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I’ve recently been searching for a new place to live (Contrary to popular belief, Econsultancy staff are occasionally allowed to leave their desks), which means I’ve been spending even more time than usual online, browsing the ‘to let’ ads on property websites.
And getting closer to a brain haemorrhage on an hourly basis.
Estate agents and larger aggregate property sites are ideally placed to exploit the massive uptake in web usage we’ve seen in the last decade, yet their sites are usually among the very worst examples of design and usability you’ll ever encounter, while the offline experience is also disjointed and frustrating.
While it’s clear that the agent can’t always be to blame, larger companies in particular need to get their act together fast as some providers are surging ahead, leaving their less useful competitors in the dust.
As an excuse to go house-hunting during working hours and have a bit of a rant in general, I wanted to run through some of the common mistakes I’ve seen recently.
A quick caveat before I get started: I do realise that many of these are small, independent businesses who may not have a huge amount of technical knowledge, but if you’re going to invest in a site (and you should) then you need to make sure it’s usable, otherwise you're actively driving away business.
I’d also point out that I’ve been looking at rentals, but all of these points apply to sales as well (if not more so given the larger sums involved).
You don’t have to have a borderline useless search feature to be a property website, but it helps.
To be fair, not all of the sites I’ve been using have terrible search features:
RightMove.co.uk has a nice ‘draw-a-search’ option that can help narrow down the options, but a similar feature on Zoopla simply doesn’t work:
There is a ‘view on map’ option but it refuses to let you target by price, instead simply giving you a map with every single property for rent on it, while the zoom insists on switching from map to satellite view if you get too close.
Any site that forces a view change on the user is a pain, but when it comes to finding directions it’s a real annoyance and given that this is a simple Googlemaps plug-in there’s really no excuse. On the other hand, this at least provides accurate locations.
Many sites still default to the ‘centre of the postcode’ address. Which means that every single flat on Gumtree appears to be located directly above the local branch of Tesco Express.
The worst offenders here are single agent sites, which commonly lack a broad postcode search (NW or EC postcode for example) or context for prices.
If I enter a maximum price of £2,000, I need to know if this is per week or per month.
In addition, site search is usually non-existent. Surely plugging in a Google Search bar wouldn’t be too difficult?
Out of date sites
Sites like Zoopla, Nestoria and Findaproperty are big business for agents, and a cheap alternative to running your own site. If you are going to post property there however, it needs to be current.
I’m aware that rentals move quickly, but surely hitting ‘remove’ as part of your workflow wouldn’t be too much to ask?
Leaving expired content on site leads to an incredibly frustrating process for customers and it will also trickle up to the aggregator sites, meaning they are also out of date.
These are your largest traffic drivers, do not make them useless.
This segues perfectly into our next problem:
Good for you, you rented something out! So, why is it still on your site?
A quick question. What do you think goes through my head when I see this. Is it:
- Wow! Look how great these guys are at renting out property! I’ll use them to advertise for sure!
- Why the hell are these properties still on here, getting in my way and wasting my time when I’m searching? I looked at three of them before I realised they were gone...
If you want to display these to owners who may use your company to let, sell or manage their property then have a clearly labelled ‘For Landlords’ section with ‘Properties we’ve recently let’.
For anyone looking to rent or buy, they are just annoying, the online equivalent of saying “look what you could have won. But didn’t.”
Ah Craigslist, oh Gumtree. You’re quick and easy to use, so it makes sense for agencies to post new properties, but surely you could afford to have at least one person monitoring spam occasionally?
How about a rule: if someone posts 500 properties with the same picture in a row, they are banned from posting for a while?
Hey, even Reddit manages that much.
And how about keeping an eye on your email? If an immediate auto response over a certain size goes through your system, surely you could stop it?
Scammers are getting more daring as well. Surely you should wait until at least the third time-wasting email before you mention Western union?
Here’s the 14th (yes. FOURTEENTH.) version of an automated spam response I’ve received in the last week. As you can see, this lady is very comfortable. I have no idea what that means...
Where’s the search? Where’s the phone number?
Why have you built a site Entirely in Flash? Or covered it in GiFs?
Do a little research.
Don’t look at your smaller competitors. See what the biggest companies are doing well and emulate it.
If you can’t afford to create your own page then have one of the larger aggregators power it for you. Nestoria and Zoopla have quick, easy plugins that can power your site and provide a decent layout for you.
Designing a nice looking site that's actually usable doesn’t have to be expensive or time-consuming.
Let’s take an average househunter. We’ll call him... Matt Owen. It has a nice ring to it.
On Wednesday, Matt arranges to leave work early and head clear across the great city of London to view an apartment.
When he arrives he’s told to walk to the building himself. Why invite him to the office in the first place?
Ten minutes later he’s informed that the flat was rented out that morning. Disappointment is expressed.
Answer: I’m a busy man; I don’t have time to phone you.
If you’ve arranged a viewing, communicate with the customer.
I've heard "We can’t get hold of the keys" far too often. Get a spare set cut.
Answer your email. Answer your phone.
And if a property is let, send an automated email and text message to anyone who’d expressed interest or arranged a viewing. Optimise the email to show similar properties.
Speaking of which...
Inaccurate follow-up emails
Most agents will ask you to supply an email address, and will offer to send you details of suitable properties as they arrive.
In principle this is useful, but in practice these emails are completely untargeted.
If a client has specified a budget of £200p/w, don’t send emails detailing £700p/w properties.
What will you gain from this? No-one is going to see an email and think “Well, it’s double my budget but what the hell!”.
Poor targeting will see your email landing straight in the spam folder.
Lies! All lies!
XKCD recently put this far more eloquently than I have, but for goodness sake hire a copywriter. If you can’t afford one, at the very least run spellcheck.
Avoid buzzwords, and TELL THE TRUTH.
If it’s a studio say so. If it’s only got a microwave under the bed don’t put ‘charming fitted kitchen’. Is it really a 'cosy, centrally located unique property' or actually a bike locker at King's Cross station?
Again, all you are doing is pissing people off. Pissed-off customers don’t rent or buy property, and they don’t recommend you.
Overall it seems that poor practice is inherent in the realty industry, with agents not trained, not up to date and often not seeming to care about the customer at all.
It says something that I’ve been genuinely surprised on the rare occasion that I’ve met an honest or professional agent in the past month.
This may be a problem of supply and demand, but with websites now allowing you to rent directly from landlords, agents are no longer the only option, and if practices don’t broadly improve across the board (and fast) the industry will suffer going forward.