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A bite of the apple

Can one of the newcomer marketing platforms break through to become the Apple of the property portal business? Richard Reed asks the contenders why they think they can.

Richard Reed

Link to Portals featureIt’s 1997. Weeks away from bankruptcy, a struggling Apple brings back its mercurial but brilliant founder, Steve Jobs, to help battle the mighty Microsoft. Over the next decade, the innovative tech company which pioneered the graphic user interface released game-changing products such as the iMac, iPod and iPhone. Fast forward 25 years, and Apple has just become the world’s biggest company by market capitalisation, beating Microsoft and breaking the $3 trillion barrier. Is there a lesson here for the property sector? Rightmove was founded in 2000, and while new features have been added, its portal format has changed little in that time. Do any of the new challengers have the ability to overcome the market dominance of the property giant?

Link to Portals featureOne of the newest entrants to the market believes it does. Adam Kamani is the founder of MoveStreets, a property app aimed at a generation that has grown up with social media apps such as WhatsApp and Tinder – a generation that spends more time on phones than computers. “Every industry has a disruptor. I always say, ‘Why can’t we be a disruptor, why can’t that be MoveStreets?’ We’re going to give it our best shot,” says Kamani, who won the Insider North-West Young Property Professional of the Year award in 2018.

Every industry has a distruptor. I always say, ‘Why can’t we be a disruptor, why can’t that be MoveStreets?’ We’re going to give it our best shot. Adam Kamani, Founder & CEO, MoveStreets.

The cleverness of the concept lies in its simplicity. Like dating app Tinder, you are presented with a list of suitable matches in your area (or wherever you choose to search). You flick through them, swiping left for those you want to discard, swiping right for those you want to save for later. When you go to your Likes folder you can view the property in more detail and hit an ‘Arrange viewing’ button, at which point the app alerts the agent.

There is also a tradition list view for old fogeys, but that removes half the fun. And let’s face it, whether you are buying or renting, looking for a new home should be a fun experience.

No fees for agents

 

MoveStreets has only just been launched and is building its network of agents – so in some areas, property is thin on the ground. But that’s likely to change quickly, given it’s free for agents to list.

Link to Portals feature

Movestreets employs a Tinder-style swipe to browse properties

Kamani’s business model involves making money from in-app advertising and referrals from mortgage brokers and other service providers. Agents won’t have to pay a bean. “We don’t want to charge agents anything – we don’t think it’s right to ask them to pay for a listing,” says Kamani.

“We’re flipping it on its head and saying we are not going to charge you; let us do all the groundwork, and then we can take a commission out of the extra stuff we do.”

He says the existing model used by Rightmove and copied by the likes of Zoopla, PrimeLocation and OnTheMarket, is 20 years out of date. “The process with other portals is becoming very old school very long-winded, we want it to be a bit more human and a bit quicker,” he explains.

“For someone buying a house for the first time, the process is all very much the same – it’s long, it’s slow, it’s clunky. We are trying to bring a fun element into it, to do the Airbnb and Tinder for the property market.

“A lot of the challenger portals are building it the same way as the old-school portals, they are building it from the back end rather than the front end; back to front. We have flipped it on its head and build it from the front end.”

Rummaging for a home?

Another disruptor who thinks the existing model is broken is Robert May of Rummage4, which has just been bought by giant data firm Core Logic, a global company with 5,000 staff that carries out 88% of all UK mortgage valuations.

“If you go back to the old Nokia 3310 phone, that is how old the portals are,” points out May. “They were invented in 1996, Rightmove became the dominant one in 2001, so you’ve got some very old tech – it was developed before Google was ‘the thing’.”

If you go back to the old Nokia 3310 phone, that is how old the portals are. Rightmove became the dominant one in 2001, so you’ve got some very old tech. Robert May, Rummage4 Property.

Where Rummage4 differs from other portals is by using Google as its ‘engine’ rather than trying to create its own property listing – then trying to tweak that for search engine optimisation (SEO).

“Because we put every property onto Google in its own right, we have a series of Google SEO backlinks which promote the agent’s own website,” he explains. “So if, for example, you do properties for sale in Oldham, you will expect Rightmove, Zoopla and OnTheMarket to dominate search results.

“If you do that search I happen to know that Ryder & Dutton, one of my customers, happens to break that monopoly at the top of Google search results.”

We tested that claim, and it came third behind Rightmove and Zoopla – which was impressive. Because every property exists on Google in its own right, Rummage4 can analyse each individual property to see what enquiries are coming in.

“So no longer is it a case of ‘We’ve had 100 million hits in a month’, which is a standard Rightmove claim – what an agent wants to know is how many of those people have looked at my properties.”

Voice searches

Rummage4 has gone one step further with its Google love-in by optimising properties for voice searches. “Google has come along, mobile phones have come along, and more and more people are talking to Siri, Alexa, on their mobile phones,” says May. “When we designed Rummage4 we designed it to be voice optimised.”

He explains that Google is now sophisticated enough to understand ‘long-tail searches’ – in other words, normal sentences. “There is a sophistication about Google search – if you said ‘views of Dartmoor’ to Rightmove it wouldn’t be possible. But if we optimise for the tech and we optimise for Google, there is a new innovation coming through because of the devices that we use.”

Rummage4 is very much aimed at the white-label market, so will keep the agent’s branding, look and feel. It uses a web app, rather than a iOS or Android app, and the interface currently looks a little plain. May says he is aware it needs work, and new owner Core Logic will be getting its UX (design) team to look at that. With such a big company behind it, this is certainly one to watch.

Rummage4 charges a flat fee of £100 per branch per month.

Love ’shack?

Link to Portals featureMoovshack launched in late 2020, and rather than taking on the ‘big three’ head on, has rather cleverly incorporated Rightmove, Zoopla and OnTheMarket into its very slick, seamless app. This allows home-hunters not just to search for properties via its own network of 4,000-plus agents, but also through an app within the app.

Link to Portals featureHowever, founder Mick Silver agrees with other challengers that the portal model is about to undergo a fundamental change. “It made sense 20 years ago to have a platform that was just a portal that allowed you to view properties where agents were advertising. Now, with tech, people want the whole process,” he says.

“If you want to get a train to Aberdeen, why use 10 trains when one train will get you there? That’s what we’re doing at Moovshack – we’re simplifying the home-moving process, streamlining it and making it end-to-end. We fill the void that most other portals leave between search and transaction.”

If you want to get a train to Aberdeen, why use 10 trains when one train will get you there? That’s what we’re doing at Moovshack – simplifying the home-moving process. Mick Silver, Founder & CEO, Moovshack.

That includes everything from valuations to arranging viewings and keeping track of the conveyancing process. There is a document store and a My Space folder that you can access from the ‘forward’ button on a phone to store product ideas such as sofas, kitchens or bathrooms.

It even has its own messaging facility, allowing users to send a direct message to an agent – converting it into an email in the process, and vice versa when the agent replies. It really is the Swiss Army knife of property apps.

“The good thing about our tech is that rather than having to focus on 32 million portal users per month who are browsing and not moving – only about 4m move per annum – we can focus on vendors and landlords who are more useful to the agent in terms of generating revenue for them,” adds Silver. “The mantra we work to is ‘not more leads but better-quality leads’. Rightmove always was and always probably will be a great creator of volume leads, the great question is, is the quality good enough?”

When it comes to valuations, he says one of the drawbacks Rightmove is that they only send out the request to agents who pay for the service – and in some cases that might be some distance away. Moovshack, on the other hand, will send the valuation request to a local agent and they only have to pay if they accept it.

Silver agrees with May that the bricks-and- mortar, high street agent is far from dead, and both believe their apps actually put agents back in the driving seat. “This is digitalising the high street,” says Silver, who used to own his own agency. “It automates all the low-level stuff the agents do. The agent thinks he’s busy if he’s got a phone in his hand. Our view is that a lot of that stuff can be automated.

“No one can create more time, we can only make better use of it. Tech is not there to replace people, it’s there to upskill people.”

Like MoveStreets, Moveshack offers free listings to agents and charges no commission on valuations. There is a fee if agents want to use the agent app to interact with customers using the chat platform, viewings scheduling and completion tools, but there is a free six-month trial period.

In with a bang

Another newcomer to the portal space is Boomin – and it certainly arrived with a bang, spending millions on TV advertising in a bid to tackle Rightmove head on.

Link to Portals featureLike all the other challengers, founder Michael Bruce claims not to be a portal but an “end-to-end marketplace”, though that is inevitably how it will be seen. He also agrees that Rightmove’s visitor numbers are a distraction.

“It’s absolutely the case that traffic is a red herring in this sector,” he says. “You hear Rightmove talk about 100 million visitors and they use that to justify their increases [in agent fees] on a yearly basis.

Traffic is a red herring in this sector. There are only 14 million homeowners in the UK and we estimate there are only 500,000 people in the market. It’s a small pool… Michael Bruce, Founder & Group CEO, Boomin.

“The situation is that there are only 14 million homeowners in the UK and we estimate there are only 500,000 people in the market in any one month to trade with agents. It’s a small pool of people – there’s only 100,000 sales transactions every month, and only 200,000 lettings transactions. In terms of an audience, I’m absolutely certain we are accessing that audience.”

So can Rightmove be displaced as the Google of property search – can consumers be persuaded to look elsewhere?

Link to Portals feature

Boomin has 2,500 agents on the site and 50 major retailers.

 

“The reality is people don’t move often enough and so will look on more than one platform,” asserts Bruce. “If you look at the broad audience we are getting, we are already no 1 in our industry on YouTube – we’ve got more subscribers on YouTube than all the portals put together. Everybody is consuming media in different ways today and it’s absolutely the case that we are starting to attract and engage that audience.”

He says that with the “passive” market of the past 20 years, the only thing home-hunters have been able to do is look at a list of classified ads, create an alert and then sit and wait for an agent to contact them.

“What we’ve created – the Property Playground, with people sharing content, engaging with local professionals, seeing ideas for kitchens, bathrooms, bedrooms – that’s been phenomenally successful in engaging that passive audience. Time on site has gone up 48 per cent as a result of Property Playground, and people are coming back and spending time there.

“We’ve got 2,500 professionals advertising on the site, uploading content all the time, we’ve got 50 major retailers signed up on the site. We’re starting to build a very different experience for them so they keep coming back, and when they move from passive to active, we’re the site they select to go to and do a valuation or whatever the case may be.”

Like many portals, Boomin has a valuation tool. Smartval gives consumers the power to choose the agent that carries out the valuation, who has 15 minutes to accept and 15 minutes to deliver it. Like Moovshack, vendors have to provide information about the condition of their property.

“When we track against digital valuation tools they are notoriously 20 per cent under or over,” says Bruce. “Smartval gives the consumer a more active valuation and the agent has a more qualified lead from someone who selected them.”

‘Chainmaker’ is an innovative service that allows potential buyers to register in interest in buying a property should a chain collapse – as roughly a third of all transactions do. Meanwhile ‘Matchmaker’ acts rather like a dating service, connecting buyers wanting to live in a particular street or area with vendors looking to sell.

Boomin has also just launched a mortgage-finder tool that allows agents to make commission from brokers.

Agency fees are £300 per branch outside London and £400 within London for sales, £150 and £250 respectively for lettings, and £399 and £499 for both.

The big three

Link to Website Development featureSo what do the big three portals have to say about their current stranglehold on the market – particularly when it comes to the contentious area of fees. “We’re more than a portal,” says Andy Marshall, chief commercial officer at Zoopla, which gets more than 70 million visits per month. “We’re a one-stop shop for our customers for all their marketplace and software needs, all underpinned by our industry-leading AVM and unrivalled market intelligence.

“We’ve been working tirelessly to build the Zoopla ecosystem that was set out as part of our vision last year, building touchpoints and opportunities to keep homeowners and home movers engaged at every stage of the property life-cycle and driving those all-important, high-quality valuation leads for agents as a result.

Competition is good for everyone in the market – agents, housebuilders, homeowners, home movers, and landlords. It encourages us to innovate. Andy Marshall, COO, Zoopla.

“To achieve this, we’ve been working hard to improve our vendor experience including enhancing our Valuation Booster, which highlights an agent’s branch as an agent of choice to those actively seeking a property valuation in the outcodes that matter to them.”

Zoopla has increased investment in its app, which it says has resulted in a 34 per cent increase in sessions on the app. Leads to agents via the app are up 45 per cent year on year, and valuation leads up 42 per cent.

Link to Portals feature

Zoopla – more than a portal, according to its COO, Andy Marshall.

 

One example of what it claims are “game-changing” innovations is My Home, which enables homeowners to track the value of their home or other properties they are interested in, though in truth some of the challenger portals offer far more innovative features.

So does Zoopla fear the competition? “There’s nothing quite like some friendly competition to get a sector innovating,” adds Marshall. “Competition is good for everyone in the market – agents, housebuilders, homeowners, home-movers, and landlords. It encourages us to innovate, work harder and removes complacency.

“One thing for sure is that we won’t reach our goal by looking at competitors and maintaining the status quo.”

OnTheMarket, launched in 2015 by a group of agents including Knight Frank, Savills, Strutt & Parker and Chestertons to combat Rightmove and Zoopla, has the USP of being able to offer some listings 24 hours or more before they’re advertised elsewhere. Its app also offers services such as sold prices and valuation requests, but is it happy to remain a basic listings site or does it have aspirations for broader development?

onthemarket

Jason Tebb, CEO, OnTheMarket

Jason Tebb, Chief Executive Officer of OnTheMarket, says, “We often refer to ourselves as ‘more than just a portal’ and this is more than just a soundbite to us. It underpins all our recent developments and commercial partnerships with ‘best in class’ prop tech partners to help agents do their job more quickly, efficiently and cost effectively.”

“We’re continuing to evolve our business to support our long-term aim of increasing the value we offer our customers, in line with our strategy of building a differentiated, technology-enabled property business. We’ve remained committed to keeping our listing fees fair and sustainable, whilst listening to feedback from our agents to ensure they have the tools that help them engage with serious property seekers.”

We’re continuing to evolve our business … in line with our strategy of building a differentiated, technology-enabled property business.”

“Over the last 18 months feedback from our customers has been instrumental in shaping the launch of our new website, new valuation driving products and new commercial partnerships.“

Our recent Town Halls are a good example of that collaboration with our customers, with many of the attending agents asking for tools to help secure new Landlords. We listened and developed a new Lettings AVM tool that generates a new type of lead for our agents.“

“We’re committed to developing new ways to support our agents as well as our consumers and will continue to listen to their feedback as we evolve our offering.”

Meanwhile Rightmove claims to receive 130 million visits per month, based on 2016 data. Compared with, say, Moovshack, which is probably the most fully-featured app we have seen, the Rightmove app is very limited in terms of features and functionality. It offers consumers the barest minimum on top of its search function – basically the opportunity to request a valuation.

Rightmove was approached for comment but had failed to respond at the time of going to press.

Of the big three, Zoopla seems to be the most innovative, but the underlying tech and look and feel of the apps from all three portals is dated. Rightmove’s approach, in particular, with its high agency fees, does rather smack of a company that doesn’t feel the need to adapt or change because of its dominant market position.

That is a dangerous game to play, as Microsoft found out to its cost…

April 26, 2022

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