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Property portals: are estate agents really being served?

As part of our series of articles from industry leaders, Karl Tatler shares his disappointment with property portals’ service standards and highlights the areas he feels need improving.

An extensive investigation into the property portal market in my bid to select the most appropriate onto which to upload my stock has left me feeling hugely disappointed.

I found most portals to be time-consuming to use, due to templates and technology that was introduced five to 10 years ago, which the offending players seem unwilling to change.

More frustrating is the disadvantage faced by regional agencies, who have a limited service offering because of major portals' preoccupation with national coverage, rather than local differentiation. Thus, I find it difficult to see how smaller independent agents will receive sufficient referrals to justify their subscriptions.

There is a distinct lack of imagination when it comes to portal design. For example, some sites seem more preoccupied with filling their homepage with links and adverts than concentrating on what customers want - ease of navigation and thoughtfully displayed properties. It is difficult for me to justify shelling out my hard-earned cash for sites that I consider to be diluted versions of my own website. If national portals want a commitment from me to upload my properties, at the very least I want some commitment from them, in terms of service standards. I am tired of portals banging on about how cheap they are - I don't want cheap, I want a quality portal at a reasonable cost that complements the high standards I endeavour to provide my clients, so I want to see a product that consumers and agents alike want to use.Portals are, after all, simply lead generators, which means they should be doing everything in their power to help agents maximise the number of leads they receive.

My biggest gripe with most of the portals is the lack of opportunity for corporate branding, which means that agents are reliant on picture quality to lure prospective buyers. I know Rightmove offers Premium Display to help agents highlight their stock, but it is not economically viable for agents to use this service to display all of their properties. Moreover, I'm cautious about creating a two-tier client service offering, whereby some clients enjoy the benefits of portals' premium services while others don't; it is highly unprofessional.

The problem with not highlighting properties is that your stock gets lost in a sea of sub-standard photography. Once a prospective buyer has narrowed their search according to their desired location and price, the quality of photos and floor plans will influence their search process and hopefully lead to an enquiry. Sadly, most portals overlook this fact and often limit the size and number of pictures that agents can display, with very few allowing floor plans to be displayed at a size they are worth looking at.

To view extra photos, portal users often have to open a new window, which then makes their house hunting exercise tedious and therefore a chore.

Plenty of estate agents' websites display the right number and choice of key property features that buyers like; use the latest website technology for fast and convenient navigation; and take advantage of the fastest bandwidth available, but I have not yet found the equivalent service with any national portal. Why don't any of them use roll over functionality, whereby property pictures change automatically as a portal user moves their mouse over a comprehensive selection of thumbnails? It's not rocket science.

Plenty of portals offer property data, but few offer comparative reports that agents can use with clients. It is essential to have researched a property and its location before a client meeting, and particularly when negotiating a sale, which is where portals could offer real value.

Recent sales data, combined with data on properties that have recently been withdrawn from the market, is essential for agents who want to offer qualified and informative advice to clients.

Familiarising yourself with Land Registry data is great, but it is always a few months' old and therefore meaningless. Portals are slowly rolling out their own reporting tools, but it will be some time before any offers a comprehensive service fit for client meetings.

So, for now at least, Rightmove is the closest we've got to a good national portal offering a standard agency service, in terms of unique user numbers, stock selection and return on investment. New market entrants may be giving it a run for its money, which is great because competition drives innovation, but for now it remains the portal leader, at least for me.

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