Tuesday, March 14, 2000, Vol. 114, No. 50

Consumers Say Web Content Is Paramount Consumers say Web content is paramount Survey after survey reveals, when it comes to buying or selling homes on the Internet, content remains king. Its no secret that real estate consumers who surf realty Web sites are looking for useful, concise and current housing information to help them navigate what in many cases is the most expensive transaction of their lives. Solid content is what draws consumers to a Web site and keeps them coming back even when they aren't in the market for a home. Consumers also use the Web to find home improvement specialists, mortgage lenders and other real estate-related services, but if a Web site doesn't have the content they want, they'll keep looking elsewhere both for content and professional assistance. A site can offer award-winning agents, brokers, and contractors, but that really doesnt matter if its content is inaccurate, sparse, poorly produced, difficult to navigate, or otherwise boring and unattractive. According to the latest survey by Coldwell Banker, more than eight out of 10 respondents, roughly 85 percent, valued the "ability of the Internet to quickly provide potential home buyers with quality home listings and information." The survey also revealed almost three-quarters of the respondents, 71 percent, believed the Internet had the potential to "match their needs and wants with the right home." Coldwell conducted the national telephone survey of more than 1,000 people during two three-day periods, Oct. 4-6 and Oct. 11-13. Respondents to the survey had access to the Internet, and had purchased or sold a home in the past two to five years. According to Coldwell, the results "strongly suggest" that consumers are doing their preliminary research on the Internet. That is, before consumers seek professional help, they seek professional content. The survey also found that even though consumers were looking for solid information on the Web, they still weren't likely to do business with real estate companies that existed solely on the Web. Only 10 percent indicated they would be "very comfortable" buying or selling under those terms, the survey said. Consumers ranked a responsive sales agent as the most important service a traditional or online real estate company can provide, and said the agent's experience and reputation as the two most important factors for choosing a real estate company, according to the Coldwell survey. The survey also indicated 89 percent of respondents likely wouldn't bid on a home online after having seen only pictures or video footage without visiting the home. "The study affirms the two-sided approach to home ownership that Coldwell Banker has invested in," said Alex Perriello, Coldwells president and chief executive officer. "One, give consumers as much information as we can give them up front and at the beginning of the process, and two, offer professional sales associates who can interpret, navigate and counsel all facets of the home buying and selling process for the consumer from finance options to negotiations, to services related to home ownership." So, which are the best realty sites on the Internet? According to the latest independent research survey performed by online market research firm Gomez.com, 15 top real estate sites were ranked for excellence, but not always in the order consumers or the industry might expect. According to Gomezs Winter 1999 Home Buying Internet survey, the best overall score went to Realtor.com, but only by a slight margin. Following close behind, by less than 1/10th of a point, was HomeAdvisor. Coldwell Banker came in third. Through Gomez.com, consumers can evaluate the top sites for such products as mortgages, insurance, airlines and many others. The release of the home buying Web site survey marks the first time the company has ventured into the real estate arena. The survey used 200 criteria as well as interviews with company executives, mystery customer reports and other evaluative measures to tabulate the results. Gomez also subcategorized the information by user profiles traditional home buyers, independent home buyers, and relocation home buyers. What makes the survey unique is not only the fact that this is the first independent survey of its kind, but that the focus is geared for consumer use. Not all firms cater to every profile, which means that the best overall firm may not, in fact, be the best for a given customer profile and his or her unique buying motivations, needs or intentions, Karris said. According to the survey, Realtor.com scored higher with traditional home buyers, while HomeAdvisor nudged ahead with relocation and independent buyers. "If you look at the traditional home buyer who wants to work closely with an agent and pay full commission," says Gomez.com real estate analyst Nick Karris, "they aren't going to spend a lot of time searching through properties. Realtor.com is the clear choice for the old-school buyer." The independent home buyer who favors the do-it-yourself approach is younger and more Web-savvy, Karris said. "They want complete information and disclosure. ``Homeadvisor offers extensive educontent explaining complex issues such as disclosure and buyer's brokerage, so for the independent buyer, Homeadvisor does a better job." In addition to Realtor.com, HomeAdvisor and Coldwell Banker, the creators of the industrys top 10 Web sites, according to Gomez, include iOwn.com, Homes.com, Real Estate Yahoo, RE/MAX, Owners.com, GMAC Real Estate and Homeseekers.com. The survey has received mixed reviews from the industry. "I'm not pleased I want to be number one in everything," said Barbara Amster, president of Realtor.com. "Despite having six million page views a day, it looks like the only weakness is our lack of comps. We will have to put those on the site in fairly short order." Sara Narbaitz, product manager for MSN Homeadvisor, which ranked No. 1 in three out of four categories, said, "We have been saying all along that quality is more important than number of listings. It takes three times as many clicks to see a listing on other sites as it does on Homeadvisor." A third-place ranking for Coldwell Banker doesn't surprise Regina Taylor, senior vice president of marketing. She lists many Internet firsts for the company including: first franchise to have a Web presence; first to advertise its Internet site nationally, and first to offer email new listings and disclosure and complete property information to consumers. "We put a lot of focus on empowering the customer to do business the way they want to," explains Taylor. "A number of years ago we realized the potential of the Internet and decided to make it a cornerstone of our business. Once we had that foundation, we built the functionality around it." If the industry wants to use the survey results to make improvements to make a friendlier online experience for consumers, Karris recommends looking not at number of listings but the quality of information they contain. "Out of the top 15 sites, only iOWN and Yahoo! offer access to FSBOs in addition to MLS listings," said Karris. "As the Internet user becomes more educated in the process and utilizing listings to find properties, we will see a large migration toward menu pricing from agents and seller-directed transactions."