Google tweaks real estate listings on Google Maps

When Google makes a move in the real estate space, everyone watches for clues that might signal the sleeping giant is hungry for a bigger piece of the real estate pie.

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    Google drives a lot of Web traffic to real estate sites everyday, including ones based in New York City, pictured here.
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LOS ANGELES - Google Inc. may crush all other Internet search portals, yet when it comes to real estate listings, its often less of a destination than a pit stop. But will that change?

The Internet search behemoth drives a ton of Web traffic to real estate sites everyday. Still, Google hasn't made a major play for domination in the online property search market, unlike sites such as Zillow.com, Trulia.com and Yahoo Real Estate.

So when Google makes a move in the real estate space, everyone watches for clues that might signal the sleeping giant is hungry for a bigger piece of the real estate pie. Such a move came about last week, when Google decided to spruce up its popular Google Maps page to highlight its real estate search tools and also began making searches for home listings available in Australia and New Zealand.

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In the short term, the move will boost traffic to other real estate Web sites, figures Bill Tancer, general manager of research for Hitwise, an Internet tracking firm. But long-term, could be a different story.

"It's a competitive threat," Tancer suggests.

Established online listing hubs like Trulia and Zillow aren't quaking in their boots, yet. And they don't appear to have any reason to, according to Google spokeswoman Elaine Filadelfo.

"We're certainly thinking about ways to improve the product," Filadelfo says, "but it's more about improving user experience, as opposed to how can we become the No. 1 real estate destination."

For years, Google invited real estate professionals and others to submit their listings of homes for sale to the site via the Google Base portal-for free. It began letting users of its maps tool look up homes for sale about a year ago.

Still, the company didn't trumpet its real estate functions on its sparse home page. You had to dig to get to Google's property search functions, which are primarily tied to its maps tool. Even there, the option to search for real estate listings was hard to find.

If you typed in, say, "real estate Los Angeles," Google displayed links to real estate firms and showed a city map splayed with dots where those businesses were located.

Cue Google's redesign last week.

Now, a real estate query on Google Maps brings up a page with a link in the top left corner advertising real estate listings search. Or you can select the search options tab and click on a drop-down menu that includes a link to search for real estate listings.

An easier way to get there from the main Google page is to enter the search term "Google housing search." That kicks back a link for Google Maps Real Estate at maps.google.com.

This page has a search box for looking up properties currently on the market by city, suburb or neighborhood within Google Maps. Like in many other real estate Web sites, users here can refine their searches according to certain criteria, including number of bedrooms, bathrooms, square feet and price range.

Type in Los Angeles, for example, and the site shows a map of the city nearly covered with red dots representing everything from homes for sale to homes that have received a foreclosure-related notice. Zoom in closer and a bubble pops up with a photos, price and links for other information, including the Web site that is hosting the listing. Users also can use Google's Street View function to get a virtual on-the-ground peek at the neighborhood for any given property.

Since Google put in the changes, Google Maps has begun driving more traffic to real estate Web sites, Tancer says.

That's still a far cry from Google's main search site, which Hitwise says is the No. 1 source of traffic to real estate Web sites. Last week, users looking up real estate search terms on Google.com generated roughly 24 percent of all traffic to real estate sites, Tancer said.

Greg Sterling, an Internet analyst with Sterling Market Intelligence in San Francisco, says it would be tough for Google to compete with real estate-focused Web sites.

"That would be difficult for them to do, given that there are sites ... that have much richer and very specialized experiences around real estate that Google isn't going to compete with because they're not going to devote the kind of resources (needed)," Sterling says.

Trulia and Zillow executives say they're not losing sleep over the possibility, either.

"The real estate search and transaction process is very complex and very nuanced," says Pete Flint, CEO of Trulia. "Google just doesn't have the focus to be able to deliver an amazing experience on this."

We'll see.

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