In the first of our series of articles around vertical search, we dive into the past of a curious industry that sprung up over ten years ago and has been adjacent to the property portals ever since.
Vertical search in the real estate market was born in a time of recession in one of the worst-hit countries in the world. Yet fledgeling companies like Trovit (founded in Barcelona in 2007) and Mitula (founded in Madrid in 2009) would go on to be success stories and carve out a lucrative market for a product that had never previously existed.
As commentators are once again using the 'R' word and our industry faces a future which is uncertain at best, are there lessons we can draw from the story of this product which was profitable almost from the get-go and which spread across the world in no time at all?
The history of vertical search in real estate starts with two companies both founded in Spain and both focused on cars and jobs as well as real estate. Trovit, the dot-com pin-up with the pseudo-Silicon-Valley credo and the ball-pit meeting rooms and Mitula the more pragmatic, old school company both did the same thing in slightly different ways but were both successful from the outset.
Trovit was acquired in 2014 by Japanese conglomerate Next Co Ltd (which changed its name to Lifull in 2017). Mitula, after being passed over by the Japanese, went after acquisitions of its own and bought out London based outfit Lokku (owner of vertical search site Nestoria) in May 2015 before adding Barcelona based vertical search site Nuroa the following year.
The big news came in 2019 as Mitula Group and Trovit merged when the former was bought out by Lifull. The two companies formed what is now known as Lifull Connect and sell traffic together under the thribee brand.
The product on offer from both companies was the same and the premise was simple. Much as the property portals had done in the early 2000s, the vertical search sites were offering a new shop window for property. This new shop window was not competing with those already available to consumers, at least not directly and never to their faces in sales meetings. Its value lay in attracting property hunters to a site that had all the properties from all of the shop windows and selling these property hunters back to the portals as clicks.
Clearly, in order for the portals to play ball with this new marketplace, the new marketplace would need a critical mass of users, but in order for it to gain those users it would need some content. The chicken or the egg situation here is less complicated than it might appear. These were wild-west days of the internet, and for the same reason that nobody has successfully sued Google for having their pages appear in its search results, Mitula and Trovit have always had plenty of content to show to users. ‘Scraping’ is a dirty word for property portals, but most have gained thousands of pageviews and leads over the years thanks to bots launched by vertical search sites.
They had the content, and even if it wasn’t always updated or 100% accurate, the vertical search sites had users as well thanks to their understanding of SEO and targeting of longtail keyword phrases. They spent a lot of time on the back end of their products making sure that they could detect and flag listings with certain features (balcony, disabled access, pool) and then group these listings together on one page targeting Google searchers who used these specific keywords.
If the shop windows in a particular country were disparate and competitive, as was the case in Italy and Mexico, then the business model tended to work very well as the portals were willing to pay to get a leg up on their competition. Traffic was also good in markets whose consumers were just beginning to come online, as in the case of Indonesia.
The model wasn’t initially successful in all countries, but once vertical search sites had proof of concept in one country, their model was very easily transferred to others once they had the material translated. Currently Lifull Connect has verticals operating in over 50 countries and they have portals paying them in most of these.
Mentioning vertical search sites is a surefire way to start a conversion at Property Portal Watch, and portal executives have always held opinions one way or another about the value they offer. The vertical search sites, however, were always far more concerned about what Google thought of them than what the portals’ disposition towards them may have been.
Whether they offer good value or not was never really the point. What is for sure is that they certainly offer traffic at cheaper rates than other sources and have always done so with a much more personal touch than the internet monoliths of Silicon Valley. As long as VS sites occupy the promised land that is the first page of Google’s results, they will always control a certain percentage of the audience and the only question is whether portals want access to that audience.
So what did the vertical search companies get right?
Understood user intent before it was a buzzword. They leveraged the fact that users were searching using longer phrases but that portals had not developed tech to categorise listings with these characteristics or create URLs with these phrases. Simply put, vertical search sites were property sites made by internet professionals whereas the portal sites have tended to be property sites made by property professionals. They respected SEO and recognised early that not everyone looking for a property knows exactly what they want or goes straight to a big name portal.
Unashamed to make money from advertising. In an environment where adverts in digital media are ubiquitous, where the first organic listing on a Google results page is often a big scroll away and where the highest-earning companies in the world make their money with ads, vertical search sites were never precious about their product. If they were efficient and fast in showing the user what they were looking for, then they could accept a few third-party ads.
Consolidation was the key. Just as their model worked by consolidating property listings from lots of different portals and creating a one-stop-shop, vertical search companies knew that competition between their sites was never going to be a good thing. They understood that their most valuable resources were the URLs they marketed content with and the favourable positions these enjoy on Google’s results pages. Mergers in this market always made sense, and this seems to have been recognised.
The model was always iterable. If the business was not working in one market, then they could get some translations done, buy a domain and try it out in another. If one vertical didn’t work, they could do some research and try it out in another. Gamblers call it ‘spread-betting’, brokers call it ‘diversification’, vertical search sites called it ‘horizontal growth’. Whichever term you use, it worked well for vertical search sites.