The commercial real estate industry is edging toward integrating web-based technologies. Companies that have only had a general awareness of online real estate resources are now migrating towards selecting what e-commerce tools to adopt. Given the recent emergence of most of these Internet applications as well as diversity between business models, many decision makers within the traditional real estate industry are having a difficult time discerning the differences between Web-enabled services. To date, there is a lack of data available to assist users with their comparative analysis of the over 350 e-commerce sites.

To help bring order to the chaos, PikeNet and Gomez Advisors teamed to complete the first of several studies focusing on real estate e-commerce business models. Our mission for this joint consulting assignment is to generate a consistent methodology for objectively analyzing online commercial real estate sites. Gomez Advisors is a leading provider of e-commerce customer experience measurement, benchmarking, research and analysis. They covered over 6,000 dot-com companies in 75 industries, including the online residential real estate sector. The PikeNet and Gomez team effort is building a foundation of information to help the traditional real estate industry navigate and transact online with added confidence. The first report, which compares listings and transaction management sites, as well as studies the current state of technology adoption, will be presented at the PikeNet Forum on May 2-4 in San Francisco, Calif.

What criteria do PikeNet and Gomez recommend for comparing online real estate services? To assist the user in their due diligence efforts, an abbreviated version of methodology is outlined below. The following questions provide a framework for consistent evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of web-enabled services.

Ease of use/functionality

Does the site offer consistent navigation and an intuitive graphic layout from screen to screen? Is the technology fully browser based, or does it required installation of software on the user's server? Does the home page clearly describe the full range of functionality and tasks? Can data be efficiently accessed and organized by the user? To what degree is personalization offered to the user? Can information that is researched be saved or copied to facilitate future search processes? How many different search parameters are provided? How easy is it to collect the data for statistical or financial analysis?

Training/user confidence

What kind of user training is offered? Does the company offer to initially populate the data fields or does this task reside fully with the user? Is staff available to visit a company on-site and provide “hands-on” training? Is this training included in the basic fee structure or as an additional charge? What are the availability, depth and breadth of customer service options provided? Can the user seek service requests online? Does the website have telephone customer service assistance available 24/7? Is there an online “help” search function, tutorials, glossary and FAQs available on the website? Is there a methodology for purging older or incorrect data input into the system? What kinds of privacy policies are in place?

Software/web interface

Does the site provide real-time status reports available on the Internet or does data get upgraded from daily downloads? What kind of password protection is provided? Is it available at multiple user levels to create and change the security hierarchy? What kind of overall data confidentiality can be maintained? How frequently is the information on the website backed-up for redundancy? What is the overall speed of the web interface when online processes are conducted and data input? Is the site highly scalable to handle significant volumes of users and traffic? Is the web solution built on open architecture technologies to allow integration with user's existing enterprise resource planning (ERP), customer relationship management (CRM) or legacy accounting systems? Can the various screens and drop-down boxes be customized by the user, or must customization occur as a software change through the website?

Report functionality

How many standardized reports does the website have available? How easy is it to use the report functions to sort and organize the data collected on the site? What kind of graphs, charts or other graphic images can be added? What is the overall on-screen as well as print appearance of the reports? How easy is it to customize the reports for corporate logos and terminology?

Company track record

What is the company's current financial strength and funding stage? Can the business model produce profits at modest usage levels or must large-scale market penetration be required for profitability? How long has the company been in business? Can the management team be easily accessed from the website? Are there strategic and technical alliances in place with strong third-party companies? Is the website a “pure-play” competitor, or has it evolved from roots as a former software maker or traditional real estate service provider?

Revenue model and cost structure

What is the comparative cost of the online service provided vs. traditional means to accomplish these same functions offline? Is the fee structure flexible for different size users? Is there a trial period discount? Are there upfront licensing costs or just monthly usage charges?

Once a consistent evaluation is completed between online competitors, PikeNet recommends narrowing the field between the top choices by beta testing. Given the relative infancy of commercial real estate e-commerce sites, most online providers are willing to structure trial projects. No volume of analysis can replace hands-on experimentation by your staff.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

As managing director of San Francisco-based PikeNet, Elaine Circo is responsible for building the firm's online and consulting activities, including the weekly Dispatch, website content, conference planning and strategic initiatives. With more than 16 years in the commercial real estate industry, her expertise encompasses the full spectrum of real estate activities including acquisitions, design, development, brokerage and corporate services. Circo earned her masters in business administration from the University of Virginia in 1987, and her bachelor of science degree in architiecture in 1982 also from the University of Virginia.