The odd thing is that they seem however a bit reluctant to throw the switch. This ‘New site’ was first beta tested back last winter; with a select few industry customers given a heads-up-view as early as May of last year. Talking to some customer at that time, their collective view was that the new site was not an improvement (some less flattering comments as well) and the tech team at Realestate.co.nz should go back and do some more work.
Close on 9 months later, it's my opinion that the new site continues to fail on a number of levels. I personally use Realestate.co.nz regularly as I have done over the years, not least because it continues to be the definitive source of licensed real estate listings. Although since defaulting the URL to the New site back in October, I continue to painfully click the link to the 'Classic' site.
So I felt it was time I sat down and objectively reviewed the New site and look to see how it stacks up against the Classic.
My views and comments here are designed to be objective (or at least objectively based). I bear no ill will as in-any-way a function of my prior role as the CEO of Realestate.co.nz (2006-2012) – I left over 5 years ago now. My views written here are based on my extensive experience in digital product management coupled with digital management experience in property portals for more than 12 years.
Let me start with the question of why. Why have Realestate.co.nz decided to create a new site?
I’ve identified what I see as 7 potential reasons:
1. It could be that the management team feel that after 7 years, it’s simply time for a change… fair call.
I can understand and empathise with this decision, after all in my tenure at Realestate.co.nz we went through 4 iterations within the first 6 years (original RealENZ: 2006 / First Realestate.co.nz site: late 2006 / New design site: 2009 / Current site: 2010)
2. It could be that the code base is creaking under a legacy of tech debt… fair call.
I can empathise with this scenario. For developers, legacy code becomes a nightmare as time marches on, one that more and more slows down new dev work and saps the enthusiasm of dev teams. Tech debt is the price you pay for digital products and their constant iteration. As Agile teams, you own it, but here I have to be honest, you avoid it until it becomes hyper-critical. A new platform can be a sanctuary to park the tech debt. I can't actually see if the new site is a new code base and/or new architecture, it certainly would be time for a change, I know that for sure.
3. It could be that they want to optimise premium advertising.. good call.
The New site certainly has created a premium tier structure for listings within search results, one that offers added premium position for agents to sell to vendors as premium property advertising. This will certainly drive the bottom line. The screenshot below shows the comparatively larger premium listing in the search results as outlined in red on the new site. Larger listings in search results are a tried and trusted approach to premium advertising adopted by all classified portals globally.
4. It could be that the site is becoming too slow and needs a new platform architecture …fair call
This would be logical and strategically valid reason. Speed is still the imperative for any online experience. Too slow a user experience, and your consumers are just one click away from your competitors. However this is an area where objective analysis can be undertaken to measure the improvement . I used a Chrome plug-in to test various pages on the site to compare the Classic site with the New site. Details below, the speeds are an average of 5 page loads each, undertaken at the same time on the same laptop device. Suffice to say that if the objective of the New site was speed – it is not looking good. As a benchmark Trade Me Property scores an average of 7,000 milliseconds for a search result and 2,500 for a listing page.
5. It could be that they feel that they need a truly ‘responsive site’ to better represent the growing mobile user base… fair call.
The new site is definitely responsive with 3 break points in terms of size, effectively giving a phone / tablet / browser experience. This is better than the current site which has been offering a two break point responsive site for desktop and phone since 2010. Better but far from optimal.
6. It could be that they believe that the future competitive advantage for property portals lies a revised search experience … good call.
It does seem somewhat archaic in this day and age that to find the properties you want to search for you have to engage across both Trade Me and Realestate.co.nz utilise the hierarchical navigation structure of Region / District / Suburb. Compare that to the Australian sites, the US sites and the UK sites and they all deliver a simple Google-like search box on the home page which delivers a smart user interface to find the properties you want to see. This New site certainly delivers a search box front and centre.
However what it abjectly fails to deliver is a functional User Experience that has become industry standard with such a search boxes. It has neither auto-complete nor suggestive options to help the user.
As an example type in Avondale – sure Avondale is a suburb in Auckland with 66 listings but it also a suburb of Christchurch with 21 listings. The New site gives me all these listings with no clear delineation of the two suburbs or even an acknowledgement in the search results that the listings comprise both Auckland and Christchurch listings. Now compare that User Experience with the excellent Chinese language site of Hougarden. Type in Avondale on their home page (Chrome has auto-translate) search box and look - a clear message : 65 listings for Avondale properties in Auckland and 20 for Avondale in Christchurch.
Or try out the beta site of OneRoof which has really perfected the search box experience.
The ambition to migrate NZ'ers from the archaic hierarchy of search by Region/District/Suburb is a laudable initiative by the team at Realestate.co.nz and I applaud them, but it it does come with risk, which only compounds if the user interface is not trustworthy nor accurate.
If anyone in the management team had been around in 2009 they would have remembered the stuff-up that I can own up to. We built a new site back then with just such a core search box as the primary user interface. That 'new site" lasted barely a week, not solely for this reason – speed was a far bigger issue but we learnt the lesson back then as our users kept reminding up in a deluge of emails – "If it isn’t broken …. Don’t fix it!"
7. It could be that they wanted to deliver a truly world class map based search user experience … no, I don’t think so.
If this had been the case they would surely have done a better job as the New site is considerably worse than then old site. It has an even smaller and less visible icon to show the map based search, added to which, it does not work! Taking my example of Avondale again, 90 listings, across Auckland and Christchurch but somehow just 9 of these listings can be displayed on a map!
I think I will stop now at these 7 possible reasons, all valid and all quite possible (save the final map based search). The bottom line in my view is that this New site is not a demonstrable step forward.
There is one aspect of the New site that I have failed to mention in this detailed review and that is the design. In my opinion the New site is not a good design. It is ugly. It has a terrible muted feel - using a poor colour palette of greys and light blues that make it hard to differentiate functional structure. Additionally it has a design that really only looks designed-for-purpose on a phone and this is where I come to what I believe is the core real reason for the New site. It is my view that the management team has been seeing how much traffic accesses the site from a mobile device (I would guess well over half of all web traffic) and decided that a fully responsive web site was needed.
However this is where I would challenge their thinking because even at 50% of all web traffic accessing the site from a mobile device still means that 50% access from a desktop and the New site is horrible on a large desktop screen. There is no longer a large screen modal to view the photos which the Classic site does so well. The New site looks like a website designed for a phone as the priority and then scaled up to fit the desktop - if that is the case as I suspect, then that is where the negative reaction from user comes from - certainly the view of this user.
The thing that really surprises me is that in this headlong rush to answer the needs of phone access to the site, the team seem to have forgotten the great iPhone and Android apps that the company has. Sadly a long forgotten platform that gets no love or dev time. The Realestate.co.nz iPhone app was launched in 2010 - a clear 2 years ahead of a Trade Me dedicated property app, thereby stealing a massive march on the competition. The Android app followed 2 years later, but sadly save for some annual bug fixing bot of these apps have stagnated.
If it was my decision. I would focus way more effort on these apps. Apps have the huge benefit that once installed they become a competitive land-grab that can exclude a competitor and unlike the web are not 'one-click away' from that competitor. Realestate.co.nz had that advantage for well over 3 years and squandered it.
As to a responsive site I would research the heck out of user experiences and then get a great designer to envisage a user interface to deliver a site that does one thing really well - display property listings and their all important photo portfolio clearly with visual impact; truly optimising the visual experience - make sure this delivers on all devices with no compromise. I would also look to peers and competitors for design cues especially regarding user experience design and not ignore the excellent design of Hougarden. I would match this to the best machine learning database to deliver a search box experience that can tell the difference between Avondale properties in Auckland and Christchurch as well as millions of other search strings. Oh, and by the way a great map based search would be valuable as nobody in NZ has yet delivered this for property search (well of course with the exception of Hougarden!).
Realestate.co.nz has the advantage of the loyalty and support of their customers (real estate agents and companies) but if they continue to ignore their users that loyalty will wear thin especially as Homes is knocking on the door, as well as the newcomer of NZME with OneRoof and by no means are Trade Me Property relinquishing their audience leadership anytime soon.