On Google’s Latest Real Estate Foray: Implications & Speculations

Your SEM Dollars At Work!
Your SEM Dollars At Work!

From the Search Engine Land site comes news (h/t: Duke Long, @dukelong) that Google has built out what amounts to the start of a national real estate search website:

The real estate listing place pages include property information, photos, map placement, Street View imagery and functionality, nearby public transit details, and even AdWords ads. Google has added links for “Directions” and “Search nearby,” as well as a “Send” link that opens an outgoing email with the place page link embedded inside. The property details in the example above are sourced from two separate Prudential Real Estate web sites, and from NWSource.com, which is the Seattle Times’ web site. It’s all presented just as you’d see on any standard MLS web site, though it lacks some of the deep information (such as square footage of individual rooms) available in a typical MLS listing.

Whee!  By the way, in case you think the Flickr image above is a Photoshop job, here’s the link to the property in question on maps.google.com: 8801 Fauntleroy Way SW, Seattle, WA. And here’s an announcements of sorts from Google Australia:

So here’s what we’ve been cooking up – in the past, if you wanted to view real estate listings on Google Maps, your best bet was to select “Real Estate…” from the “More” menu at the top of the map.

Now, simply searching for “real estate” will return, well, real estate (try it)! You could also try “homes for sale sydney” or “homes for rent adelaide“. Or while you’re at it, check out “apartments for sale brisbane“, or “homes for rent near perth“. The idea is to make it really easy for you guys – you tell us what you want, and we get it back to you! Of course, we’ll continue to work to return the best results for all your Google Maps queries, whether you’re looking for local businesses, geographic features, or your perfect home.

We also wanted to tell you about the integration of real estate listings with Place Pages. Now clicking the “more info” link next to a listing takes you to a faster, easier-to-read page that gives you all of the information we have about a listing: photos, inspection times, videos, details, a Street View preview and nearby public transit information if available, allowing you to quickly find the listing you want and click through to the sources of the listing.

The initial responses range from delighted to worried.

This is from Kathleen Buckley (@kvbuckley), a broker in Massachusetts:

From Kathleen Buckley (@kvbuckley), Broker in Massachusetts

From Todd Carpenter (@tcar), Social Media Manager for National Association of REALTORS:

Todd Carpenter (tcar) on Twitter_1258736405116

From Bob Wilson (@bob_wilson), a real estate marketer and technologist:

Bob Wilson (bob_wilson) on Twitter_1258736439597There’s lots to speculate on, lots to think about, and lots to debate and argue about here.  But in a way, it’s as if the other shoe has finally dropped.  Many of us in the real estate industry have been wondering what Google plans to do with real estate, as the boys and girls from Mountain View have been moving towards something like this for a while with Google Base, Google Maps, etc.

So let’s get into the speculation.

The Whole Copyright Issue

So you want Google to INDEX you, but not to DISPLAY the data, is that it?
So you want Google to INDEX you, but not to DISPLAY the data?

The first issue to tackle, I think, is Bob Wilson’s cogent observation that what Google is doing here might be in violation of various copyrights of brokers, agents, and MLS’s.

As I understand it, thanks to the brouhaha over the summer classifying Google as a “scraper”, the new MLS rules have been changed specifically to allow IDX data to be indexed by Google.  These rules have been passed at the NAR National Convention MLS Committee meeting just this past week.  The relevant section of the new policy reads as follows:

2. Participants must protect IDX information from misappropriation by employing reasonable efforts to monitor and prevent “scraping” or other unauthorized accessing, reproduction or use of the MLS database. MLS participants may not use IDX-provided listings for any purpose other than display on their websites. This does not require participants to prevent indexing of IDX listings by recognized search engines.

As I read the language, Google’s Real Estate Place Pages, is merely an extension of “indexing”.

On the one hand, as Bob Wilson points out, it’s one thing to simply “index” a listing page for inclusion into Google’s search engine, but another thing altogether to reformat the data, add things like StreetView, Transit Info, etc. and present that to consumers.  But the new MLS policy specifically removes reference to “unathorized accessing, reproduction or use of the MLS database”.  Plus, on the other hand, Google is including links to the website where it acquired the data (in the example above, two different Prudential websites and Seattle Times) without charging anyone anything — so one could argue that this is just “indexing” extended a bit.

Either way, such legalisms are not likely to matter.  What the debate ignores, I think, is the power of Google.  How likely is it that Google is going to differentiate between “indexing” a listing or a brokerage website into the “main” Google search pages (which is allowed and highly desired by brokers and agents, to the point they hire expensive SEO consultants to improve their rankings), and “scraping” a listing into the Real Estate Place Page (which might constitute copyright violation).  Since I can’t see Google wanting to devote resources to distinguish between “allowed usage” vs. “prohibited usage” on the part of one broker or agent or MLS, I think it’s far more likely that Google will take a Black or White approach: index or don’t index.

Since Google is a private company, and there is no constitutional right to be indexed by Google, a broker who protests that his listing was placed into Google Real Estate Place Page might get the response, “Hey, we’re sorry; we’ll stop indexing your site.”

How likely is it, then, that realtors will actually attempt to control Google’s behavior at the micro-level that would be required to allow “indexing” but disallow Place Pages?  I’m going to go with “asymptotically approaching zero”.

So while Bob has a point about copyright, I just don’t believe any realtor will be able to (or will want to) enforce those copyrights against Google, especially in light of the new IDX policies.

Whither Real Estate Search Sites?

The absence of Google in the real estate search space has allowed for a number of companies to arise to fill the gap.  Companies like Trulia, Zillow, Roost, even the granddaddy Realtor.com, are all reliant on Google to drive traffic to their websites.  They all do a good job in a variety of ways, and consumers have liked what these companies provide them in real estate search.

However, almost all real estate search today starts with Google, as does almost all search for anything at all in the world.  Consumers do not start by going to Realtor.com and typing in “homes for sale in New Jersey”.  They DO go to Google and do just that, and then find a list of websites (including Realtor.com) and go there.

We don’t yet know exactly how real estate search will work on Google of the future.  Will someone going to the main Google search box and typing in, “new jersey homes for sale” get a bunch of results right at the top to the Real Estate Place Pages, or will you have to do the search from within maps.google.com?  Based on the post from Google Australia, and doing the search for “homes for sale sydney”, you get two different results: Google Maps Search and Main Google Search.

Google Maps Search: “homes for sale sydney”

homes for sale sydney - Google Maps_1258773345057

Main Google Search: “homes for sale sydney”

homes for sale sydney - Google Search_1258773354137

As we can see, the Google Maps search sure does look like the start of a traditional real estate search site.  The main Google search, however, does not embed listings right into the search results… yet.

The possibilities, as I see it, are as follows.

One, this real estate search as well as the listing details page is limited to the maps.google.com search, and consumers tend to be lazy and just do the search on the main Google site.  Google does not do to real estate listings what it already does to photos and videos by pushing them near the top of the search results on the main search page.  Existing real estate sites survive and thrive, as they have until now, as not much has changed.

Two, Google starts to push listings right onto the main page when a user searches for “homes for sale new jersey”, thereby bringing users right to the maps.google.com Real Estate Search module.  Consumers are trained over time to do real estate searches on maps.google.com, as we have been trained to do searches for driving directions or restaurants or whatever on Google Maps.  This raises the value of Google Maps immensely, but pretty much kills the existing real estate vertical search engines.

Three, Google keeps the real estate search only on maps.google.com, but consumers come to realize over time that they can find listings for homes right on that wonderful page and start to migrate over.  This will also kill existing real estate vertical search engines, but over a longer period of time, which may be enough for the Trulias and Zillows of the world to reformulate their strategy or add far more features and functionality to add value to the real estate search experience.

Given how Google Australia has implemented real estate search so far, it’s far too early to be calling for the death of real estate vertical search engines.  But folks over at those companies have to be worried just a tad.

More Speculative Implications: Whither IDX?  Whither Brokerage Sites?

I wrote a post a while back suggesting that there were a set of circumstances under which IDX could be killed off.  I theorized that with Google having won the search engine wars, its dominance over consumer behavior was so complete that big brokerages who have the majority of listings in a given market have little incentive to participate in IDX that can be used by smaller competitors to drive search traffic to their websites.

Back then, I thought that Public-Facing MLS Site + Google + VOW Websites = Incentive for Big Brokers to Pull Out of IDX.

Google’s foray directly into the real estate search vertical changes the equation somewhat.  Now, the equation can be Google + Big Brokerage = No More IDX.

Consider the listing used above as the example.  The listing agent is one Bruce Butterfield, of Prudential Northwest Realty Associates.  But the listing page shows three sources: the company website (www.pnwrealty.com), the company VOW site (!!!)(vow.prudentialproperties.com), and the Seattle Times website (www.nwsource.com).

It may be that this listing information comes off of Google Base, and that future real estate search results will only be derived from Google Base.  I think that path unlikely primarily because Google’s entire mission in life is to organize the world’s information and be the most accurate search engine possible.  Relying only on voluntary submissions to Google Base strikes me as a poor strategy for achieving those goals.

So let’s assume that future listings data will be from indexing activities.  If you are Prudential Northwest Realty Associates, do you really have a lot of incentive to participate in IDX, which incidentally now specifically allows for indexing by Google of that data?  If you’re a big broker with the majority of the listings, and you’re now going to get traffic from Google directly to your website from the Google Real Estate Places page… what is your incentive to share your listing data with a bunch of small independents again?

For that matter, if you’re Bruce Butterfield, what is your incentive to have the traffic from Google go to the Prudential NW site again?  If the Great God Google is indexing listings directly and consumers are finding information on the property directly on Google itself, and you’re a good listing agent… why would you want to have your broker charge you some lead-generation fee on the listing you went and acquired?

I know, I know — brokerage sites do far more, offer more, etc. etc. than a mere agent website.  Tell that to the hundreds of thousands of agents who are creating not only websites but blogs, Facebook Fan pages, and Posterous accounts.

It’s all fun speculation, but these are the things I think about on a Friday night.  I need a life.

Final Speculation

Supposing that this latest venture by Google takes off… how likely is Google to be a purchaser of RVM?


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Rob Hahn

Managing Partner of 7DS Associates, and the grand poobah of this here blog. Once called "a revolutionary in a really nice suit", people often wonder what I do for a living because I have the temerity to not talk about my clients and my work for clients. Suffice to say that I do strategy work for some of the largest organizations and companies in real estate, as well as some of the smallest startups and agent teams, but usually only on projects that interest me with big implications for reforming this wonderful, crazy, lovable yet frustrating real estate industry of ours.

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11 thoughts on “On Google’s Latest Real Estate Foray: Implications & Speculations”

  1. Hey Rob,
    I didnt react when you showed me this at my office today because I was preoccupied w/ other things but now that I've had a chance to look at it, I'm really thrilled about this! I think its great for both buyers and sellers because the consumer is getting to the proper source and getting the info they want, ( it seems from your examples anywyay) instead of some random agent who has indexable idx.

    As far as the lead being sold to the agent by the company, that would depend on the company the agent is with. Our company ( Keller Williams) has a “my listings, my leads” policy, so this is not an issue for the agent. Hey- this whole google thing may turn out to be be a great recruiting opportunity for us! 🙂

    I think Trulia, Zillow and Realtor.com could possibly suffer most from this if it takes off, and agents ( like me) who spend alot of money for featured home spots, featured ads, etc… may find that its not as worthwhile if the google listings pop up first in the google search engines.

    Will be interesting to see how it all unfolds.

  2. I think your approach to this issue says it all: where the consumers go, there goes the agent and–ultimately–the broker. I'd even go a step further and say that the other stakeholder who should be shaking in its boots is the MLS. There's no MLS in the Google equation. The question becomes, how much do agents REALLY value the business rules, fines, and additional charges, and the cumbersome structures associated with it all? How deep is the loyalty to “Realtor” (which I note you don't even capitalize)? I think we'll find out the answer to these questions in fairly short order.

  3. Thanks for sharing the in's, out's and what if's. The more I read about these new search/broadcast developments, the more I think (as you've shared) platform providers (MLS, IDZ, Truzilla, RPR, Realtor.com, etc) are in a fight for their lives. Well, they've always been, but today, when the sun rises, anyone of them might find themselves nuked.

    I also believe, that for the individual real estate agent or agency, these Star Wars will ultimately (theoretically/hopefully) yield better tools for marketing listings and managing the real estate transaction. The winners will be listing agents/agencies/brokerages and the consumer. In the future, assuming detailed property information is ubiquitous, brokers/agents will have to use content/savvy/local knowledge/price/service and specialized expertise as their website magnets. That wouldn't be all bad.

    Over time, real estate agents who work primarily with buyers, will find it harder and harder to attract clients (for all the reasons that Buyers Agency – We Work With Buyers Only agencies didn't work)

    It's more important than ever to be a Listing Dominatrix. She who controls the listing-inventory, dominates her local real estate market.

    No matter who wins the platform war, if I have no listings, eventually, I'll become invisible and irrelevant.

    Thanks for keeping us posted Rob.

    Thanks for keeping us posted Rob.
    PS: I thought was an interesting take on how Google could enhance their current RE offerings: http://www.bloodhoundrealty.com/BloodhoundBlog/

  4. what google giveth, google taketh away.

    Companies like trulia or zillow spend little or no money on google ad words,yet get tons of FREE traffic from showing up high in the google natural search results .

    Now Google will organize and display listings making searches for listings on those sites, perhaps redundant and irrelevant.(in your scenario 2, Rob)

    Having lived off the free ride google gave them, perhaps they will expire from an act of Google.

    (in all fairness, Zillow had plenty of natural traffic from the buzz created from their Zestimate fad before posting listings and engaging in optimizing their site for google)

  5. I love this idea but it will, no doubt, favor the top listing agents versus buyer agents. All that really means is buyer agents need to convey their value better so buyers insist on having them instead of using them by happenstance.

    Similarly, Trulia and Zillow (and everyone else) have been put on notice: build a remarkable brand or fall to the wayside when Google makes the big move that turns everything upside down. Zillow's branching out into mortgages and their zestimates have gone a long way to establishing what they're all about. Trulia I'm not so sure — community with Trulia Voices?

    I hate to be coy about it but time will tell… probably sooner than later based on recent events.

  6. This is the evolution of technology and as Realtors we need to either adjust our value proposition or get out of the way.

    I may have missed this in your article but doesn't ListHub also syndicate to Google? I don't like Realtor.com charging hundreds of dollars a year for more prominently feature your listings and would be interesting to see how Google can mashup some data. As we move along, it'll be interesting to see how they monetize this.

  7. This is the evolution of technology and as Realtors we need to either adjust our value proposition or get out of the way.

    I may have missed this in your article but doesn't ListHub also syndicate to Google? I don't like Realtor.com charging hundreds of dollars a year for more prominently feature your listings and would be interesting to see how Google can mashup some data. As we move along, it'll be interesting to see how they monetize this.

  8. For the record, my comment, included in your post is my personal opinion. It was copied from Twitter where I specifically state that my personal Twitter account is a place where I state my personal opinions. That particular tweet was and is my personal opinion. In my opinion, competition is a good thing. Even if the competition is flawed.

    My tweets are not necessarily the opinion of The National Association of REALTORS® or Realtor.com.

  9. For the record, my comment, included in your post is my personal opinion. It was copied from Twitter where I specifically state that my personal Twitter account is a place where I state my personal opinions. That particular tweet was and is my personal opinion. In my opinion, competition is a good thing. Even if the competition is flawed.

    My tweets are not necessarily the opinion of The National Association of REALTORS® or Realtor.com.

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