Google, Real Estate and Maps: A recorded conversation

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Yesterday Thoughtfaucet hosted a call about Google’s recent decision to drop GoogleBase and, in the process, remove real estate listings from Google Maps. There was a large and eager audience for this event which was put together in less than 24 hours.

On the call were:

Below you will find a link to the audio recording of the “#regoo” conversation about Google Map and Real Estate. Later on I will get a transcript and some other supporting materials up.

I missed the first opening in which I introduced everyone. This recording starts in with Dustin Luther describing what it was like back when Google first started putting pins for real estate on their map product.

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Transcript of Google, Real Estate, Maps conversation

The recording starts right in with Dustin Luther describing what it was like when Google started showing property listings on maps.

Dustin Luther:

When google was launching their real estate endeavors there was so much concern. It felt like they had the potential to just dominate if they chose to. So for a lot of execs there were a lot of meetings everyone was talking “How, as Realtor.com are we going to respond to Google? What are they going to do?” And I probably wasn’t even in 95% percent of these meetings but I was in enough of them and brought in enough in terms of “what is going to be the real impact?” It just felt like Google was going to make such a splash. It’s really fascinating that Google hasn’t hit it. It’s like Google as a company just not executing particularly well on things. Because they mess up a lot.

Gahlord Dewald:

So how about you Rich, from your perspective in the making of web sites and dealing with that technology, I know you don’t pull your data from GoogleBase, but how do you take this development?

Rich Bailey:

There’s a couple ways to look at it. Fundamentally, I don’t know that Google has ever really done a lot in being the source of data. They’re great at being a reference. When you search Google it references other websites other websites as the primary sources. So in that sense it works kind of like a fancy card catalog, for those of us that are old enough to remember using card catalogs. But being the source of that data really doesn’t seem to be very consistent with what Google has done or with their business model over time. That might be the fundamental reason why they’re exiting this space. One of the other reasons that may be more pragmatic or logistic could include anything from how hard it is to maintain an accurate data set–getting it from syndication or directly from MLSes. Then they have issues with data standards. You know that the data that was on Google didn’t have a history of being terribly accurate or up-to-date. It also may have something to do with the search interface, it wasn’t too terribly compelling. Not that they couldn’t have done it if they’d wanted to. It boils down to the pragmatics of actually getting it done, maybe they decided there just wasn’t any money in it. That’s a business concept that maybe Mike can talk to a little more. But fundamentally I just don’t think it’s consistent with what Google does at it’s basic level.

Gahlord Dewald:

That makes sense. It’s sort of like does this relate a little bit to the CEO change? Or the shift in focus at the top. Mike, what’s your perspective on Google dropping the pins off the real estate map?

Mike Simonsen:

I think the blog post where they announced it yesterday had a couple of points that I think were really compelling, that could be overlooked. Thinking back about five or six years ago how hard it was to find what was actually for sale in a local real estate market. IDX stuff was starting to emerge but not a lot there. A lot of the local MLSes didn’t have anything online. It’s why Trulia was created. Realtor.com existed but was, in my experience, while they get a lot of traffic consumers don’t think about Realtor.com as an entity. I’ve never had any consumer say “Oh real estate and internet, like Realtor.com?” Never has anyone said that. So there’s not a brand recognition. And there certainly wasn’t five or six years ago. So the engineers at Google were thinking about the same problem that a lot of folks were thinking about in this space. The IDX vendors, the Trulias, you know all these guys that say “wow it’s really hard to find what’s for sale.” And so Google said “Well let’s give it a shot.” What Google pointed out yesterday was since then, the industry has done a really good job of getting that information out there. Whether it’s aggregator sites like Zillow or Trulia or at the local level with thousands of agents with good IDX search. Like really meaningful stuff. With things like WordPress plugins. It’s not just about looking at pictures of listings but then the next step. Google’s not really equipped to do the next steps. For example the lead conversion. I’m not going to ask Google to see a property. I think what has happened is that the problem has been solved elsewhere. The fact that nobody used listings search on Google Maps is not all surprising because there’s a great places they can do it elsewhere. And I think that’s been sort of overlooked in the quick analysis. The real estate industry has done a good job of solving that problem. That’s what consumers want. Google didn’t mention local agents or the IDX solutions but those things have been really impactful in the industry. And on top of it, we’re talking about removing listings from Google Maps as a common function. Google’s still indexing the data, the properties. They still have information about how to get to the agents through the best agent sites or the best searched sites. Even if it’s one of the big Trulia/Zillow/Realtor.com players. So in that sense I think it totally makes sense to drop the listings from the map.

Dustin Luther:

Where you’re going with that is definitely my thought as well. I read somewhere that they’re essentially disbanding the GoogleBase API. So that tells me they aren’t even trying to collect the listings anymore. I find that even more interesting than just removing the little button from the map that wasn’t being used much anyway.

Gahlord Dewald:

Yeah I looked that up, they’re basically getting rid of the entire GoogleBase product. Which was Google’s way of trying to understand structured data. So they’re getting rid of that entirely. So the whole mechanism for them getting that information is going to be gone in June of this year. It’s being replaced by something called their Shopping API. But in the process of switching over to the Shopping API there are certain kinds of things that are being dropped entirely. One of them is real estate. The others are jobs–so they’re not going to do any kind of jobs listings. Which, frankly I didn’t even know they did in the first place. And then events too. So it seems like their disbanding a whole lot of structured data search. For people who aren’t geeks, structured data is any kind of thing where there’s a named field. So for example there’s an address field and then the value that goes with it. Or property type and then there’s a value for that. I wonder if Google is just sort of giving up on structured data for anything other than the things they can use with Google Checkout or something? That’s a big move, right?

Mike Simonsen:

Gahlord, I see that as a function of Google’s skills. But also database progress in the last bunch of years. Google says “Wow our understanding of unstructured data is really powerful. It doesn’t matter if this house is listed on a site with a WordPress plugin for real estate search and listings. I can still bring it up and show it at the right time.” So it sort of mirrors development in the database industry. There’s been an explosion of databases that are essentially focusing on the unstructured problem. Because if we get good at understanding that unstructured data we build the structure on the fly. And you don’t have to have a GoogleBase. You have Google. GoogleBase becomes a redundant thing. And Google is good enough to say that “Well, we don’t need to put any effort into GoogleBase.”

Dustin Luther:

I was thinking of other industries when we were talking about this yesterday. I was thinking that good structured databases are still ridiculously valuable to Google. What comes to mind is when they bought that airfare data company for a couple hundred million. They still want to get the structured data but GoogleBase just not being a good way to aggregate it on an industry level. I don’t think Google is saying “Oh we don’t want structured data.” I think they’re realizing though that this sort of ad hoc, go grab it from whatever source will give it to us, sort of half-hearted effort just doesn’t make sense any more.

Gahlord Dewald:

Maybe they’ve outgrown the whole GoogleBase thing. Rich, what do you think about in terms of structured data. Are they regrouping? Is Google going to come back with another real estate thing?

Rich Bailey:

They could be. I mean there was certainly plenty of speculation about that yesterday. Some were saying Google is going to regroup and launch a GoogleBase 2.0 or that maybe they might acquire something. I don’t know that they’re going to do that. I don’t know what the incentive is going to be for Google to do that. They’re making money off their AdWords. We could speculate as to what they may do in that category. There were also a lot of people saying that perhaps they’re going to change their terms of service. Or perhaps that Google was going to monetize the Maps API. To me that would have a lot more significant impact on the industry at least in the short term given how many people use that API in real estate applications.

Gahlord Dewald:

When I was thinking about how does this effect Google as a business–one of the things I do in my search engine optimization work is to think like Google. Where do they make their money? They make money when real estate professionals place ads on the search engine results page. Google makes money there, but they don’t really make money by serving up listings via the Map. Google kind of alludes to that in their announcement. Where they say that they’re still able to serve real estate people through their Search Appliance–that’s something they make a lot of money on. Google is kind of backing out of this situation that would lead people to listings without putting them in front of a lot of ads. Maybe Google’s not getting enough ads on the map thing and they don’t want to discourage revenue there. Again, we’re just speculating but that side of it is kind of interesting to me. Simonsen, you asked a question yesterday about “is Zillow worth more or is it worth less than it was before Google’s maps decision?” Have you thought any more about that question?

Mike Simonsen:

Yeah actually. Business-wise, daily-revenue-wise, it doesn’t impact Zillow, Trulia, Realtor.com at all. Wasn’t taking market share before. So by shutting it down it will not give them new market share or revenue. No impact. The more interesting question is what happens to the private guys in that space–ZIllow and Trulia, and even smaller players like IDX vendors. Or even Redfin who is a broker but who trades on, essentially, really good search for homes. Although the Redfin guys would probably resent that I characterized their business that way.

Gahlord Dewald:

I don’t think any of them are on the line, I think you’re safe.

Mike Simonsen:

So daily revenue, no impact. Nobody was using real estate listings on Google maps as Google pointed out. But on the other hand in the next couple years does Google say “The money is at the transaction level” — which is inherently personal and not something Google is ever going to monetize– or does Google say “We got out of this, but we realize that real estate is a space we want to be in and therefore we’ve got to do a deal like we did with the travel company.” Those are the two big things right? Path A means Google says “Look we’re going to leave real estate and real estate search and the lead conversion business and those kinds of things to somebody who wants to focus on it–that’s great, it’s not really big enough for us to care about.” Path B is “We realize we’re not the expert, but it’s big enough and therefore we need to acquire the expert.” Dustin was arguing for Path B. That implies greater valuation for the Zillows and Trulias. Because ultimately Google will have to get the best player. I kind of think that it may fall to the first case. In the grand scheme of things, if you add up all the big players in the real estate search space and it’s less than 30 dollars in revenue. All of them. Including Move. And half of Move is Top Producer–which isn’t an industry that Google wants. So you add up all these other players and it’s not that much revenue. Google revenue is maybe a 40 billion dollars for the past year. If you wrap up all the revenue of all the players it’s not that big of a deal in comparison to that. I would argue that Path A is probably the case. That means all these players have to go it alone and go build their business. Their real businesses. They’re all growing really well. They’re all doing exciting stuff. There’s lots of problems to solve. But it’s not an interesting space to Google.

Gahlord Dewald:

So you don’t think there’s going to be an acquisition. Dustin I know thinks there’s going to be an acquisition.

Mike Simonsen:

I don’t see it.

Dustin Luther:

I do. Saying the market’s not big enough isn’t the issue. I think it’s plenty big enough. Especially when Google thinks international and there’s lots of room for somebody to be a ridiculously great aggregator of data. But it’s going to take a completely different focus than something like a GoogleBase which is sort of a crowdsourced version. Google’s going to really have to have somebody who wants to do it like Trulia or somebody like that to power Google. The other part of the market is how ZIllow did it. From what I understand I’m pretty sure their revenue is dominated these days by mortgage business. Being able to get in there and be active in the real estate industry is more than “what can you charge people to list homes on a popular site?” or “what can you charge realtors?” There’s a lot of other revenue opportunities there.

Mike Simonsen:

The mortgage side of the conversation is kind of a fascinating wrinkle. It was only a few months ago that Google announced their mortgage pricing widget strategy. Essentially going after the business that Zillow has been crushing in the past couple years. So that was just a couple months ago and Google didn’t announce that was going away. Maybe Google sees that business is more readily monetizable alongside their adwords than the listings on the maps have been for them. Or maybe they give that a year and then kill that too.

Dustin Luther:

One of the interesting conversations I had which I think is relevant was a couple of years ago, probably three. I was talking with a pretty senior exec at Google at Inman Connect in New York. The senior exec who was in real estate. I told him my concern because I was running Rain City Guide and I was watching searches that I was doing really well for, for example “moving to seattle” we were always number one. Then out of the blue Google threw up their map on the term “moving to seattle” which took up half the top of the screen before the number one organic result–which was my listing. I watched my traffic go down by half that month. And so I was complaining to him and he said “Don’t worry it’s not going to last, we’re not meeting our goals. Those things aren’t going to last very long.” I was thinking “what are you talking about?” He said “Look we’re in competition with everybody else, you guys included, for being relevant on this sort of stuff.” They just weren’t being relevant, they weren’t getting enough clicks. I thought that was fascinating as a talk. Even internally they’re in such competition for being relevant that if GoogleBase launches and isn’t relevant it’s not going to get any traction.

Gahlord Dewald:

I want to jump in on this one because people are asking how many leads are people getting from GoogleBase driven results. I think that relates to what you were just saying Dustin about was it relevant for Google to even be doing these kinds of things. I poked through a bunch of analytics yesterday and there was nobody I was looking at that was getting more than even half a percent of their traffic from the GoogleBase, from the Maps setup. So we’re not talking about a lot of traffic coming in that way. In terms of actual human being moving from the Maps search interface into a real estate website. There just wasn’t a lot going on there. I can’t really talk about how many of those people converted. But there wasn’t a ton of traffic. There’s a bigger issue for brokers and agents to think about. There are a bunch of people using that RealShout WordPress Plugin that uses the GoogleBase as it’s data source. They didn’t have a full IDX search, they were using the GoogleBase. This admittedly had lower quality data but in some of these little MLSes there is just no way to get a good IDX search. I’ve got a question for Rich, what are the options that are available for people who were formerly on the RealShout plugin–and I just got a note that RealShout is definitely discontinuing their plugin. I know you guys at WolfNet make these kinds of websites but how many players in the country make real estate search websites that could do any MLS in the country?

Rich Bailey:

That’s an arduous process and I’m not sure I’d wish it on my worst enemy. We have six or seven full time database people working on taking data from multiple RETS clients, multiple platforms from multiple MLS vendors and then standardizing it internally so we can use it on a search on top of that we have two full time MLS coordinators who deal with processing contracts, compliance, with changes–scheduled and unscheduled changes and assigning that to the database team. So it’s a huge task to go into one market. And it’s monumental to go into and maintain several markets. I think that Google is certainly capable of doing that. I tend to agree with what Mike and Dustin have both said. I just don’t think that it’s something that interested Google. And I think Mike made a shrewd point on the real estate industry solving it’s own problems in this context. Something else that I think you’re alluding to here is that a lot of these applications don’t come with service level agreements. When you use free APIs, when you index that data from GoogleBase in order to run the application, aside from the data accuracy you’re not getting a guarantee that there’s going to be service or that they won’t attempt to monetize that in some way. So in this case we see an example where Google is pulling that data and anyone that was using that to fuel their application is now going to have to look at Plan B. I think the implications of this happening elsewhere, for example if Google attempts to monetize their Maps API in some way –if they charge a use fee or a service fee– that’s going to impact the business model of anyone that’s using it. If it’s something where they monetize it by running AdWords in front of that API then you’re going to have both a compliance issue with the ads being commingled with MLS data as well as the potential for a competing ad to show up on a Realtor’s website. So I think those are real implications in the industry with these types of applications.

Gahlord Dewald:

There’s another comment from the listeners. We’ve got an international audience. Peter Brewer must be staying up pretty late over in Australia. He notes that over in Australia they liked that Google real estate map stuff was going on because it kept some of the other portals more honest in how they work. In Australia he mentions that they have to pay a pretty large fee to get everything listed in the portals. Google’s presence kept them a little more honest. Does anyone think that Google dropping real estate pins from the map have any sort of impact on the domestic real estate industry in terms of keeping other property aggregators honest?

Mike Simonsen:

I think that it goes back to the real estate industry being really good at solving this sort of problem in the last few years. The competition is intense. There are a lot of IDX vendors and a few that have a national scale and the infrastructure to handle all the nuance problems. All the big players are well-funded and run by smart people. They’re all running to get the share. Google realized they’re a minor player and stepped out of the way.

Dustin Luther:

It’s really such  different market.

Rich Bailey:

I agree.

Dustin Luther:

The way it works in Australia and the most of the rest of the world is that the listing agent in the only one. They don’t have the same kind of MLS commission structure sharing and those kinds of things. It’s such a different beast that they do pay to get all these different types of aggregators. Because they’re essentially no version of an MLS like we have here in the states. There’s just so much more competition, like Mike was talking about.

Mike Simonsen:

As I sometimes say, as screwed up as we think the US real estate market is sometimes. The rest of the world is typically screwed up a whole lot more.

Gahlord Dewald:

So we’ve been yammering on for about half an hour. There are a few questions here that I want to run through. One of these is a practical one from Kathleen Buckley. She says “As an agent, what should I be doing to make sure Google picks up my listings if someone searches by property address.” So that’s an SEO question. Previously getting stuff into GoogleBase was one part of an SEO tactic. And for Kathleen I would say to keep doing the things you should already be doing. Making sure you have the address in the title tag and that kind of stuff and writing about it. The challenge here of GoogleBase no longer being available is at the indexing phase. You want Google to be coming to your site regularly and finding those listings. So you don’t want to bury them too far down until Google has indexed or crawled your site. Dustin do you have any other thoughts, or either of you guys Mike or Rich. In terms of what should agents be doing if they’ve been relying on GoogleBase as way of getting Google to pick up their listings any other thoughts on things they should be doing? Maybe not even search maybe they should be focusing on social media or something like that.

Dustin Luther:

There’s lots of places. If I’ve got a good listing that I’m working with somebody getting it to rank well and be the number one source in Google isn’t particularly hard. There’s so many aggregators out there from the Oodles and there’s just a ton of them. And places you can throw your listings from YouTube and everywhere else all with links back in. It just depends on what you’re doing. But getting a listing to rank really well is nice, but it doesn’t drive a ton of traffic. But it is something nice to have happen. I’m not exactly sure it’s a great use of a ton of somebody’s time.

Rich Bailey:

I agree with Dustin. I think it’s nice to have, it doesn’t generate that much traffic necessarily. But obviously continue to do those things. Gahlord you alluded to it, there’s other media. And Dustin you mentioned as well YouTube. Social media, though there’s an area you want to tread lightly and make sure you’re doing it to the right audience. There are a number of companies that offer indexable features and plugins and services. That tends to be more of the macro game to get more pages indexed. Because you’re getting not only your own listings but other listings indexed now that NAR said that’s ok to do that. But relying just on Google, you know Google is just as much a source to get traffic indirectly by going out to these other sources and posting things as it is to get indexed directly. I think you need to focus on those as well.

Gahlord Dewald:

What about other aggregators at the level of like Century 21 going out and indexing all the listings. I’m guessing they’re not using some kind of structured data approach. Do you think in terms of the keeping things honest side of the conversation, what about brokerages entering into this. Do you think it’s going to get more competitive with Google getting out of map search with more people or franchises jumping into the space? Or do you think it’s just going to stay like it is with the three or four big aggregators?

Rich Bailey:

I think the ability for brokers to now kind of pool their listings on a national site through IDX feeds is a pretty significant change. I don’t know enough to know how Google indexes to know what the implications of that are going to be at the local level. If they’re going to assign more relevance to a national franchise site over an aggregators site versus a site that’s really focused on a local presence. But I think there’s definitely a lot of spark about the franchises ability to do that. Especially in terms of the language of that decision that the National Association of Realtors made in terms of what constitutes a franchise. I think there’s going to be a lot of conglomerate and real estate industry organizations that are going to not be very happy with that language. And you may see some change in the language either as a result of pressure from industry participants or maybe as a result of a lawsuit.

Gahlord Dewald:

I think that points at one of the interesting facets of real estate data. Sometimes I’ll talk with people who are interested in doing something with real estate and they’ll say “Oh, it’s just like this other structured data problem I’ve solved.” And I’m saying there’s a lot of politics involved and there’s the legal issues and there’s the data issues where each field doesn’t map easily to another field across MLSes. There’s technical stuff but there’s legal and ethical stuff as well. And maybe it was just too arduous for Google. They obviously couldn’t keep the data quality high enough because that was always the biggest complaint about GoogleBase. The data was never very accurate. Maybe there was something going on there. Simonsen or Luther you got any thoughts on that?

Mike Simonsen:

Yeah, it’s obvious that Google underestimated that challenge–and looked at it as a pure data challenge and not an industry challenge. It’s sort of akin to Google saying “Oh well we can go into the music business, it’s just a bunch of files.” Again, the analogy to the travel business. Google had to buy a big travel data aggregator because that company had the business relationships and the skill set and the deep industry knowledge to build a product. You can’t just go hack it out with a couple of engineers sitting in Mountain View.

Gahlord Dewald:

Yeah when I look at it there’s the technology side or the data challenge seems pretty straightforward until you start trying to deal with all the different possible sources of data. And all of them with different rules and stuff. Different people will ask me what sort of real estate platform should they be on or should they work with this company or that company–that’s really the challenge there is that dealing with this MLS data from a technology perspective isn’t terribly difficult but the legal aspects and the human aspects–the human factors are a real challenge. It’s one of those things that keeps technology people away from the real estate industry. Once they realize “oh this is going to be a nightmare.” Part of me wonders whether Google leaving the business of aggregating real estate data will make this an even bigger vacuum. If people say “Even Google couldn’t solve this problem. I’m not even going to start.” So we have five minutes left. I think we’ve hit most of the questions. Someone asked are there any other sources for property search wordpress plugins? I know that Diverse Solutions has a plugin that works in some places. Homequest up in Portland has a plugin. Do any of you guys know of some others? This is my moment to bother the WolfNet people about making an API so someone can make a WordPress plugin.

Rich Bailey:

We integrate with WordPress but more through headers and footers. We do have an API that would permit someone with a little more savvy to go in and do a little more with it. We’re still working out some of the finer details of it. But I think you can expect something like that in the near future.

Gahlord Dewald:

I also know that Max Chirkov down in Arizona makes a plugin that integrates with FlexMLS. There are people out there with that RealShout plugin. They’ve been relying on GoogleBase as their listings source and those people are out of luck starting soon. So those are some resources to get that search back on your site. I’m going to wrap it up unless someone wants to throw down some final comments. We’ve discussed some of the higher level issues of what, if anything does this mean for the real estate industry aggregators as a whole. We’ve talked about what are the issues that are going to be faced by agents and brokers who have websites. We talked a little bit about some of the data–is anybody even getting much search traffic from the Google Maps product. We good?

Rich Bailey:

I’m good.

Dustin Luther:

Great conversation.

Mike Simonsen:

Hey it was a lot of fun.

Gahlord Dewald:

Thank you guys so much for coming on this call. It was really fun to put this together in the spur of the moment. So Mike Simonsen from Altos Research thank you so much for your perspective on especially the business angles. Dustin Luther from 4Realz.net, your deep and long history in a variety of platforms and your experience with blogging super valuable to have your thought and thank you for sharing them. Rich Bailey of WolfNet with your work in dealing with IDX integrated search stuff. It was really fun to have a group of four us that these different perspectives to kind of hash this through. We’ll be watching for more info later. Thank you everybody. I’m sure there will be blog posts and so on. I’ll try to link out to as many of those as possible. Take care everybody!

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  • By Google Removes Real Estate from the Map on March 8, 2011 at 10:38 am

    […] « Thoughtfaucet seeking apprentice Google, Real Estate and Maps: A recorded conversation » Live Webinar Thursday Jan 27th re: Google removing real estate from the map. By Gahlord Dewald | […]

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