Whether we like it or not, Google is a powerful force on the internet and for most businesses, they are a key driver of traffic. Many portal sites around the world receive more than 30% of their traffic from searches done on Google. Therefore, it is not surprising that property portals around the world are asking the same question – is Google a real threat to my business? What these property portals fear most is that Google will openly compete with them in providing listing advertising for agents – thus making the portals almost irrelevant.
We see this concern in the survey results we have on Property Portal Watch in which 50% of respondents believe that Google can replace property portals or will strongly compete with them.
Therefore is Google really a threat for property portals or will it continue to be a friend and drive traffic?
Today if I type a search into Google along the lines of "homes for sale in Richmond", I am most likely to get a mixture of portals sites, franchise sites and local agent sites all offering homes for sale in the Richmond area. Now in the US, if I do that search, the first search result I receive is "Find 1,874 results for homes for sale in Richmond".
Clicking on this takes you to what appears to be a mash-up of Google maps and Google Base. Strangely, I now see there are 7,980 results – I guess the integration is still work in progress. I can then zoom in and out, narrow the search results, and see the property details. If I am interested in a property, I am able to go click on a link and go to the original listing.
Google seems to be remorselessly going down a path of improving the quality of its search results. In short, they want to get better and better at giving the user the results that they are asking for, not just point them in the right direction. This is not going to change, just get better and better.
While portals may be fearful of these changes, it is unlikely Google is going to compete with them for the following reasons.
Firstly, Google is not going to go direct to agents. As those that run property portal sites around the world know, agents don’t often self serve. More often than not, portal sites use sales teams to get agents to sign up either for base subscriptions or for premium products. In addition, a simple review of Google search results shows that it is rare for agents to undertake SEM (search engine marketing) strategies. In addition, a review of a number of agent websites shows they are not optimised for SEO – still one of the black arts for many agents.
Therefore, unless Google is going to put a massive team of people on the ground to sell or promote its products to agents, it is unlikely that agents will enthusiastically embrace Google en masse.
Secondly, even if Google did go direct or agents did self-serve, how would they make money from this? Now they have an entrenched model in which Adwords generate revenue around the natural search results. In the property segment, the major purchasers of these are the portal sites. Therefore biting the hand that feeds you is not always the smartest thing to do.
Google could create a set of premium products where listings are placed at the top of the search if agents pay more. However, this may go against the Google mantra of providing the results that the consumer asks for. Therefore it is unlikely that this is going to happen.
Finally, Google has the challenge of how to handle the duplication of listings. Let's say that four portals sites as well as a franchise group and an agent all have the same listing on Google – how will Google handle the display of that listing. Perhaps the approach they will take will be similar to how they handle the order in which they display sites in the natural search results. They will look for sources that they believe are the most credible and this is credibility may be established by the volume and quality of links to the source site as well as other factors including the length of existence and the quality of other listings on the site. Any which way you look at it, it is likely that the portal sites will have a better chance of getting their listings to the top.
Therefore, given this is happening and the quality of search results will continue to be improved, the challenge for portals sites is to make sure that it is the listings on their sites that are displayed in the results before those of the agents who have entered them directly. To do this, portal sites have to openly embrace Google and where possible make it easy for Google to a hold of the listings. By doing this, portals site will dampen any impact that the changes at Google will have on their business.
The reality is that there may be some reduction in the volume of traffic from Google as some agents and franchise groups / companies get their listings into the Google search results ahead of the portal sites. It is just another iteration of the ongoing SEO chase. Those that embrace and run with Google will get the results. Those that ignore SEO or hide with their head in the sand will miss out.