With real estate sites as common as pebbles you have to wonder why some work and some don't.
We know that results differ because the level of real estate business generated on the Internet varies widely.
According to the 2005 Member Profile published by the National Association of Realtors, members typically derive just 5 percent of their business from the web while 28 percent get nothing. A mere 4 percent get at least half their business online. The NAR study also shows that 87 percent of member firms and 44 percent of individual members have websites.
Now we have some sense of why it is that sites succeed or fail. A study by Hostway Corp., a provider of web hosting services, offers a list of consumer pet peeves that brokers should read with care.
According to the Hostway survey, 93 percent of consumers say pop-up ads are annoying or extremely annoying; 89 percent are bothered by the need to install extra software, and 83 percent resent registration log-on pages that block access to online content.
Hostway says "more than 70 percent of consumers say they're unlikely to purchase from, or even return to, a website after encountering these pet peeves. And, because only 25 percent of consumers say they'll complain to the companies about their pet peeves, the use of these online annoyances may be having a negative impact that's difficult to trace or measure."
"The results of this survey are a clear warning to e-businesses," says John Lee, vice president of marketing at Hostway. "The Internet has matured to the point where consumers demand an easy online experience. Quite simply, consumers are warning companies, 'you're going to lose my business if your website experience is annoying.'"
For some time in real estate there has been a debate regarding how listing information should be displayed. One idea is the VOW, or "virtual office website." With a VOW, consumers must check in and register to get listing photos and data. Alternatively -- with IDX or an "Internet data exchange" system -- consumers can browse at will and not register at all.
The core difference between these two systems is clear: With IDX consumers are in control and retain their privacy. Contacting brokers is an option, not a requirement. But if a listing looks interesting, then fine, it's time to call a broker -- maybe the broker who operates the system, maybe the listing broker or maybe a buyer broker.
It doesn't matter what brokers or portal promoters want or prefer, on the Internet the surfer is supreme. What the Hostway survey plainly shows is that the overwhelming majority of consumers will avoid sites with up-front registration requirements.
The Internet is rapidly filling-up with registration-free, consumer-preferred IDX sites, sites that precisely meet the needs of both consumers and brokers.
If you're a consumer why would you use a system with privacy-busting up-front requirements? How do you benefit? In an era of identify theft, why would anyone want to needlessly disclose personal information?
The idea of real estate brokerage is not to sell homes at the highest possible cost and most public discomfort, it's to satisfy consumer needs with the greatest efficiency and economy -- and thus maximize profits. The obligation of real estate brokers is not to post property information on every possible platform, it's to achieve a sale according to the standards established in a listing agreement. If that can be done with minimal expense and inconvenience, so much the better for everyone.
We now see the emergence of national IDX systems such as Help-U-Sell and soon ReMax. Regional sites such as HomesDataBase.com -- which serves Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and the District of Columbia -- already provide a ton of free listing information to consumers with no up-front registration required, thank you.
Without question, other national and regional IDX sites will now emerge. Not only do consumer-friendly sites reflect public preferences, they also show us where brokerage is headed. Help-U-Sell reports that it now has more than 800 franchises -- up 900 percent since 1999. Help-U-Sell also has nearly 1.5 million listings online.
Is it possible other brokers and franchises will not notice such results?
In the end the overwhelming power of the marketplace will determine what brokers do online. Portals and gateways that seek up-front registrations simply can't compete when the same information from the same sources is offered online without obligation -- an arrangement which every consumer and privacy group will favor.
It's ironic, but the great leveling power of the Internet is now leveling privacy-breaching gateways and portals. In some cosmic sense this seems both just and right.