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A plethora of portals Which do you choose? asks Andrea Kirkby.

publication date: Feb 29, 2012
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With Rightmove now claiming dominance of the portals market, and number two and three in the market, Digital Property Group and Zoopla, merging, estate agents might be forgiven for thinking they don’t need to look much further than the top portals to advertise their brand.

James Murray of Experian Hitwise points out that these two leading groups have pulled away from the competition since 2008, leaving the smaller portals somewhat out in the cold. He estimates that Rightmove gets 31 per cent of UK internet visits to the property category, while the merged Zoopla/Digital would get 19 per cent for all its brands. That means, though, that an agent advertising with those two groups would get access to half the total eyeballs in the market – no other portal would give them more than 2 per cent additional market share, according to the Experian Hitwise figures.

Nonetheless, Peter Joseph of agents Think Property believes agents should look further. He points out that although Rightmove accounts for 80 million searches a month, all the other portals put together account for as much again, and more, so any estate agent which relies only on the top portal is effectively turning its back on half the market. And, he says, the trouble with Rightmove is that it’s costly. “I know for a fact that some people are now moving away from it, mainly because of price rises.”

Think Property prefers to spread itself widely. “We’re on with dozens and dozens of portals,” he says.

“We can get onto portals with 180 million searches a month.”

It’s not hard work. Using DezRez (as Think Property does) or any of the other platforms, an agent can run the feeds to numerous portals from the in-house system. However, Peter Joseph warns, “You do find that some of the platforms are not that happy to feed to all the smaller portals. You really don’t want to be putting properties on manually.”

It’s worth noting that many smaller portals are now making themselves available via standard feeds. For instance PropertyPenguin can accept Rightmove, Globrix, or fish4homes formats, among others.
Doug (right) Shephard, business development director at search engine home.co.uk says, “A lot of smaller portals, like homesonview, Country Life, and PropertyLive, are still thriving.” He believes many have overlooked their attractions; besides, he says, “with the smaller ones you can often get on for free.”

doug shephard home.co.ukHe also believes it’s quite viable for an agent not to use Rightmove. North-East England agent Pattinson, he says, “doesn’t use either Rightmove or Findaproperty; instead, it uses Zoomf and Mouseprice.com,” as well as PropertyPenguin, a portal targeted specifically on the North-East.

With 29 branches, Pattinson is quite a large chain, so this isn’t only a strategy for the smaller agent.

Bags of choice
There’s a great deal of choice out there below the top four or five. However, the available choices include a number of different business models; there are property listings, free and paid-for portals, and search engines, as well as portals associated with affinity groups or print publications (such as PropertyLive, the NAEA site, and Country Life). A few, like homesonview and Vebra, are run by property software firms, as a service mainly for their clients. Some, like home.co.uk and Nestoria, aim to be as comprehensive as possible; while others, like SmartNewHomes, Country Life, and PeriodProperty, are tightly targeted. Choosing the right selection of portals, therefore, isn’t as easy a task as it might seem.

Trinity Mirror was early into the portal space, but its digital properties never quite hit the top spot. However, Smart New Homes has created a strong niche, and has responded to tough times in the market by raising its game.

Steve Lees, director at Smart New Homes, says, “There is life there! The site has evolved according to the demands of the market, helping promote what our clients do.”

For instance, the plethora of special offers from developers has led to changes in the site to reflect what’s available, and a discrete affordable housing section has been added, though advertising for affordable homes is also integrated to the main site.

Although it’s the property listings that drive any site, Steve Lees points out that page views are only the raw material; it’s conversions that matter. So SNH has set out to use client registrations imaginatively, for instance by creating a First Time Buyers’ Club which offers handholding for those using the government FirstBuy scheme, as well as sending out emails and providing expert advice forums.

Editorial content and newsletters should improve ‘stickiness’ as well as driving higher conversion rates, but that’s something many of the smaller portals don’t offer; nor do the vertical search engines.

SNH focuses on developers and, increasingly, housing associations, rather than estate agents, as its clients. “We fit better for a developer’s needs than an agent’s,” Steve Lees says.

Development videos and virtual site visits can be embedded on the site, and major developments also have their own microsites. “You can bed content into your development page and the individual property page,” he says, “We’re always looking at ways to enrich our users’ experience.”

SNH now represents 75 to 80 per cent of the market, down from 85 per cent at the peak. But though there has been a drop in traffic, it hasn’t been a significant fall. Steve Lees adds, “There is still interest out there, and this year is comparable to 2010, if not a little up on last year.”

sherry madera MD, Lucky WuOverseas audiences
Looking at UK portals of course the assumption is that you’re advertising to a UK audience. But for central London properties and the country homes market, that may not be the case any longer; overseas buyers have been the driving force in the market for some time.

That gives another portal, Lucky Wu, its opportunity. Sherry Madera (left), Managing Director, calls it “the Rightmove for overseas properties in China”; it launched in September this year, and has already scored over 100,000 visits in its first
six weeks.

She points out that it’s not just a question of translating the content into Chinese; the portal also has to be promoted. “We are actively marketing to the right channels in China,” she says. “Agents marketing to Chinese customers don’t have many options, and Lucky Wu fills the hole.”

Understanding the Chinese customer is also important. For instance, most Chinese buyers prefer newbuild, though they are willing to consider resale properties in the right areas. Chiswick, Chelsea, the West End, and Docklands are all in demand –

“by a factor of ten, there are more people searching our portal for London than anywhere else in the world,” Sherry Madera says.

Unsurprisingly, given the bias to new property, developers form an important customer base. For both developers and agents, Sherry Madera says, the portal offers more than just a listing; “We can expose their brands to the Chinese market,” which is very brand-conscious.

Of course Rightmove could translate its site into Chinese – if it wanted to – but it would also have to invest in advertising within China. That’s where Lucky Wu has an edge; its owner, Betex Group, already has a number of businesses in China, and Lucky Wu is a sister company to marketing agent5 Continents Property.

It’s a slightly off-piste idea, and Sherry Madera knows “we need to convince people”. That’s why, she says, prices have been set at £100 a month for up to 100 property listings, including translation (human, not automated).

Affinity groups
Many affinity groupings also have their own portals. For instance NFoPP members benefit from free uploads to PropertyLive, while the Independent Network of Estate Agents also operates a portal for its members. But INEA also works as an aggregator, uploading listings to 15 other portals as well as providing a property sharing system based on the US style MLS model – so agents are paying for more than a single exposure on one portal. That might be a model that gains increasing currency as the portal sector continues to develop.

Vertical search engines such as Nestoria and Home.co.uk are another port of call for agents; they take feeds from portals or estate agents, or depend on indexing technology similar to Google’s, so as Doug Shephard points out, agents don’t need to do anything for their properties to appear on them.

Andy Walden, at Nestoria, says search engines offer a different approach from portals. “The job of a vertical search engine is to aggregate listings from a number of different sources, “ he says. “We want the user to find what they are looking for as quickly as possible, click on it, and so leave our site. At that point in the process, the role of the portal becomes important – to provide more information to the user, and the opportunity to contact the agent. The two services are clearly linked, but are also very different.”

Nestoria works with a large number of portals, who provide content under commercial agreements. That gives Nestoria a large number of listings, and ensures the quality of the content.

Home.co.uk searches the web for its content. Doug Shephard believes that the portals have been hindered by having agents as customers, so they have not been able to introduce services that might compete with agents. On the other hand Home.co.uk, “Is customer-facing. Our role is to be a search engine and that model allows us to have a comprehensive, inclusive model.”

It also lets Home.co.uk provide an impartial view of the market. For instance, it has now produced lists of the top and bottom 20 selling towns.

“Rightmove’s clients would be really peeved with them if they blew the whistle on the areas that weren’t selling – but we can do it.”

Home.co.uk also has a huge estate agent directory, from which it can supply instruction leads for free. Vendors can run a competitor analysis “on agents, their portfolios, what kind of property they’re good at selling, what postcodes they focus on, time on the market,” using Home.co.uk’s database. Again, that is data that agents paying for a portal might not particularly want to be made public.

Home.co.uk is paid for by advertising; other property sites have slightly different business models. Mouseprice, for instance, shows basic information for free, but offers more in-depth surveys and valuations on a paid-for basis.

steve lees smart new homesMore portals to come
Doug Shephard believes that despite the rapid consolidation of the sector, and the decline of some of the first and second generation portals, there will be new entrants. “It’s a big market,” he says, “you’ve got over 16,000 potential customers out there. But when you arrive at the poker table you’ll need to have more chips these days – the game is getting more expensive.”

Even so, it’s not impossible to build something from relatively low initial investment. Peter Joseph points out that the way smaller portals can challenge the leaders is not “to build another Rightmove” and try to get up-front subscriptions, but to build a base of interesting data that is made available for free, then start charging for additional features.

The difficulty for the estate agent is navigating through the different portals. As far as Peter Joseph is concerned, maximising reach is the right way to go, using as many portals as possible to ensure that no potential client is lost. He believes spending on portals should be the main marketing spend any agent commits to. “Shop windows and local papers now account for such
a small percentage of enquiries that it’s hardly worth thinking about.”

Doug Shephard has a more nuanced view. He believes a lot depends on the size of the agent concerned. For multiple chains, he believes they may get better returns by investing more on their own website. “You should be playing the Search Engine Optimisation game and also putting some spend into Adwords.” Search engines and free portals will then deliver a steady flow of traffic. For smaller agents, he admits that Adwords bid values may be too high to make much impact; portals are likely to be more important investments for them.

It’s interesting to note that only 11 per cent of Home.co.uk’s hits come directly to the site, with another 12 per cent from partner sites. The overwhelming majority of traffic comes through search engines. That suggests that getting your properties into the search engines could ultimately be more important than getting on one of the major portals. If buyers are reaching your properties through Google, Nestoria or Mouseprice, how much is it worth to have them on Rightmove?

There’s no one-size-fits-all, though looking at the concentration of the market Rightmove obviously fits a good many. What is true, though, is the sector has become more complex and concentrated, with often overlapping provision as portals, publishers, and affinity networks strike deals with each other. Perhaps having seen consolidation at the top end of the list, it’s time some of the smaller portals linked up, to give agents more eyeballs for less headache?

Do you have any views to share?