The next generation of home search allows buyers to find neighborhoods - not just houses - that match their needs. We have been talking about this concept for quite some time, in dozens of ways, to highlight the countless possibilities for our vast client base of real estate and publishing/media leaders. You may have seen the recent RISMedia article on the state of lifestyle, which only brushed the surface of potential for lifestyle applications. That experience of searching for a home can be bound only by the imagination with Onboard's Lifestyle Search Engine. Read on as our Senior Director of Product Management, Scott Petronis, answers questions we have received about what LSE is - and isn't.
OB: How would you quickly sum up the Lifestyle Search Engine? SP: The Lifestyle Search Engine is a simple, straightforward hosted API that allows users to search for a place to live based on specific lifestyle attributes that matter to them by “weighting” each attribute. In this way, the system can determine the best fit for that individual by calculating how they weight each criterion.
The system determines the “best places” for an individual’s selected criteria by using a set of pre-defined scores. Once the determination is made, the system identifies the highest scoring places (cities, towns, populated places), ZIP Codes and neighborhoods (where available). In major metro areas, neighborhoods will typically be returned whereas in more suburban and rural areas, the system will return places. In all, there are over 25,000 places and over 70,000 neighborhoods and about 30,000 ZIP Codes that have been scored for various lifestyle attributes.
OB: What sort of lifestyle attributes are in there?
SP: There are over 40 lifestyle attributes currently available and that number will just continue to grow. There are three different types of lifestyle criteria currently in the system: scores, statistics, proximity.
Scores are created using algorithms we’ve been working with for over ten years of creating Best Places to Live content. Think of a score as a rating on a specific area based on a host of underlying data points. For example, we create a “Family Score” which represents how well an area is matched to attributes that matter to families with children. These scores help provide solid guidance to consumers based on loads of underlying data so they don’t have to sift through—and analyze—all the data that goes into it.
Statistics are pretty obvious. We utilize a variety of data from public and private sources to create statistics for each area. For example, the median home sale prices for areas, the sale volume growth rate or the percentage of home owners vs. renters. This type of information helps people understand what the area is like in terms economic stability and other factors that have everyone on edge these days.
Finally, proximity information is used in a variety of ways. There are very specific “points of interest” that matter a great deal to people such as the specific types of places of worship nearby. Then there are more “generalized” proximity questions like “is this area near all the common conveniences I expect? So we combine numerous points of interest together to create density values rather than forcing a user to figure things out—point-by-point—on their own.
OB: What value does the Lifestyle Search Engine provide to consumers?
SP: The problem we’re trying to solve is one that a huge portion of home searchers have encountered. “Wow, this house looks great! Oh wait, the area it’s in doesn’t really have what I’m looking for. Guess I’ll search again.” Or, worse, yet, “Maybe I’ll go somewhere else to search.”
The challenge today is that nearly all IDX searches force consumers to think in the way a database performs queries. But the average person doesn’t think remotely like that—nor does the average real estate professional. They think in terms of wants, needs and desires. Not minimum price, maximum price, beds greater than or equal to 4 and baths between 1.5 and 2.5. Moreover, by not fitting search into a more “human centered” model, it forces the consumer to go from site to site in order to find the details they really need to make a decision.
So Onboard has turned it around. We put all the search criteria up front. How far of a commute are you willing to accept? How close do you want to be to restaurants, shopping and everyday conveniences? Do you want to live near others with families? Or do you want to be in a trendy and fun area with lots of night life? We allow the searcher to weed out all of the areas that don’t even make sense before leading them down the wrong path. Then, when they see the areas that match their needs, they can immediately search for listings in those areas that already make sense.
So our goal was really to streamline the process, allowing users to select what’s important to them up front, narrowing down the best areas for them individually. Of course, it’s ultimately about making sure that consumer is engaged, stays on the site and ultimately finds the home—and neighborhood—of their dreams.
OB: What role does searching by lifestyle play in the real estate market today? Where is it going?
SP: According to NAR’s own research, home buyers say the quality of the neighborhood and its convenience to work are two of the most important factors in their purchase. However, most sites don’t even allow for such searches. In fact, convenience to shopping, schools and entertainment are among the highest criteria on most people’s lists. And, of course, access to highly rated schools are on most parents’ lists. But searchers don’t usually find what they really need until they are deep into pages of listings.
In reality, home searchers have been searching based on lifestyle for many, many years. They were just doing it in person with individual real estate professionals who know what questions to ask. The problem is actually a more recent phenomenon brought on by the fact that now 90% or more of home searches start online. It used to be that if I wanted to search for a home, I’d find an agent (typically through a referral); I’d sit down with her or him; they’d ask me a whole bunch of great questions about family, kids, pets, interests, area I like/dislike, etc.; then they’d go off and do the hard work of matching competing wants and needs to find me a short list of potential homes.
Today, that part is all but skipped in the online experience. Consumers go straight to the property search without any ability to have that conversation. No discussion about trade-offs. Just “what kind of property do you want?”
So In reality, we’re getting back to the basics, just using a new medium to do so. Lifestyle search really isn’t new, it’s just new to the Internet.
In terms of where it’s going, I have two predictions:
1) It’s going to become an expectation vs. a differentiator in the next three years. 2) The types of information consumers will expect to search by will exponentially expand.
This is why we deliver our solution as an API rather than a canned application. So our clients have control to keep differentiating on how they deliver the search capabilities and to ensure that as we continue to add loads of new search methods, clients can quickly take advantage of them.
OB: Which types of businesses will find the most value in implementing Lifestyle Search?
SP: Generally speaking, these are the businesses we had in mind when building out the Lifestyle Search Engine:
1) Regional brokerages that may cover many markets and are looking to stand out in the crowd 2) National brokerages that want to be go-to destination sites 3) Local brokerages serving multiple markets wishing to stay ahead of their competitors 4) MLSs with consumer-facing sites designed to drive member traffic 5) Application developers who may be looking to add unique and valuable, new functionality to their offerings
Of course, others can certainly benefit but our focus has really been on providing solutions that enable brands and brokerages to sell more listings. More recently, we’ve found that working with a number of key application development partners, we can also help to enable smaller brokerages and agents through solid partnerships. OB: What expertise does your team have to establish a lifestyle search platform?
SP: In short — to create effective lifestyle search you need LOADS of content. That’s how we got into this game in the first place. We aggregated a ton of content and built a set of algorithms to create “Best Places to Live” content for our first client. At the time, the medium was print and the data available was nowhere near what we have at our disposal today. But it was truly the genesis of what we’re now offering.
But to be a little more specific on our credentials:
-Over 50 years of combined experience in Best Places methodology development -Repackaging a technology that we’ve been perfecting for 10 years -Literally multiple terabytes of data that “feeds” the system -A solid track record of producing macro-level Best Places content for publications like CNN/Money Magazine, U.S. News, Business Week and many others.
OB: How has Onboard approached the market for lifestyle search since the inception of this concept? SP: Some people reading this may know that we originally launched this concept well over a year ago, back in January of 2009. (A month before I started with the company, I’ll note.) At that time, however, lifestyle search was combined with listings or IDX search. The two were intertwined and, as such, for anyone to implement it required a major upheaval. They had to completely migrate their IDX search which can be a daunting proposition to say the least.
So, with a hard pill to swallow and a major gulp, we decided to listen to our clients and the market (always a sound approach). We tore our “Lifestyle Listings Engine” apart and created two distinct offerings that can be used on their own or in concert. This allowed us to focus individually on the unique needs of both types of search. But it also allowed us to cater to those organizations that simply aren’t willing or ready to swap out their IDX search. An overall win-win proposition.
OB: Is this a canned product or are the implementations flexible?
SP: I mentioned a bit earlier that rather than taking the approach of a canned application, we’re created an application programming interface or API for these capabilities. The reason for this is that a vast majority of our clients are companies that want to truly differentiate themselves. They don’t want a “me too” experience on their website. So the API gives them the flexibility to create a user experience as they choose. Some might want a simple UX that allows a user to choose some criteria and get back a list. Others might want this directly integrated with their IDX search to get to listings as fast as possible. Others might want to integrate with a mapping interface to immediately show the matching areas and allow users to then interact directly with the map for more details, listings or other content.
Beyond the flexibility of the Lifestyle Search Engine, we offer a host of other APIs, applications and bulk datasets that can be used to embellish the experience. Our existing customers, for example, can fully leverage all their existing investments and can tie lifestyle search together with all the other products they license from us. So when a person finds matching neighborhoods, they can immediately link to an existing Neighborhood Navigator they already have on their site or to Community Content they’re licensing. If they’re using our Home Sales API they can immediately pull up recent home sales in and around the neighborhood. Everything just fits together.
Of course, if someone wants a more “canned” experience, I’m quite sure a number of our value added reseller partners will be up to the task of creating a solution that can be quickly implemented into any site. Stay tuned for that.
OB: What does the competitive landscape for lifestyle search look like?
SP: In truth, there is really no “apples to apples” comparison out there. I will say, though, that there are some interesting new offerings out there. I won’t name names but savvy readers can read between the lines.
There is of course the ability to do proximity searching. Show the restaurants, bars, schools, homes on the tax roll, etc. This is all great information and certainly weighs into a person’s decision on where to live. But that’s not the only information that’s important. And proximity to a school or golf course is not the same thing as proximity to a highly-rated school or golf course. Just as much as the proximity is important, the robustness of the underlying content is important. There are also a number of real estate “portals” out there touting lifestyle search functionality. Some are actually pretty clever. However, they are destination sites that agents or brokers may send their listings to and, in return, receive leads. This doesn’t offer any ability for the broker to add lifestyle search capabilities to their site. It doesn’t help the broker to be the destination.
Then there are some cool “lifestyle” content sources that tell you specific things about an area. Again, these are great pieces of the puzzle, but they don’t answer the full set of questions a typical home buyer has about an area.
I’m certainly not foolish enough to think nobody else will come along and give us a solid run for our money. I just feel like we have a very unique offering and a unique approach that specifically appeals to our target clients who tend to be market leaders. They require something that helps them stand out and that’s what we provide.
OB: What's next?
SP: Short answer is LOTS! We’re already working diligently with a whole bunch of clients who are implementing the Lifestyle Search Engine. Of course you can imagine all the ideas running through their heads about “can we do this?” and “do you have this type of data?” Our main focus right now is getting people launched.
Next, we have identified literally dozens of additional lifestyle attributes we’d like to add. We’ll be working with our clients to prioritize these new attributes and plan to roll out new data quite frequently over the next year. We’re going to have loads of new stuff coming out.
We’ll certainly be adding some new functionality as well to better server specific segments. Of course, there a few things up our sleeve right now that will stay there until they’re ready. This is just the beginning!
Scott Petronis is the Senior Director of Product Management at Onboard Informatics. He has over 15 years of experience managing B2B applications, SaaS, APIs, Web-based and mobile applications and content services designed to drive client business. Scott is a thought leader on real estate consumer trends and technologies that meet the needs of buyers across all lifestyle and life stage segments.
Image Credit: photosteve101 on Flickr.com