ERA Re-launches: same great simplicity, more panache.

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Yesterday, Electronic Realty Associates, Inc., better known as ERA, re-launched their site and with it gives their visitors additional tools and information that previously was unavailable on the old site. One of the things I have always admired about ERA’s site is its simplicity.  It doesn’t intimidate the end user with all sorts of fancy, over the top, gadgets and overload them with information.  What it does is simply and painlessly lay out information and listings in an easily digestible manner to help a prospective customer make their best decision.

Disclosure: ERA is an Onboard Informatics client and uses a number of Onboard products.  This review highlights some of them but the intent is to call attention to the new features of this site.

This release promises nothing less.  ERA has taken their ideology of simple and easy-to-understand information and incorporated some nice features that are now widely acceptable to just about anyone in the online community.

One caveat, like most realistic businesses, ERA recognizes that this site is a work in progress.  This is not a complete redesign; however a significant portion of the site has been given a facelift with more to come.  With that said, I am going to focus on two topics in particular; search and listings information.

Search

A very nice feature ERA has incorporated into this version of the site is the ability to use a ‘Guided Search’ where you answer questions that are not your run of the mill.  For example living by a particular school or choose a visual area on a map are things you can now use as your criteria.  This is great for folks that really know (or in some cases don’t know) what they want.  Of course, there is your standard parametric search where you can put in your price, beds, property type for those folks that like to search that way.

ERA's guided search proves equally useful for the tech phobic and tech savvy

Once you put in your criteria and get your results you have the option to view these results a few ways:

  • Gallery – where you can chose how many properties per page you can view.  Each is laid out in a very simple and clean manner where you can 1) save this in your personal ERA account, 2) send the listing to a friend or 3) view its position on the map.  You also have a number of sorting options here which although pretty standard are a staple in today’s search process.
  • List – the more traditional way of viewing properties.  Again, very simple and clean
  • Map – where you can see icons of your results plotted on a map.  The addresses may not always show up due to MLS rules but they are all geocoded which is a nice change of pace.  I, personally, am tired of seeing a clump of properties at the point of the place or zip centroid.

As a side note, the ERA development team did a really nice job with Microsoft Virtual Earth API here.  It works great in IE and Firefox.  This sounds very elementary but I have encountered countless implementations all across the web where the interface jumps around a lot and isn’t very useful.  I wind up having to use the navigation buttons rather than scrubbing through the AJAX .  This is one of my biggest pet peeves and usually results in me just leaving the site.

There is also an option on the search that you can draw a radius of the area you would like to search. This is not ground breaking however I don't think enough sites embrace this style of search. One thing I would love to see is enabling the end user to draw any shape and search in that manner. It would be sort of like creating your own little town or neighborhood. This, I feel, will appeal to more savvy real estate hunters that know exactly where they want to live.

Once you have saved your properties you want to review (or choose to see just one), a click in any number of places will take you to your listing page.  I think this is also true to form for ERA.  What good are great search results if the easiest operation on the page is not getting the end user there?  That is the intent at this point of the experience, after all.

Another thing I would really like to see here is an auto-complete feature that will kick in once you type three or four characters.  This is a fairly common feature out on the web now and I think it really adds a lot of value regardless of how people search.  A great example of this is Google but there are countless others.

Listing

I cannot speak for every listing on the site but, in the areas I searched, this was my experience.  The entire time you are able to refine your criteria and “back out” of the type of results list you are viewing.  Also, there is a small section that is persistent with a ‘save’, ‘print’, ‘email’, and ‘%’ (mortgage calculator) button.  This is a pretty cool ‘utility belt’ that I would like to see them make even more use of in the future. Of course, better listings (and other) information will lead to better functionality and better search. For more on this please see earlier posts on this blog

As you hit the listings’ landing page you are greeted by a very simple yet effective coverflow of all of the available pictures of the property.  This methodology first was made famous by Apple  in last year’s release of iTunes where you can “flip” through all of your albums by cover art (if you have it).  The same applies here.

A coverflow is a great way to showcase a property with oodles of pictures

You also get your basic listing information along with prominent and comprehensive agent contact information. The sub-navigation gives you a myriad of helpful assets to let you further evaluate the listing.

  • Map – again, kudos to the dev team for getting this right.  It is visually appealing and, most importantly, functional.  The map is, oddly enough, large.  Go figure.
  • Tools – gives you the price, taxes, listing ID, square footage – everything you would need to do a quick and simple cost analysis.  It also offers links to other parts of the site such as the mortgage and financing sections. Lastly, it offers up non-financial-based features/links such as driving directions to the open house, a printable brochure and a way to make an appointment with the listing agent (lead capture).  All very solid.  This helps to take the online user offline and get them in front of the broker/agent.  This is, after all, the goal after all is said and done.
  • Photo Gallery – although this may be a bit redundant, it lays out photos of the property in a more traditional fashion.  This will be used for folks that want a larger image then the ones they may have seen in the coverflow on the listings landing page.  Also, folks that aren’t ready for the idea of coverflow will be more comfortable here.
  • Neighborhood – here is where much of the Onboard information we provide ERA with is featured for consumption by the end user.  It is, as it’s always been, very simple and very easy to digest.  This section is now very comprehensive yet tab-based so there is no overcrowding on the page while allowing the user to compare multiple facets across communities.My only criticism here is that I would like to see ERA use more dynamically generated graphs (particularly pie charts) and tables here.  This is something that will not distract from the simplicity of the site but will be more fun for the end user to engage with.  It will also give their visitors a better canvas to make use of the community comparison feature also built in here.  I love the idea and I think it will be even better with tandem graphs that generate on the fly.I am sure this will evolve over time since this is becoming more and more important for people searching for real estate.

    Community comparrison tool let's you size up areas against one another.  Local information provided by Onboard Informatics :-)

    As someone who is in the market for a home I would like to see more information on schools and give me a way to compare those both within the district and across towns. This will aid users in making their decisions and engage them even further, not to mention further increasing the credibility of ERA as a resource that has everything you need to find the home that is best for you.

  • Office – This give basic contact information of the office that this property is listed by with one great exception.  Everyone in the office’s contact information is listed by name, office phone, mobile phone and email.  It also provides a tab where you can quickly see, at a glance, all of the listings of that office. This is great.  Each office now has its own directory up on ERA.com.  I would like to see pictures of each agent but it might compromise the succinctness of the list.  Perhaps a JavaScript rollover is in order here. It wouldn't break my heart if there was a link to use this office as criteria for search and take the end user back to the search and only see those listings.
  • Contact Agent – in the spirit of being agent-centric there is a whole section of the sub-navigation dedicated to showcasing the listing agent where one can get all of his/her contact information as well as fill out a contact form to promptly receive an email or a phone call. What’s really good here is that there is no “pushing” in one direction or another as to how the agent will contact you or the amount of information you provide. The end user picks the method they prefer and provides the information that they are comfortable with (a lot or a little) and is not steered in one direction or another. If I were an agent I would be very happy with this section – that is unless I didn’t have a decent headshot.

Congrats to the whole ERA team on these new enhancements.  I know they have been working very hard on this and still are.  Keep your eyes peeled in the coming months for more updates to their site.  They always seem to be the team that comes up with the simple idea that you never knew you wanted (or needed).

Patrick Healy