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Comment: ‘Don’t forget portals are about traffic as well as listings’

Can the online ‘disrupters’ get any traffic? Nigel Lewis shares his views.

PROPERTYdrum

nigel_lewis_propertydrumThere has been plenty of debate both whether online estate agents are going to ‘disrupt’ the UK property market and how much part the soon-to-be launched OnTheMarket may play in limiting their growth.

property portalsBut most of these arguments miss one crucial point. Over the next few years both OnTheMarket and the online agent market it seeks to stop will share the same challenge – how to attract the UK’s fickle house buying pubic (let’s leave renting out of the picture for now) to their sites. So can they do it?

During my time working at the portals, PrimeLocation and latterly Zoopla, I recall sitting through long presentations by search engine experts about Google rankings, which detailed the postcodes where our sites were No1 on Google for ‘property for sale’ or ‘two-bedroom houses in Hackney’ and so on.

The battleground

What I can tell you is that estate agents websites rarely featured in any of the presentations – it was a straight battle with Rightmove, although in London it did occasionally include Foxtons.

Joining in this online battle is a very expensive exercise. It costs tens, and often hundreds of thousands of pounds a month, particularly during the busy Spring and New Year property markets, to buy your way into this  national game via Google adwords – something both OnTheMarket and online agents are seeking to do.

There is not a cheap way around this problem unless you have the benefits of a website that’s been online for many years and ranks well naturally – Google seems to prefer older sites over newer ones. So Rightmove and Zoopla immediately have an advantage, even if you have all the properties in the world listed on your site.

Many agents, I feel, underestimate how easy it is to grab traffic and leads from the internet without paying through the nose for it – and if it were so easy to set up a national portal and take on Rightmove, why has it taken Alex Chesterman’s organisation four years, several hundred staff and around £100m to achieve No.2 position? And why did the NAEA’s PropertyLive disappear?

Algorithm riddles

The other challenge for anyone entering the online property game is that no one in this industry has even any idea how Google works, even if they claim otherwise. Its secret algorithm is watertight and only vague truths can be surmised – for example that sites which refresh their content regularly do better than static ones.

For everyone in this market, it’s like launching a new food product and then, when you win distribution for it via Tesco, the supermarket refuses to tell you how many stores it will go in, how large your shelf presence will be or when it will appear on the shelves – great system, isn’t it?

It is this question that will be perplexing OnTheMarket’s SEO teams, and it will also, no doubt, will be keeping online agents’ venture capital-backed owners awake at night too – just how to do you break into those vital top five Google results which generate 90 per cent of all online traffic?

Other exciting challenges

The other major challenge for OnTheMarket and the online agents is achieving what portals call ‘hygiene’. Homebuyers searching for a property online expect sites such as Rightmove to offer at least 90 per cent of the homes for sale locally – any less and they are unlikely to return when they search again next time. It is why estate agent sites both traditional or just online don’t attract large volumes of traffic yet – the public know that by definition they don’t cover the whole market.

Also, do you remember Propertyfinder.com? It had the correct hygiene factor as well as a substantial marketing budget, a reasonable website and above-average performance on Google – and yet ultimately it failed.

So what has Zoopla’s magic formula been? I’m still not sure of even though I worked there for a while – Alex Chesterman keeps his cards close to his chest. So if you meet him, do ask. But don’t assume it’s going to be a simple answer.

October 23, 2014

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