Search engines: Second site - Through the keyboard

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The Independent Culture
IT'S EASY to buy things from a website if they can be downloaded or delivered in a van, but e-commerce will never be able to get round the fact that in the most important financial transaction, it's the purchase that stays put and the customers who shift. When it comes to buying a home, there's no substitute for legwork. On the other hand, quite a lot of the most critical information for homebuyers is available on-line, much of it packaged by property businesses that are exploring the possibilities beyond cards in the agency window.

As you do the rounds of estate agents, it generally doesn't take long to tell which outfits are serious players and which are wasting their own time as well as yours. The same is true of estate agents' websites. Despite the ferment in the property market, there are sites around that haven't been updated for two months. As so often on the Web, the lights are on but no one's home.

Other sites are better maintained, but you get the feeling that they are not showing the whole picture. Are all the available properties being listed? Are details posted on the site at the same time as they are published on paper? If a property website is to be anything more than a promotional gimmick, the answer to both questions has to be "yes". It's vital that potential customers who are encountering a business via the Web feel confident that they are getting the same information as customers proceeding by traditional means. This is particularly true for homebuyers planning a move to a new area, where they are at a disadvantage in competition with the local buyers who can pick up the property ads the moment the local paper hits the streets.

For most Net homeseekers, the first port of call will be sites which present properties on offer from a range of agencies. Again, the problem is the coverage. A site such as the Internet Property Finder offers a range of facilities for specifying the location and type of home you are looking for, but there just aren't that many properties in the database. Other sites have concentrated on the broader context of moving house. Yell, the Net arm of Yellow Pages, has produced an impressive service called HomeSight, which puts neighbourhoods in nutshells. It offers local contacts for the army of services that homebuyers may need, lists of local schools with their league table scores, council tax rates, property prices and thumbnail descriptions.

UpMyStreet presents a flashier interface to the world, generating graphs by which neighbourhoods can be compared with each other and with the national average - not just on property prices, but on indicators such as crime clear-up, ambulance response times, unemployment and school truancy. There's a touch of showing off here, and indeed the site was created as a showpiece for the Internet company behind it. New features are on the way, such as Audit Commission data on local authority performance. But two things need fixing urgently. One is the time axis for the graphs, which is so vague as to be useless. The other is the bug which causes the graphs to indicate, for example, that prices in London's costly Maida Vale district plummeted by tens of thousands of pounds last year. In the meantime, national prices are available on the Land Registry site, as long as you use Internet Explorer and Windows.

For most of us, though, all we really want from property web- sites is entertainment. Much of the fun of house-hunting lies in seeing through the keyhole, and here the London-based Home Directory comes into its own. It uses a technology called IPIX to present spherical images of rooms in some of its featured properties, enabling the viewer to look all around the room by moving the mouse, and then ask "Who would pay pounds 6m for that?"

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