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What is there not to like?

Andrea Kirkby reviews the websites that review the estate agents.

Andrea Kirkby

Property Market Intelligence website imageThe audience loves them, but they tend to cause sleepless nights for everyone whose business is featured, bringing either applause or a shower of rotten fruit. Estate agent reviews are certainly taking centre stage with buyers, sellers, landlords and tenants putting their agents under the online spotlight.

This year brought the launch of RaterAgent, which has already signed up Connells, Webbers, and Marsh & Parsons, while veteran allAgents got new funding in 2014 and and, in December last year, claimed a 20 per cent rise in agency activity.

Review sites can help to stop the race to the bottom as agents compete for ever-slimmer commissions. Vendors pay more for great service.

Consumer generated reviews are nothing new in the rest of the economy. Tripadvisor provides reviews of hotels, restaurants, and tourist attractions, while readers will find more book reviews on Amazon these days than in the newspaper. So maybe it’s about time estate agents had their own review sites.

Like thumbs-up imageConsumers certainly love review sites. Not only do they pay attention to them – Juniper Research says that 77 per cent of customers read online reviews before making purchase decisions – but  they also enjoy providing content; marketing group econsultancy says nearly half of all Britons have reviewed products online!

Agents’ reservations

Ray Jacobs imageBut not all estate agents are enamoured of review sites. Ray Jacobs, of Chelsea Square, started off as a believer, but he has now changed his mind following a bad experience. “I was really disappointed with allAgents. We got the most ludicrously bad review, and I had it on good authority that it had been put up by another agent, but all Agents wouldn’t even look into it; they said there was nothing they could do. This isn’t how a review site should work.”

We got the most ludicrously bad review and I had it on good authority that it had been put up by another agent.

Bad reviews do happen, and he points out that he was always happy to respond to a genuine complaint – though, he notes, while the bad review appears on the summary page, the response is usually hidden on a more detailed page only accessed if the viewer clicks through to it.

He also points out that many reviews are prompted by agents. “To be honest,” he says, “most of our reviews were up there because we’d emailed tenants and prompted them to review us.” Obviously, agents will tend to select happy customers and tenants to prompt, so that the distribution of reviews tends to be skewed, with a lot of very good ones, a number of real stinkers (where customers are so riled by bad service that they go out of their way to leave a bad review), and comparatively few in the middle.

He’s now stopped using allAgents. However, he says, it hasn’t affected business “We haven’t had anyone ask why we’re not on there.” He points out that most tenants and buyers are using Rightmove and Zoopla to search for the right property, rather than choosing an agent via a review site, and he believes most landlords and vendors are doing the same – few of his clients, when he has asked them, were aware of allAgents. “It’s not like Tripadvisor,” he says, “there are no TV ads, there’s no brand recognition.”

Positive notes

Carla Bradman imageOther agents find that review sites deliver. Carla Bradman, marketing manager at Paramount, believes these sites fulfil a number of useful purposes. First of all, she says, “we want to be transparent and open, and review sites are a great way to show that you’re doing that.” Engaging with clients helps to establish the agent’s credentials – even when reviews are negative.

We want to be transparent and open and review sites are a great way to show that you are doing that. Carla Bradman, Paramount.

With negative reviews, Carla says, “It’s important to respond. Try to investigate it further, follow through, and make sure the problem doesn’t happen again. Responding to reviews gives you an opportunity to show the type of business you are.” It’s like ARLA membership, she says, in that people won’t necessarily come to you because of good reviews, but it’s another signal that you’re professional.

Secondly, Paramount uses the reviews internally as a way of monitoring their performance. “As a business,” she says, “it’s valuable to us for feedback.” She is always particularly happy when tenants remember the name of the property manager, not just the negotiator, “that’s when we really feel we’re getting it right and the manager is really helping to solve problems.”

In any case, she says, the decision to spend time engaging with the sites is an easy one. “Whether or not you spend time on them, people are going to use these sites anyway,” she explains, so it’s worthwhile ensuring the firm looks as good as possible.

Challenges

However, the fact remains that even though many consumers use review sites, there’s increasing suspicion that reviews may be partial, or even fake. Amazon had to ban authors from ‘reviewing’ their own books, and Tripadvisor has also had issues with fake reviews. Research house Gartner went so far as to predict that 10-15 per cent of social media reviews would be fake by now, though that was in 2012, and Gartner apparently has never updated that research.

AllAgents website imageReview sites are certainly aware of the problem, and most appear to be vigilant. AllAgents checks the source of reviews and the email address given, and looks for suspicious trends in activity, as well as carrying out random checks on reviews. Yelp, a cross-sector review site, actually sued one law firm that was writing fake positive reviews for itself. And RaterAgent carries out 13 automated checks for authenticity, after which reviews also go to a moderator team.

Mal McCallion of RaterAgent believes review sites really have to get their act together. “We want to help people make great decisions,” he says, “and they can only do that if the site is trustworthy.” Fake reviews detract from the site’s credibility, and without credibility, the business model simply doesn’t work.

RaterAgent uses a number of algorithms to detect fakes. The system “looks at things like wording,” McCallion explains. “For instance, if we see the word ‘progressive’ in a review, it rings alarm bells; agents might describe themselves as progressive, but customers don’t. The software also learns; the more fake reviews we see, the more we learn about how to spot them.”

If that all works, he says, the site should deliver value to both users and agents; “users trust what they read, so agents get more business and they can protect their fee rates.”

Prices and choices

Most of the review sites operate a mix of free and paid-for models, offering agents access to extra services for a monthly fee. AllAgents, for instance, allows agents to pay for extra advertising on the site as well as for the ability to promote ‘featured’ reviews, and now offers a lead generation service. RaterAgent provides marketing tools, including a ‘Value my property’ button which can deliver valuation appointments, and also allows branches to have their staff separately rated – ratings which are not shown to the public, but made available“for use as a management tool, internally, so the branch manager can see how well their team’s performing. Or not!”

It’s early days yet, though. There’s a large number of sites – allAgents and RaterAgent are clearly the leaders in terms of traffic, but there’s a plethora of other review sites including Agenttracker, Meetmyagent, and more general review sites such as Referenceline and Helphound, and even Google reviews, Yell, Yelp and Trustpilot. Some, like Estateagentreview, appear to be moribund, with very few reviews and content dated as long ago as 2004.

The market is still very fluid. Mal McCallion says RaterAgent has already “raced from zero to number two to allAgents” according to the Alexa web stats. It all seems a little reminiscent of the early days of the portals, before Zoopla started consolidating the sector and while a garage, a server and a catchy name were all you needed to start a portal business.

Talking of portals, what’s to stop Rightmove or Zoopla deciding to offer consumers the chance to review agents? After all, they have huge brand recognition, massive web traffic, and the software to handle it. If either of the big portals took the job on, the existing review sites would probably fold overnight.

“That’s obviously a big concern for us,” Mal McCallion says. But he’s convinced that Rightmove won’t move into the area, for very good business reasons. “Let’s say one in five of their paying agents is a one star agent, getting terrible reviews. Would I want to annoy 20 per cent of my customer base?” He admits that big US portal Zillow does offer user reviews. But, he says, Zillow staked out that territory early on; it wasn’t a later change to the portal’s business model, as it would be for the two big portals here.

Whether agents opt for the free service or a paid-for one, they’re obviously giving a hostage to fortune when they participate. It only takes one slip to get a bad review. And even with the free service, agents will need to commit a certain amount of time to policing the sites, unless, like Ray Jacobs, they decide not to do it at all. (“Since it’s had no effect on our business leaving,” he says, “it didn’t add value. And if something doesn’t add value, why bother?”)

Mal McCallion, though, believes there are good business reasons for agents to care and use to their advantage. He thinks the review sites can help stop the race to the bottom with agents competing for ever slimmer commissions. “Vendors will pay the extra £1,000 for a great, great service,” he says, “as long as they’re sure from reviews that a great, great service is what they’re going to get.”

And it does seem that there are quite a few agents who agree with him.

October 6, 2015

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