Google announced yesterday that it was ceasing the operation of its map based real estate search service. This service was introduced back in July 2009 as a complementary enhancement to their standard text search whereby listings for property for sale or rent were mapped based on addresses, supplied with listings by real estate agents and real estate websites (Realestate.co.nz fed content to Google for this service).
This is a significant decision by the world’s largest search engine.
In their official announcement they state that one of the factors in their decision was “the proliferation of excellent property-search tools on real estate websites“. They went on to say “We recognize that there might be better, more effective ways to help people find local real estate information than the current feature makes possible”.
Whilst I in no way doubt that the reasons they state are a true reflection of the circumstances that led then to this decision, I think there are other factors to consider.
I was always of the opinion that Google came at real estate search almost accidentally, especially in the early days. The concept was originated in Australia through the maps team under the leadership of the Lars Rasmussen. Their desire was to demonstrate their mastery of the mapping platform and locating property for sale and rent on these maps was appealing as data was readily available, with agents only too happy to collaborate (or put another way – the owner of the data would not object). The fundamental problem though, is that whilst mapping property is interesting and no doubt of value, it is not the intuitive first entry point of real estate search for buyers on the web.
The solution Google should have developed, in my opinion would have been using their image search platform. The primary consumer real estate search experience is really visual – rich imagery of properties for sale is so compelling. The map representation would have then been a natural complement to an image based search. In some ways Google recent foray with Boutiques demonstrated the true concept of a better approach to the real estate sector.
Another aspect of concern to Google could have been the view that an open free service for listing property opens up the potential for spammers to damage the user experience. Ed Freyfogle of Nestoria, who as an ex-Yahoo search expert is well positioned to comment, proposed this view that “The free model as demonstrated by Google means you’ll be spammed, get expired and fake listings, which are bad for users. And because you’re not earning any money, it’s hard to justify investing in the service”. There is no evidence that this did occur in NZ, but it was potentially a problem.
The existing specialist real estate websites like Realestate.co.nz that only accepts legitimate listings actively marketed by licensed real estate agents ensures that this eventuality cannot arise. A subscription fee model charged to real estate agents ensures the integrity of the content.
As to why Google will cease to provide this service. I suspect that the quoted reason being the changed structure of the Google Base to Google shopping data schema is the true reason – Google are a very highly advanced grouping of technologists.
In NZ the level of traffic from Google maps real estate search never eventuated to much. Realestate.co.nz fed 100% of content from day one and over the 19 months we received 220,000 session visits to Realestate.co.nz from the maps search – that is only 11,500 per month as compared to our total traffic being around 900,000 session visits per month. Consumers never easily found Google real estate map search, or even if they did, did not see it as that valuable.
The bottom line is that there is a significant place for mapping real estate listings – it is truly relevant in the context of mobile. When you are standing on a street corner, then a map representation of property near you for sale or rent is very compelling on your handheld mobile device – welcome to the smartphone apps from real estate portals!
Try it for yourself on the new Realestate.co.nz iPhone app.