condos, and Bellevue homes.

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  • “Try it out, don’t break the bank, but understand how it works so you’re prepared for the future.”

    I’m curious how much money breaking the bank is? Obvs it depends on how large the brokerage is, but what ballpark are you talking?

    • Great question. It just depends on the broker doing it. I wouldn’t make it a large part of my marketing budget, but I’d want to have something to advertise to agents for recruiting and retention. Just a quick “you can use this with your clients and make sure they’re not calling someone else’s office.” It would take little more than a branded IDX search.

      • Ok, so maybe a broker buys some off the shelf app — and agents get a few clients to download it. But I’d be curious to know if a buyer would actually use it. They likely already have Z or T…why would they use a branded IDX search that is far inferior?

        • In many cases that’s true, but there are some exceptions.

          First, if the market’s portals have a low percentage of MLS listings (like mine at around 80%), it’s an easy sell to the client–accuracy vs. prettiness. Then there are still plenty of (likely older) clients who haven’t downloaded any app yet.

          But for most tech-savvy buyers in well-syndicated markets, you’re right, there wouldn’t be much reason to use the broker product.

  • “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.”

    I think (know) this is exponentially harder than it sounds. It can be done, of course…but there is likely a reason no one has accomplished that yet, right? But, that said, I am constantly blown away when I hear about some of the sums of $$ this industry spends on garbage. So maybe if the right franchise spent that money on the exact right product, built by the exact right person/dev team, at the exact right time — it would amount to something that would get adoption.

  • tggallaudet

    I love this topic.

    Yep, property search is a must. I agree with Drew that is has to be “decent” (and it’s pretty easy to be decent in 2014) and I agree with Sam that it has to be strategic, which is also getting easier. Without these 2 concepts, it’s dead, but it’s getting much easier and affordable to do both imo (even mobile!)

    As an agent, I think there are two needs for a great search website:

    1. Attract leads. Create community/neighborhood landing pages with embedded listings and use google to advertise them and/or write content to promote them.

    2. Property-Cart concept. Use your property-search site to easily and more efficiently collaborate on properties with existing clients. This will save both of you time. Portals are useless for this imho, because they don’t have an IDX feed with accurate data, as Sam said. They can be good reference for clients, but you need a good “property cart” concept you can share with clients to save time for you and them – agentfolio sounds awesome for this (haven’t used it yet). Providing a good property cart experience brings as much value in my opinion as the website delivering leads (referrals may increase if you deliver a great experience to current clients).

    Why build a mobile app? Why not just use a responsive website that was built for mobile too – this is doable and way cheaper imo. Good wordpress themes are already “responsive” and many “decent” IDX products, like boomtown and placester, for example, are responsive and work on mobile out of the box. They’re not going to be as sophisticated as an app, as you guys say, but they don’t need to be. If you pump them with local content, it should get you Sam’s appropriate number of leads, and maybe more. 🙂 It may also have some secondary upside and attract sellers.

    There are a ton of great IDX providers that are offering some cutting edge stuff lately. Placester (and probably others) now has an API that allows a developer to easily customize an IDX search site – you can create neighborhoods and present aggregated neighborhood data (like number of homes, average list price etc.) pretty easily. Much easier and cheaper than a straight custom job.

    You could hire a developer to use this API to create a uniquely local search experience based on neighborhoods and their lifestyle characteristics for under $10,000 I bet (maybe even half of that). It’s an open source framework and I’m sure more sophisticated and free templates will be created over time – in turn making development even cheaper in the future. These templates are all responsive out of the box too, which means they’ll work with mobile, tablet and desktop.

    • “You could hire a developer to use this API to create a uniquely local search experience based on neighborhoods and their lifestyle characteristics for under $10,000 I bet (maybe even half of that)”

      No disrespect, but I doubt that 😉 Unless you use offshore devs, and have enough technical chops to project manage / scope / coordinate with them….most people don’t have the skillset to project manage an offshore team.

      • tggallaudet

        Maybe I’m light, but the point is that you can put up a basic, responsive IDX site for a nominal monthly fee. Then doing custom work via an API like this (provided it works well and does everything you want) brings the cost down for building a custom site significantly – especially if it’s based on an open source framework where you could potentially have a growing library of reusable, custom idx-templates that you could plug into your WP site. It’s a cool concept, that will hopefully grow, but maybe it’s just for brokerages with a dedicated tech resource.

        The better way to go for an agent, imo, is to partner with an IDX/Marketing company that offers a non-custom, mobile-ready site that helps with lead gen and PPC campaigns – there’s a growing number of those that are producing big results.

        Jeff’s site is mobile ready – it looks great and it delivers and I bet the monthly cost for his IDX is less than the cost of two full page magazine ads…? 🙂

        • I agree the right approach for many is to partner w/ a marketing/idx company.

          All I was saying is that anything custom is going to be more than 10k. Anytime you start working with APIs, you need a real competent developer to mess around with that stuff. There are very very very few dev shops that will even do custom search integrations, because it’s frankly not worth it unless someone pays a huge chunk of money to have it done (& most don’t have the budget it would take to do it right).

          WordPress is an open source platform too, with a huge community behind it. And it still costs 6k+ to get anything GOOD custom designed….and that doesn’t include search at all (just plugging an existing idx into the site).

          Platforms like placester may lower the cost for custom search experiences, but it’s still not going to be cheap. The only way it becomes cheap is if a tech vendor builds the right integration that is easily re-usable for a bunch of different scenarios (essentially, builds their own WP plugin on top of Placesters).

  • I would have to agree with Sam.. Agents don’t have to win, they just need to earn!!! I also agree more users are using mobile devices, but they are necessarily down loading apps if they find an easy to use site that is mobile optimized as Sam mentions. Here are some numbers that will back that up.

    My little Hawaii real estate site generated 205 sales last year (2013). That is earning 😉

    I just went and looked at my RETURNING VISITORS not new visitors stats for that last 30 days..

    38,886 returning visitors were using desktop, 22,296 returning visitors were using mobile devices and 14,757 returning visitors were using tablets.

    You can see by all the numbers I shared that you don’t need a mobile app to have returning visitors that are using mobile devices. You just need an easy to use site that gives the user what they are looking for and you can sell plenty of homes and earn a really good living.

    Don’t surrender to the portals!!! You can still get your share if you have a site that converts users into sign ups and sends them new listings along with price changes. If you don’t have rankings you can drive traffic doing PPC (Google Adwords).

    Driving traffic to your own branded site that can send the user new listings and price changes is a much better option than buying leads from a portal that has thousands of agents to contact.

    I hope you all have a great 2014 🙂

    • tggallaudet

      Wow, awesome stats Jeff. What are some strategies you use to get traffic to your site?

      • My traffic is all organic… I have worked for years building my sites authority to get my rankings. Not all agents can achieve great organic rankings, but they can drive good traffic doing PPC and be very successful online as long as they drive the traffic to a site that is set up to convert the traffic into sign ups.

        • The two scenarios:
          1. Pay RE portals for leads / traffic
          2. Pay Google for PPC leads / traffic

          What’s the real difference? In both scenarios, the agent/broker is effectively ceding the seo/website to the portals…no? Unless someone is competing on the organic seo (and just having a website is not competing), they aren’t offering any competition to z/t/r..right?

          • tggallaudet

            There’s a big diff if I understand you correctly. You pay google for PPC leads to your site (hopefully to a landing page that has content related to their search and a reason for them to sign-up and get their info.) I prefer that.

            With RE portals, there’s no traffic perse (maybe a small amount from your profile page or something) but either a phone call or email. You pay for a display ad on their search results page along with other agents and when contact is made, it is usually made to all agents on that page, so you have to act fast and contact that lead first – in my experience the lead typically doesn’t answer if you’re not the first.

            Is what what you meant?

            Organic traffic is obviously the best. Jeff is crushing it.

          • Point taken. You’re paying for contact information either way, but yes you get a tiny bit more branding with the ppc route.

            Yes, Jeff is crushing it. But the number of people that can do what Jeff did…is crazy, crazy low. And they need to have started 8 years ago to get to that point.

          • It is not just branding. They are actually getting dripped on by your site with new listings and price changes. They are relying on your site now NOT a portal that has thousands of agents that are getting the same lead or to contact when they have a question about a property. When it is your site that question goes directly to you. Huge difference 🙂

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