It was less than a decade ago that websites like Rightmove and Propertyfinder made their debut in the world of home-hunting – and have subsequently got bigger and better. The largest portal, Rightmove, now lists more than one million homes for sale in 90 per cent of the UK's estate agents.
But back then the specu- lation concerned which portals would survive, so no one could have predicted a new generation of sites a few years down the line: the property search engines.
At first glance these websites, such as Zoomf.com and Globrix.com, appear like any other. You enter criteria and hit "search". But the level of detail within the facility shows they are a different species of online property-hunting.
In technical terms, these are second generation (or web 2.0) "vertical" search engines. Unlike a portal such as Rightmove, where properties are uploaded for viewing and listed in limited categories, their search criteria, just as when you type keywords into Google, are infinitely more numerous, diverse and sophisticated.
Mike Carter is the founding director of Zoomf – and, coincidentally, also went to university with Larry Page, one of the co-founders of Google. He explains: "With traditional portals like Rightmove, the user has to scroll through pages of property in a certain postcode area, checking which one has the required features as they go. But Zoomf allows multiple criteria to be input upfront and drills down to exactly what you are looking for in three or four clicks."
So, once you have looked for a three-bed house in a given price range and postcode area, as per the traditional portals, Zoomf allows extras ranging from parking to planning permission and even river views. This takes a fraction of the time of the portals, which could be especially beneficial when it comes to navigating the current glut of homes on the market. According to the latest figures from the National Association of Estate Agents (NAEA), there is now an average of 83 homes listed per agent: four years ago it was 38.
The other benefit of a search-engine model is that people have access to all the agents' books rather than just those that pay to subscribe to a portal. And, just like Google, a basic listing is free, which could eventually lead them to remove properties from portals altogether – especially in these financially uncertain times.
But Tim Barton, partner at Dreweatt Neate – an estate agency based in southern England that pays between £300 and £400 a month per office to subscribe to Rightmove – says he won't be cancelling his subscription yet. "Over 50 per cent of all enquiries are generated online, and over half of those are from Rightmove, so portals are still a major channel for us. But as Zoomf costs us nothing, of course we're happy to sign up with that too."
Mr Barton adds that while he is in little doubt that search engines are the "shape of things to come", agents can only rely on them when public awareness is at full capacity.
Currently Zoomf carries 300,000 homes from 16,000 agents – a far cry from Rightmove's one million homes though not so far from Propertyfinder's 360,000. But this is because the technical process – called "crawling" – by which properties arrive on search engines takes months. "We still aim to be as big as Rightmove by the end of the year," says Mr Carter.
Another downside is that being so search-specific can often throw up blank pages, as the search tools are too sophisticated for agents' data, says Miles Shipside, Rightmove's commercial director. "Launching the latest technology is all very well, but if a user types in 'one-bed flat in Nottingham with en suite' and nothing comes up, they'll be disappointed and go elsewhere. We have this technology to introduce and will do so when the industry is data-ready."