Editor’s Note: This is the cover story in the November issue of RISMedia’s Real Estate magazine.Subscribe today.
If you spend any time searching for homes online, you’ve probably noticed that real estate sites have all taken an almost identical approach toward how they do home search. From offering the same way to search and filter to displaying similar results, all of the major real estate portals are basically doing the same thing.
In reality, no consumer takes the same path to find their dream home, and each journey is different. So why should all real estate search sites present the same, cookie-cutter results?
In early 2017, Homes.com set out to solve this problem with the goal of creating a new way to search for a dream home that was smarter, yet still simpler to use than anything ever seen before in the real estate space. They started by diving deep into how consumers actually conducted their search by interviewing consumers, agents and brokers. What they learned is that the search process constantly changed based on where the buyer was in their journey, and that at each different point along their journey, they had different needs
In May of this year, Homes.com launched a completely reimagined home search process that was designed to be simple to use, smarter, faster and more personalized to each home shopper.
“As we looked across the home search landscape, we found what we termed a ‘sea of sameness,'” explains Homes.com President David Mele. “We realized that when looking at any given home search site, you could easily remove the logos and not be able to determine which site you were on, since they all looked the same and operated in much the same way.”
Mele and the team at Homes.com knew they needed to create a search that met the demands of homebuyers as they moved through their home-search journey: a site that allowed consumers to dream about their next home, but also offered tools to help navigate those home features that were most important, versus those that were just nice to have.
“We wanted to break away from the status quo and create something that would serve today’s homebuyers and those in the future,” says Mele, “so we focused on building a site that would allow people to start their home journey early with tools that enabled them to dream big and, when they were ready, share their dream with those who matter the most.”
Moving the Needle: A Fresh Approach to the Home Search Experience
“As a product person, my whole mission is to build something that helps someone do something better,” says Homes.com Executive Director of Product Development Brian Finnegan.
“In watching different competitors come into the space, I felt like we hadn’t done anything to change or move the needle. Instead, we were slowly evolving from the same script,” explains Finnegan. “Creating the new Homes.com offered us the opportunity to not only reimagine the user experience, but to create something that gave home shoppers tools they could use throughout their home search.”
Providing consumers with tools to dream big was an important pillar in building the new site. At the same time, the Homes.com team knew that each consumer dreamed differently, and incorporating feedback from buyers and sellers alike, as well as real estate agents and brokers, was key to creating the right mix.
The new Homes.com delivers on everything the team targeted by offering consumers an option to dream big and, at the same time, evolve as their needs change over time.
Consumers Can Dream Big With New, Simply Smarter Tools
The most notable dream-big feature of the new site is Homes.com Snap & Searchbeta. By simply snapping a photo of a home you’re inspired by and uploading it to Snap & Search, consumers now have the ability to search for homes by architectural style in a desired location. Powered by artificial intelligence (AI), Snap & Search is the first-ever photo search tool of its kind. In future versions, users will be able to search with interior photos to find kitchens, bathrooms, etc., that they love.
Recognizing that all buyers are different and desperately need new tools to help guide them through the buying process from beginning to end, Snap & Search offers early-stage buyers a way to connect their dreams about a “cottage-style home” with similar homes for sale in their desired locations.
“Think about someone going for a walk or driving around an aspirational neighborhood and finding a home they’d love to have…but it isn’t for sale,” says Mele. “With Snap & Search, they can find homes for sale that are similar to the one that caught their eye.”
Just as important as dreaming big in the early stages of the home-buying process, Homes.com also knew that buyers needed to balance their “needs” versus their “wants.” Homes.com MatchTM provides a new and more flexible way to search online by offering a way to set “must-have” and “nice-to-have” features, and then delivering tailored search results to the individual user with a personalized match score for each listing. Match serves up homes that are uniquely right for each consumer, rather than presenting all listings equally.
Homes.com’s research also revealed that consumers needed a tool to help them share and collaborate while on their home-search journey. To that end, Homes.com HomeShareTM makes it easy to save, organize and share homes with your spouse, parents, friends, agent and others. It offers a quick, easy way to send listings back and forth, and lets you and your circle give each home a thumbs up or thumbs down and leave comments—all in one place.
Not only are these features unique to Homes.com’s new search experience; they also support the evolving needs of consumers, by serving both today’s and tomorrow’s home shoppers with a simply smarter home search.
“Snap & Search stands out most because it’s true innovation,” says Mele, “but Match is a more transformational piece as it approaches online search in a human way.”
In addition to these new core features, Homes.com’s listing detail pages offer a simple and more natural way to explore homes. The redesigned page includes an editorial image gallery view of the entire house, allowing consumers quick access to see what matters most, including a personalized Match section with must-have and nice-to-have features highlighted.
“At the end of the day, this is what everyone cares about most,” says Finnegan, who goes on to explain that those searching for homes want to see pictures first, as this helps home shoppers determine whether they want to view more information about the home or click to the next listing.
To that end, the listing detail pages on Homes.com were redesigned to meet the needs of consumers by bringing the image gallery front and center.
“Our listing detail pages are designed to feel like a magazine with the house telling the story, and it all begins with a picture,” says Finnegan.
Connecting Advertising to the Home-Buying Journey
Just as important as delivering a completely reimagined home search for consumers, Homes.com knew there had to be a better and less obtrusive way to display advertising on its new site. By looking closely at the search process, the team created new advertising opportunities that were not only visually appealing, but also optimized to appear at the right place and the right time on the consumer’s home-search journey—all while offering a smarter, more effective way for real estate professionals to connect with these consumers.
The new City Sponsor connects potential buyers to advertisers through a native-style ad that has the same look and feel as the listings that appear around it. Created to combat banner blindness that’s prevalent among today’s savvy internet users, City Sponsor ads are positioned to look like listings. The ad unit offers advertisers top-of-page placement, along with the ability to display their listing inventory and contact information.
“City Sponsor ads are placed in the consumer’s line of sight when viewing listings on Homes.com—the exact content that consumers are coming to the site looking for—so the ads are extremely difficult to ignore,” explains Erin Ruane, vice president of Sales at Homes.com. “This means that when consumers are scrolling through listings, they’re much more likely to interact with that ad.”
Homes.com has also reimagined their most popular advertising product, Local Connect, which allows real estate pros to target and connect with local homebuyers as they search for their next home.
“Local Connect offers consumers the opportunity to connect with agents directly from the listing details page to learn more about a particular home,” explains Ruane. “What’s more, the ad placement is sticky by following as you scroll down the page; this offers consumers additional opportunities to engage.”
While the new site features Local Connect advertisers more prominently and frequently throughout the consumer journey, it’s important to note that no matter how many agents are participating in Local Connect in any given zip code, the listing agent always gets the lead—a unique point of differentiation that sets Homes.com apart from the competition.
“By partnering with Homes.com, agents can propel themselves forward in a crowded search market and get more than their fair share of search activity,” says Ruane.
“We’re committed to delivering high-quality leads to real estate professionals,” says Mele. “Through innovating our user experience, creating new ad opportunities like City Sponsor and revamping Local Connect, we’re able to capture homebuyers at the right moment in their home-search journey, and offer leads to agents and brokers that are more likely to convert.”
Accurate Listing Data Equals Better Consumer Experience
Another critical part of delivering the best home-search experience is presenting listing data directly from the source. For over 25 years, Homes.com has been a trusted partner to the largest MLSs, franchises and brokers by offering brokers complete control over where and how their listing data is published on Homes.com.
With more than 3 million active listings displayed on Homes.com—75 percent of which are sourced directly from MLSs—it’s critical that Homes.com has the most accurate and updated listing content for today’s demanding consumers.
“We recognized early that MLSs and their broker partners wanted tools to easily and efficiently make sure their listing data is always kept up-to-date and accurate on Homes.com, all of which can be achieved through our MLS partner programs,” notes Mele.
“It’s their data, and they should be in complete control of where it goes,” adds Mele. “And we make that easy for them.”
Early Feedback and Future Plans
The response from the industry and consumers alike about the new Homes.com has been nothing but positive. With glowing reviews from some of the largest consumer media outlets, the team at Homes.com feels confident that their vision to create a simply smarter way to search was a turning point for real estate search.
“I thought that their old site was fine, but their new site adds in artificial intelligence in ways that make the consumer experience fantastic. In a world of sameness, Homes.com has changed the game,” says Victor Lund of WAV Group.
Even more important and impressive, however, are the engagement metrics on the new Homes.com. In fact, since the launch of the site on May 10, 2018, consumers are not only spending more time on the site, but also consuming more pages when they visit.
“Consumers are much more engaged with the new features on the site, which means they’re staying longer and visiting more pages,” notes Mele. “This, in turn, is generating more leads, which is good news for the agent.”
“If we can get an agent to a place where we can demo the site, their eyes are opened and they understand right off the bat just how different this experience can be for the consumer,” says Ruane. “They’re excited to be a part of it and to partner with us.”
But the Homes.com team isn’t content to rest on its laurels. Their eyes are already set on the future, with their plans including ongoing user-experience testing and polling homebuyers, sellers, agents, brokers and others on how they use the site and what enhancements they’d like to see. Constant evaluation of user data and feedback are integral in the team’s vision to continually evolve Homes.com.
“To me, the art of the Homes.com story is that we’re just getting started. We’re constantly researching and refining our strategy on how to engage consumers. As their needs in home search evolve, we will too, making home search simpler and smarter each step of the way,” concludes Finnegan.