Our recent Portal Standards 2021 report looked at the prevalence of what we thought were six common user-friendly features on 650 property portal sites from around the world.
What we found from going through all those sites was that ultimately people's real estate search experience is very different depending on where they’re looking and that sometimes experiences don't seem to be standardised even within individual markets.
We were left with a lot of unanswered questions about property portal features, so we wanted to talk to someone who builds and maintains them for a living.
Homely.com.au scored highly on the study and was one of the portals we looked at with the most features, so we were delighted that the Aussie portal’s Head of Product Luke Kenyon agreed to talk to us about everything that goes into building and running a portal - from data availability to the larger portal Product Manager community...
OMP: A big surprise to us was that in many cases, even though the data is available with listings in a particular country, not all portals take the time to build out a filter.
A good example of this is in Australia, where although plenty of renters have pets and a few portals have a filter, some of the big ones don’t have it. Why would they not bother building one?
LK: While that particular pet filter is now redundant given that discriminating against pets is illegal in most states in Australia, broadly speaking filtering is critical to the user experience.
At Homely.com.au we try to add as much opportunity for consumers to filter their results. One of our much-loved features is presenting how many listings are behind each filter before you have to search.
However, we are limited to what data our customers provide us in their listing feed. A diligent agent will tag up all the key features of their property, which helps drive the search filtering and ultimately ensures the property is more likely to get found faster by the right buyer/renter.
Just how much are property portals limited by the data available on listings?
In Australia, there is a standard ‘XML’ format that all the major portals use for all listings. Because of the fact that every portal has access to the same data set, it is very hard to get a competitive advantage on standard listings data.
Homely has a unique advantage here - we enrich listing data with complementary User Generated Content (UGC) data, such as our suburb reviews and vendor street reviews. As well as being widely loved by our consumers, this product is a key differentiator when it comes to listing data and one of our Unique Consumer Propositions at Homely.com.au.
If you as a portal wanted to insist that all new listings you received carried a new data field, just how viable would that be?
It is a challenge for the majority of portals to differentiate given they use the same XML data set. Often the only time this is updated is when new legislation with a compulsory field is announced.
This makes it all the more important for us as a portal to build on and enrich our complementary data to help make it easier for property seekers to find their perfect home. Our user-generated content - suburb, street reviews and local Q&A - help augment listings in lieu of additional fields.
From a product perspective, which of the six features is the most difficult to build?
As we have most of the desired features within the core of our product, I would say the Map feature was the most difficult to build.
It is quite complicated when it comes to the number of pins presented, the way these are stacked, and the visual representation of the agency/agents. Maps are often the most under-developed feature on a lot of the platforms but from a consumer perspective, it is the most highly desired and the most frequently used.
Some platforms may even hide the map. Rather than hiding this feature, we have promoted it by combining both the listings and map on the desktop experience.
This not only gives our consumers more options and an enriched experience, it gives our customers full branding exposure too.
How many user-facing features does a typical portal ship every year?
Year to date in 2021 we have delivered over 50 key features/updates across our platforms and most of these have been consumer-driven based on research and feedback.
At Homely.com.au we have designed roadmaps, processes and best practices for continuous development and scalable delivery based on a principle called Kaizen which means “change for the better”. I strongly believe there should always be a Phase 2. Kaizen allows us to make further tweaks and improvements for our consumers and customers to our features and products once we have launched it.
With all the money pouring into PropTech in general, do you think we’ll see an acceleration in portal front end development?
Great question and you are right we will see an acceleration in consumer front end development. There is a lot of money pouring into PropTech, and new companies are popping up each week.
Consumers will vote with their downloads and their clicks. The emphasis should always be on what consumers want, which is the lifeblood of our portal.
Building out new filters obviously has benefits for the users that see the front end. Is there an argument that there is also more of a back end benefit as well? I’m thinking here about the ability to create more longtail URLs like ‘virtual-tours’ or ‘pet-friendly’ using the filters.
Without giving too much away, this is completely correct. These sorts of filters really do help with URL creation that goes towards our SEO strategy.
How do you measure the ROI of new features on the portal?
Like any property portal, when it comes to consumer features all that matters is audience and engagement.
We have spent a lot of time on our data analytics strategy to ensure we have everything tracked and reflected in various dashboards so we can constantly monitor new and existing features. This data is shared with our customers as part of the performance monitoring of our customer listing products.
Are there any features that might be quite easy to build but which aren’t really worth the resources to build? I’m thinking of the keyword search tool perhaps.
I have been in the digital industry for 20 years and one thing I have learnt is there is no such thing as an “easy” feature to build! Often an easy feature is like an iceberg - it looks small on the top but is very complicated beneath the waterline.
For any Product person, it comes down to what can be delivered that will have the biggest impact in line with the overall company/product strategy(s). Also just because a feature may be ‘easy’, you need to validate the product-market fit and whether consumers will even use it or want it.
Something like a keyword search tool might be thought of as easy, but the reality is the data needs to be “tagged” up and available which most of the time it is not. This is when AI/ML technology comes into play - where you scan the property images to expose key features such as “Air Con” “Pool” etc.
Is there ever a case where the needs of the end-user are not aligned with the desires of agent customers?
This is often a conversation that most listing portal Product Managers need to work through. More often than not we will try to find the right balance but having said that, the consumer will always come first.
We have a double-sided marketplace where our agents are our customers and consumers are the end-user. We get a lot of feedback from our customers and our good customers understand that the consumer needs to be the number 1 priority.
We do often get some amazing feedback from our loyal customers and we have recently released these features. We are finding a huge shift in the past 2 or years with customers thinking as they now understand the consumer needs comes first over their needs.
One thing that surprised us when looking through all the portal sites was just how few listings have virtual tours even after all the industry noise that’s been generated around them. Whose responsibility is it to push the use of virtual tours through the industry?
This is an interesting one and there are definitely two camps. There are consumers that love virtual tours and there are people that hate them. Consumers often don't trust virtual tours, as it is pre-described and often you can’t see the things you want to see.
Homely.com.au has a filter to provide consumers with the option to only see the listings with Virtual tours as we would like to provide the consumers with the best possible experience.
I think it is a shared responsibility of the whole industry to provide consumers options and educate them on the benefits of such tools but in my opinion, nothing will beat an Open for inspection when a consumer can see it and feel it for themselves. Plus it allows the consumer to have a direct conversation with the listing agent.
As a Product Manager for a property portal, how much time do you spend looking at what the competition is doing? If they bring out a new feature does it automatically go on your roadmap?
I have 100s of apps on my phone and I am subscribed to every brands’ emails and push notifications. I live and breathe not only property portals from all over the world, but also various digital blogs, industry news and often spend my downtime scrolling through them all. I’m a bit obsessed!
I have a saying that I use all too often, which is ‘don’t jump at shadows’. We have a product roadmap and vision for a reason, and it has been designed for achieving our business and product goals.
Every portal is different. Yes, it may be a cool feature but is it right for us? And is it right for us now? Often a bit of education and trust is needed and it’s up to us to communicate the need to stick with the plan effectively with customers and internal stakeholders.
Is there a sense of community among Product Managers or is it all quite secretive and siloed within companies? Do you look at what other companies outside your market are doing?
Yes, Product Managers are quite secretive and for good reason! We often hold the secret recipe for the success of our products. But in Melbourne/Australia where Homely.com.au is based and where I live, we have a good community of general Product and Tech meetups that I regularly try to attend.
I am also involved in a few Proptech Slack groups, where we share knowledge. But to be honest, I find I get the most from LinkedIn, following fellow key product managers and marketing peers. It’s a great way to keep my finger on the pulse.
Attending various conferences and events is a great way also to understand what the market is doing. Homely is very supportive and puts a high priority on learning.
What is one feature that you’d love to be able to build on a property portal?
This is like the old age question: what would your one wish be if you had a genie in a bottle? The answer is always, a million wishes, please. I wear multiple hats at Homely.com.au and I’m always thinking of revenue, audience, consumer engagement, data… so this is a tough question.
One thing I have always wanted to build is around accessibility - helping people find the right property for their physical needs. For example being able to find buildings that include stairs, ramps, wide hallways, handles in bathrooms etc.
This data is hard to come by but with the power of AI/ML, it is closer than ever. I would love to build this to help the community.