The Curious Case of Property Marketplace Trust Signalling

June 17, 2021
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Michael Bruce made headlines in the British estate agency press this month for personally responding to reviews of his new portal startup Boomin on the Trustpilot consumer review platform. The ex-Purple Bricks businessman responded to both good and bad reviews on the site even giving out his personal email address to several users in a move which is - as far as we know - unprecedented among property portals execs.

Reading through Boomin's 28 reviews on Trustpilot it seems that there is a common theme among many of the reviews: a lack of inventory. The new portal is still trying to achieve coverage across the market and although it has reportedly signed up some 6,300 agency branches it has a long way to go before it can rival the big 3 portals in terms of its coverage.

What was interesting about this story were not the tribulations of a newly launched property portal going through the same growing pains as all online marketplace businesses but that a well-known CEO with plenty of other work to do and (presumably) plenty of wealth to enjoy is taking the time to personally manage his company's reputation in an industry where historically reviews haven't seemed to matter much.

Responding to 28 isolated opinions in a market where successful businesses count their users in the millions might well seem like a bit of a waste of time. Unlike their agent customers, property portal companies do not live or die on word-of-mouth reputation. Culturally, reviews are perhaps thought of as more applicable for in-person rather than online experiences - restaurants, tradespeople, real estate agents. Why would Michael Bruce go to the trouble...?

The thing is, trustworthiness is something that is slowly becoming more important for all businesses. Along with expertise and authoritativeness, Google has been talking about trustworthiness for years as a big factor in its search ranking algorithm and the search engine is widely believed to take reviews on sites like Yelp into account when deciding where a company should appear in its results.

There are also several pieces of research out there that suggest that Millennials, the generation which is now coming of age as far as housing markets are concerned, are less inclined to implicitly trust an organisation and that they do not like or trust traditional advertising.

All of which makes the decision by the likes of Rightmove and Zoopla to put resources into both responding to reviews on Trustpilot and actively soliciting them from users a lot more understandable.


Closer to the transaction - closer attention paid to reputation management

While some property portals with a purely intermediary business model are taking online reviews seriously and others are not, many of those whose models are more closely tied with transactions are absolutely taking care to manage their online reputation


Former Spotahome Head of Global Bookings Calum Cant told us that the company’s Trustpilot score is a very important metric internally at the company and that not only was there a dedicated Voice of Customer team to manage the firm's online reputation but also that bad reviews were automatically flagged and sent to all executives via an internal Slack channel.


Emerging markets - is trust less important or is the bar just lower?

Globally most of the real estate marketplace companies that are closer to the transaction than standard portal businesses are to be found in emerging markets such as Latin America and Southeast Asia. From Brazil to Malaysia to India, companies that claim to be bringing trust to the real estate industry while putting their brand front and centre in the facilitation of transactions have sprung up and, in some cases, have generated significant traction in their markets. 

Interestingly though, there doesn’t seem to be much uniformity in the methods these companies use to signal trustworthiness to their users with brand reputation seemingly more implicit than compared to their Western European counterparts.


No suitable platform for portal reviews?

Trustpilot is a Danish company and its coverage and usage outside of Europe are far from ubiquitous. In America, while Yelp is very popular for consumer goods and in-person experiences, the Better Business Bureau tends to be the forum for more generic reviews of businesses.

At the time of writing, Zillow's non-accredited profile on the BBB had a rating of 1/5 and reading the first page of reviews on there it seems that the only reason anyone would access the page would be to vent about a bad experience for which Zillow may or may not have been responsible. Someone who was presumably a company representative had responded to one of the reviews, but it was an isolated case and by and large, it seems that Zillow is not worrying too much about its BBB profile.

Many reviewers on BBB and Trustpilot seem to have misunderstood what a portal is and what it is not. Reviews complaining about home valuations, about agents who don't call back or mistaking a portal's services for those of an agency are very common on these forums. User reviews from Google My Business are not much more useful and would only really be shown if a user happens to click on the property portal head office on Google Maps*.

All of the major French property portals use the OpinionSystem platform to imbed verified opinions on their pages, the only problem is that the opinions are all found on their agent directories and pertain to the agents rather than the portals themselves.

So is there a suitable platform to review experiences as a user on property portals? To really be useful for other people, a review of a property portal would need to comment on things like filtering, speed, inventory coverage and general usability; all things that are common in reviews on App stores but not things that tend to get commented on in other user forums.

Google My Business may well become the platform that savvy property hunters look at to sort the good property marketplaces from the poor ones. The service recently added new functionality and now lets businesses flag reviews for a takedown and follow their progress. For now though, Google reviews seem to be mainly localised with the search giant not wishing to become an arbiter of company reputations just yet.


Experience providers need reputation management more than intermediaries

So do portals count themselves with marketplaces like Craigslist and eBay, companies for which an online review or two is neither a cause for concern nor particularly relevant, or do they count themselves among the purveyors of real-life, in-person experiences? Two factors are at work here that may mean that increasingly property portals start to pay more attention to their online reputation and reviews.

The first of these is the huge, pervasive change across the board from selling products to selling experiences. Anyone who follows any business accounts on Twitter or has spent more than five minutes on Linkedin in the last year or so will know that this is a concept that has been written about a great deal and which is generally accepted to be occurring in most industries. Culturally we are much more likely to review and recommend experiences than we are products and as the products we use increasingly get marketed as experiences, it would follow that we will become more inclined to review them.

The second is the phenomenon we like to talk about at Online Marketplaces - moving towards the transaction. As these companies inevitably try to involve their brand in more points of the consumer’s real estate experience they will be subject to more opinions that will be relevant for others, especially when the makeup of those consumers is increasingly millennial.

Property portal reviews may not have found a suitable forum or a uniform format just yet, especially in emerging markets, but Michael Bruce may not be alone in actively managing the reputation of his property marketplace business in the years to come.


*   Although Google My Business reviews are eligible to appear in Google Search results alongside businesses, for now at least, they do not appear alongside any property portal's search results we have seen whether for branded search queries or for more specific search intent queries (with the one exception of the branded search “spotahome” from a Spanish IP address).

June 17, 2021
Edmund got to know the world of portals and marketplaces working at Mitula Group (which became Lifull Connect after the buyout in 2018). He worked directly with hundreds of portals across the world in his role in the content department for three and a half years before transferring to the SEO department to understand the inner workings of listings sites. He joined Online Marketplaces as Head of Content in March 2020.

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