As we work with many property websites at Ina4. I was recently sent this article about the future of property websites which someone thought might be of interest to me.
To summarise the article, it reflects on the time that estate agents would rely on the local newspapers to gain exposure and advertise their properties. Then the web took off and so did property portals which ended the local newspapers. It posed the question: Could the future of voice and artificial intelligence in search sparking the end of the dominance property portals?
It was an interesting article, however even more so were the comments left below it. I could feel the seething hatred for property portals seeping through the words. It did get me thinking about the future of property websites as we move towards a search revolution.
The overall impression given was that voice and AI would indeed end the property portals. However, my prediction would have been the complete opposite to be the case.
Google wants its users to have an enjoyable web experience and it’s users appreciate this. Centralising all the properties of estate agents, like RightMove, gives users the convenience of not hopping from one site to the other, or worse, repeating the same search over and over again on numerous websites. Which is why RightMove succeeds, all the properties in one place, in one search and in a standardised format.
If searches for property were possible in voice search for example;
"Show me three bedroom homes in central Manchester priced below £285k"
Then this does throw the doors wide open, no hopping from site to site, Google does the sorting and finding for us. We just have to use Google as our property aggregator and direct the traffic to estate agents websites instead.
Not Google's First Time
Google have been down this road before trying to aggregate real estate listings in their products. Back in 2009, Google did have a foray into the property industry by showing real estate listings in Google Maps for a short period.
However it soon dropped the feature in 2010 citing "low-usage" and the wealth of other "property- search tools on the internet".
A lot has changed since 2010 and now, however, and the thought of Google returning to the realm of real estate has never left us.
If there was ever an opportunity for Google to take this step again, the growing popularity of voice search and artificial intelligence would suggest the time is now.
What Are The Challenges?
Google would need to understand the content of EVERY single estate agent website and all the data within it. Without the ability to be able to understand that…
...this data (highlighted in red) is the same as...
To a human, this is simple to understand but to Google it's difficult to know if this is a price, monthly rent or an asking price. Google needs some way of deciphering this information to be able to decide which properties to show (or even more importantly, which properties not to show).
There is a solution to this, in structured data or microdata. This is code not visible to the users but to search engines that crawl your property website, it will tag the relevant information on the page so that the search engine can understand what it is, much like a barcode.
Property portals seem to be one step ahead of most other estate agents with this one, as they have structured data already implemented on all of their properties. Using Google Structured Data Tool and a randomly selected property from Rightmove and Zoopla.
But what about those Estate Agents who already have schema implemented on their property pages?
Well, they are still at a disadvantage as Rightmove and Zoopla, amongst other property portals, are already dominating the organic rankings in Google Search, so it is realistic to assume that the property portals would also dominate voice search as well.
Potential SERP Feature?
It's safe to assume that if Google did start to aggregate properties in search and voice then we would see some kind of "SERP feature", much like latest feature "Google for Jobs" which allows users to search for jobs straight in the search engine. Simply type in a query with the term "jobs in", "apprenticeships" or "internship" you will see this feature in your search results.
Note: At the time of writing (April 2018) this isn't live in UK, however, it is due imminently.
We can imagine something very similar for property search functionality in Google. Simply by typing (or asking for) queries with "house for sale in" or "flats to rent in", followed by a series of parameters such as the number of bedrooms and price ranges, would display some kind of feature box with properties listed within it.
Using the data provided on estate agent and property portal websites Google will be able to list properties available, you could view the options on your phone or show them on your TV through casting technology, perhaps.
It could also use it's other technologies to integrate into this, such as working out your commute to work from the selected property or even using this as a filtering option so you can exclude all properties that would take an average of over an hour to work.
This is all guesswork and dreaming, but the possibility is there. I believe the likelihood of some kind of property search feature is very, very high.
How soon could we see this feature?
This is a more difficult question to answer, there are no signs of this happening and no word from Google about if something like this is in the works.
What is likely to happen is, much like the "Google for Jobs" feature, the US would see this feature first and here in the UK we would see it much later. Which would give everyone the opportunity here in the UK, to get themselves prepared. However, this does mean, that given even if Google were to announce this feature was coming tomorrow, we would be unlikely to see it here in the UK for another 18 months minimum.
Where does this leave estate agents & property portal websites?
The ultimate question is how this would affect estate agents in their digital efforts or do we simply see the status quo of property portals dominating on search?
This is an interesting question, and "Google for Jobs" provides us with a case study that may hold the answer.
There are similarities digitally between recruitment and property. Employers would much rather use internal resources for recruitment, however, due to time and convenience, it’s much easier to use recruiters or jobs boards. Recruiters too are constantly in competition with job boards for search supremacy, as ultimately it boils down to which platform has the most traffic of jobseekers.
"Google for Jobs" changes all that, as it's much more convenient for job seekers to utilise Google as a one-stop shop for jobs that elsewhere.
We know that job boards dominated the organic search results both in the US and in the UK.
Like this example of “plumbing jobs in Manchester”...
However, if we take a look at the "Google for Jobs" in the US, we don’t see a plethora of job boards or recruitment agencies. We see employers themselves, their own listings on their own websites.
It's clear that the algorithm for "Google for Jobs" is very different to the organic search results. This is likely to be the same for a potential property search feature.
If so, this is good news for estate agents as this could possibly be a sign that property portals could lose their dominance over the search engine results page.
This makes sense from Google's point of view, as they are making the journey easier by aggregating all of the properties together and it’s more likely that the estate agents themselves will have richer content which is of more value to the user. This makes the users happier which in turn makes Google happier.