The Bull Case for Industry Search & IDX

The Bull Case for Industry Search & IDX

[Editor’s note: We’re trying something new–collaborative thought pieces written by the Geek Estate Mastermind community. The goal is to make the absolute best argument possible, derived from the collective expertise of members. The first two articles are bull and bear arguments for industry search and IDX, a topic initiated by Greg Fischer over a year ago.

Bull: The industry must not cede search to the portals. Meeting buyer expectations and owned, perpetual lead generation are table stakes to agency.

Bear: The portals have already won the minds of buyers. Search is an undifferentiated lost cause. If you can’t “win,” why play at all? Read the full argument here.

Without further ado, here we go with the bull argument…]

By: Ted Adler

One of the great fallacies of real estate digital marketing is that Zillow cannot be beat. 

Yes, Zillow has put itself between the real estate broker and the consumer when it comes to the search experience: The word “Zillow” has replaced “real estate“ as the most likely additional phrase for people looking to find a home for sale. The millions of monthly visitors it attracts dwarfs that of any ad-free industry player, by a landslide. Take out Redfin from the equation, and it’s a complete romping.

Traditional property search (but not visual search) has been commoditized online, yet it is still a fundamental component to a real estate business. Consumer expectations are high and there’s a sense of entitlement, so if a potential buyer client arrives to an agent/broker website (however they get there) and is not given the option to search listings, the user experience is 100% compromised. That’s not to say they won’t work with an agent, but brand equity takes a hit and that buyer will have to be reached again some other way.

Search can yield true insight around when and why to communicate with a consumer, improving that experience and building a relationship. For most local brokerages, it’s a tool to convert traffic from multiple channels, not to win a web ranking contest.

Continued investment is essential as a way to serve buyers, generate leads, and avoid irrelevance. It’s true: Portals have the minds of buyers. But they have not won their hearts; that’s only something a person can do. 

PERPETUAL LEAD GENERATION MACHINE

Brokers are in the business of helping people own the most important asset: their home. Yet when it comes to their primary marketing tool (their website) in the dominant marketing media (the internet), they seem willing to rent their leads. These names, emails, and sometimes phone numbers–which are sprayed out to an array of brokers–run in the ballpark of $150/each.  When you stop paying that rent, you’re evicted from this lead pool.

The alternative of developing a strong website with a solid technical SEO foundation that can capture long-tail searches in a perpetual lead generation machine is a far better strategy. Beyond generating online leads to power the broker’s business annually, it serves as a quantifiable asset that can be monetized in a transaction.  

The biggest issue is not the website, but what is done after the website goes live. Long gone are the days of the internet as a “field of dreams.” If you build it, they won’t come. Billboards in the basement are seen by no one. Ranking well takes time, resources, and know how. In an era when reading is hard (and watching a video is easy), who really wants to spend time creating content and doing technical search engine optimization–much less the hard part, organic link building? Only those brokers who understand the digital landscape and want to win. Keep in mind: The longer you wait, the more expensive it becomes.

The Bears (which include the portals themselves) have convinced many brokers competing for traffic is not worth the required time or capital. In the aggregate, there is merit to that argument that no site (agent/broker websites, BPP, consumer MLS portals, Upstream, etc) will displace Zillow in 2020, or even 2025 for that matter. 

However, what real estate agent or brokerage cares about buyers nationwide? None of them. They care about hyperlocal. Competing for search phrases in an agent/broker’s “farm” is all that is required to make an IDX & SEO investment worthwhile.

As brokers are not technical by nature (a common college major for brokers is psychology), convincing them to invest in other areas isn’t hard. When it comes to their vehicle lease, brokers will throw down $700/month for an Audi Q7 and then debate the value of a website platform at $79, $149, or $199 a month. One will drive a handful of their clients around on a monthly basis.  The other will be the first drive everyone they know (and many people they do not know) will take with their brand. The former is irrelevant without the latter.

HYPER LOCAL SPECIALIZATION

The last mile of real estate search–property addresses and long-tail search queries pertinent to buyers further down the purchase funnel–accounts for 92.42% of queries according to ahrefs. When it comes to hyper local, Zillow can be beat. I know this as fact because we help clients do it every day.

Ranking number one for a specific property address is the ultimate “local” of digital marketing.  Appearing number one for your own listings is a highly valuable result, which could lead to impressing sellers in the research phase (a listing presentation asset) and converting buyers to conversations. 

Strategies/tactics for ranking well for hyper local:

It’s not a coincidence that all of this is part of Redfin’s repertoire of differentiation. 

INDUSTRY SEARCH SOLUTIONS

IDX is marketing magic. Using IDX content opens up a swiss army knife of marketing and sales capabilities.

Any cooperating member participant (agent or brokerage) of any size who opts into IDX policy may access and display a very comprehensive set of on- and off-market properties. Typically, that inventory is as or more comprehensive than any portal. It is vital to attract buyers who have had their first course of portal listings–or listings displayed in the window of agency’s in year’s past–and are ready to get serious with the actual local MLS database on a broker site. 

Historically, IDX has served three primary purposes:

  1. Power a buyer experience with all inventory (in real-time).
  2. Allow the agent/broker to engage, track, capture, and convert traffic (ultimate goal of a website).
  3. Enhance the brand of the brokerage as a go-to place for information about the local market.  

In addition to engaging and converting traffic, IDX should be part of a larger strategy to:

  • Increase time on website.
  • Reduce bounce rate.
  • Gain insight on client’s search activity and track search behavior. (Ie, “They said their budget is $400K and yet they keep going back and looking at properties in the $480K range.”)
  • Lend credibility to agent. Portals rely on 3rd party data so often inaccurate and out of date.
  • Offer a personalized consumer experience (as opposed to a mass portal experience).
  • Meet consumer expectations.

A world without IDX, would: 

  • cripple buyer-agency, as many buyer leads would only be distributed inter-brokerage. All pocket listings, all the time. 
  • lead to agents/brokers selectively sharing listing info with portals over local competition. 
  • cause SMB sized brokerages to get squeezed out or rolled up by incumbents who possess listing inventory control.

Nearly 20 years after IDX was made available, today it’s more relevant than ever. Gone are the days of the vanilla ‘boxed in’ (i.e. framed / I-framed) MLS search box. “Disassembling” IDX wouldn’t abandon a ghost town. To the contrary, it would cripple a utility that is required to maintain a sense of agency with buyers. Afterall, if professionals aren’t even facilitating the most basic online home discovery process, what are they doing at all?

THE AGGREGATION THEORY

Consumer MLS websites and the Broker Public Portal have the same goals as IDX: a comprehensive search experience, free from ads from competing agents. And not having to pay for leads. The difference is they add marketing muscle in the form of many agents promoting the same website.

Consumer-driven traffic is just one part of the equation. Agent-driven traffic is a very different animal with a much higher correlation to closings. Don’t ignore the potential of MLS-wide adoption of an agent-to-consumer mobile search tool.

Broker Public Portal, the joint venture with Homesnap, is aggregating consumers by leveraging agents on a nationwide scale. While they aren’t at the top of the traffic charts yet, it takes time. With continued efforts, they will crack the top five most trafficked real estate search portals.

HamptonsRE.com is a new portal to combat Zillow’s acquisition of Hamptons Real Estate Online (re-branded to Out East). HAR.com is the gold standard of what a consumer MLS portal can be. Granted, it was started years before any other MLS was considering how to combat the online portals existence. But, it is clear proof consumer MLS portals can gain an audience if cards are played correctly. 

DON’T GIVE UP

While search is an undifferentiated cause, it’s not “lost”–it is simply evolved table stakes where general feature parity with national portals should be maintained. 

Without IDX, you can be certain that it will be more difficult for consumers to make an educated decision around buying a house. An anti-competitive landscape is not one the industry wants. 

Agents and brokers shouldn’t cede search to the portals without a fight (especially since Zillow is now a competitor not a partner). Left unchecked, Zillow will go from buyer traffic domination to annihilation. It will have all the leverage in the world without someone to challenge it.

The industry’s investment in search must continue–real estate agency as we know it depends on it. Without a role in the top of the funnel, agents and brokers will fall into the abyss of irrelevance.

Wrap-Up

Thanks to the other contributors to the thinking behind this bull argument:

If you’re interested in learning more about membership in the Geek Estate Mastermind, which I usually describe as a think-tank for real estate tech, have a read here.

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