A Home at the End of the Web

Look in the dictionary under “disruptive technologies” (okay, I know you won’t find it, but play along) and you’ll see “real estate vertical search” listed high in the definition.

Clichéd openings aside, applying search technology to the residential brokerage industry both makes tremendous sense from the consumer’s angle and offers some jeopardy to the established ways that real estate agencies have conducted their business. While both large and local real estate brokerages have been fairly quick to bring their businesses online, their Web sites can often be less than helpful to searchers looking for shelter.

Some sites require a sign-in. That makes sense from the brokers’ standpoint; they want to generate leads. But it may also be something users who are in the early stages of research are unwilling to do. Then there’s the matter of inclusiveness. Besides the big site run by the National Association of Realtors, www.realtor.com, with some 2.5 million listings through Local Multiple Listing Service (MLS) affiliates, many of those local affiliates run their own Web sites. And so, of course, do realty firms such as Coldwell Banker, Prudential and Re/Max. But those sites can vary widely in the amount of detail they offer about listings, and also in their tendency to omit listings offered by rival firms or those outside their organization. And searchers who want to deal directly with sellers are pretty much restricted to match sites like Craigslist and ForSaleByOwner.com.

So the real estate search landscape is fragmented, extremely so. And that can pose an obstacle for shoppers, who are turning to the Internet for guidance in buying their next home just as surely as they’re researching their next car or computer online. The Chicago-based Center for Realty Technology reports that of the home-seekers who bought 7.1 million existing homes in the U.S. last year, 77% used the Internet as part of their search, up from 41% in 2001. Web site monitor comScore Networks found that April traffic at U.S. real estate sites generally was up 12% from March and up 23% compared to April 2005.

It’s in the midst of this confusion that privately-held real estate vertical search engine Trulia.com hopes to find a home. Launched in beta in September, Trulia is attempting to play both the buyer and broker ends against the middle, offering searchers a single site at which to get rich content and comprehensive local listings, while convincing brokers that showing more information about their listings doesn’t mean giving away all claims to the potential customer.

“Our model is really twofold,” says co-founder and CEO Pete Flint. “We’re helping consumers perform their real estate searches. On the other side, we’re an advertising platform for real estate professionals. We want to empower consumers, but we recognize that real estate professionals will be involved in the majority of transactions; buying a house isn’t like buying an iPod. So we want consumers to be better informed, and then we want to help them connect with brokers to complete the transaction.”

What that translates into is that Trulia offers looky-lous an ability to research a town or area and to refine their search by filtering for price range, square footage range, number of bedrooms and baths, and home type (from condo, townhouse, apartment or loft through single family to farm, lot, houseboat and “manufactured”).

Once they hit “search”, they’re taken to a results page that shows them listings pulled from broker Web sites and real-estate aggregator sites such as HomeandLand.com. Visitors will usually see a first results page of up to a dozen listings that meet their criteria. Most include an address that serves as a live link, a clickable thumbnail photo, an asking price, footage and bed/bath count and a link to the broker or aggregator Web site. There’s also a Google map showing the location of all the listings on the page—with street, satellite and hybrid views, of course—and results can be sorted up or down by price, square footage, number of bedrooms and listing freshness.

Clicking on the address link brings searchers to a landing page for that listing, where they’ll find Web copy about the property from the broker, more photos if they’re available, two more live links to the broker Web site, and more detail about the home, including school districts. Trulia will also provide market indicators for the listing, calculating its per-square-foot asking price, comparing that to the area average and using a visual thermometer to indicate if the price is relatively high or low for the neighborhood. The landing page also offers a handful of other homes on offer in the area that fit the searcher’s criteria, and even a few listings of homes that have sold recently, so people can drool over what they might have missed.

But the other real value-ad for users might be access to a city guide full of statistics showing census information such as medians for income, home values, and asking prices in the area. Searchers can also see stat packs about home ages in town, crime figures for the area (as of 2004, anyway) and even how long their would-be neighbors take to commute to work.

All those things should make Trulia appealing to house-hunters. But what’s the percentage for brokers?

Better exposure, more effective branding for their services, and greater control of how their listings are displayed, says Flint. He and co-founder and COO Sami Inkinen spent time talking to brokers before launching Trulia to find out what they most wanted to get from the Internet. The answer: traffic, and ultimately leads. “We designed an engine that would help consumers filter information and ultimately drive them to the most authoritative source for information about a listing, which is the Web site of the listing broker or agency,” Flint says.

To persuade brokers to participate and let Trulia spider their sites, Flint points out that any real estate agency with a Web site is probably already being spidered by Google and Yahoo!, unless they’ve inserted code to prevent indexing. What’s more, he points out, brokers are “almost obsessed” with search engine marketing for their firms. But those organic results and those pay-per-click ads are being served up along whatever results or competitors’ ads

Flint says he sells brokers on the specific advantages of vertical search over general search. Real-estate related keywords can be real budget-busters. A New York broker looking to place search ads for a $2 million Manhattan apartment on Google or Yahoo! would have to buy against terms like “Manhattan co-ops” or “New York real estate”. Even then, the ads will attract plenty of unqualified clicks. Vertical search users have already put some thought into the size home they need and the amount they want to spend.

Agents can submit their sites via a form on the Trulia Web site. Larger brokerages commonly submit data feeds of their listings, for greater timeliness and accuracy. Both methods are completely free; Trulia does not accept fees from brokers for showing their listings.

Instead, Trulia intends to get its revenue from pay-per-click ads—either showcased listings at the top of the search results, or ads along the right rail that will be related to real estate and home buying. The company is still testing the PPC ads to see what issues may occur. And those tests may result in more than straight text-based ads. Flint says that as the real estate brokerage profession morphs into a commoditized service, branding becomes more valuable to brokers. That may lead Trulia into offering banners, logos or other graphic-based ads.

One issue with a geo-based search service like Trulia is always speed of rollout. The engine launched its beta in September with only California listings, added New York State at the end of 2005, and recently opened coverage for New Jersey and Florida. The plan is eventually to cover the country, but accuracy and the need for secondary content for every town in a state means coast-to-coast coverage won’t happen overnight.

Meanwhile, other real estate verticals keep popping up. Yahoo! and Microsoft are reported to be planning incursions into the field, and there have been reported sightings of real-estate search features on Google Base. But Flint believes that Trulia’s interface, its broker relationships and its win-win business model give the company advantages that will let it defend the space against both current competitors and new rivals–even the deep-pocketed search giants.

“Google is doing some experimental things on Google Base, but at the end of the day, it comes down to delivering a focused proposition for both the advertiser or broker and the consumer,” he says. “It’s been borne out in many other verticals that by focusing singly on delighting the consumer and delivering the best quality traffic to agents, we can win at this game.

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