To help me on my way, I once again turned to ‘Homes & Property on the Internet’, the book released by Philip Harrison in 1999 – a whole year before Rightmove even came into existence and nearly a decade before Alex Chesterman launched Zoopla.
In the chapter named ‘online property agencies and databases’, the book outlines an A-Z of the following:
- new property and estate agency services which operate primarily online
- online property databases
- gateway sites containing lots of links to property websites
Most of these early property websites, like much of the internet at the time, were very rudimentary in terms of design, layout, interactivity and functionality.
Of the 69 online property agencies and databases listed, how many are still in operation two decades on? Well, 36 have disappeared entirely from the internet – with sites that are either defunct or can’t be reached. A few – including Up My Street, UK-Property, Internet Property Finder and Find a Property – have been swallowed up by Zoopla.
Eleven of the sites have stopped operating and have their domain names up for sale, while eight – including Homepages, Home Selector, Homes on Line, Property Market and Pro-Net Property Services – are still live but haven’t been updated since the late ‘90s/early Noughties.
They are frozen in time, a relic of how the internet used to look in those early days – and it certainly wasn’t pretty! Homes-UK – one of the sites that is still live but hasn’t been updated in yonks – is a good example of how far websites have come in the last 20 years.
A further nine of the sites are still live but the domain names have been bought by a different company – in other words, they are no longer as described in the book and offer very different services.
A paltry two sites – Home.co.uk and HouseWeb (which describes itself as ‘the UK’s Property Portal’) – are live and still in operation. HouseWeb, which launched in 1996, can lay a claim to being the oldest online property sales portal in the UK – in existence a whole four years before Rightmove came on the scene and still going strong today.
For the lion’s share of the early online databases, though, longevity has not been the name of the game. Where Rightmove, Zoopla, PrimeLocation and OntheMarket have thrived, many more have fallen by the wayside, a mere speck in the internet’s grand universe.
Even the likes of the National Property Register, which in 1999 claimed to be the largest directory of agents and property on the internet with more than 4,000 offices listed throughout Britain, failed to evolve and survive.
UK Property Gold (UKPG), meanwhile, was one of the largest UK real estate sites on the internet at the end of the 20th century, with details of more than 40,000 properties. But it clearly failed badly to make an impression in the 21st century, with a site that’s now unreachable.
It’s not clear when the site, which first launched in March 1996, actually died, but like so many of its early online counterparts it has barely left a traceable legacy. It’s almost as if many of these sites never existed.
It also shows what a good job Rightmove did in establishing itself and building a long-lasting brand. It may divide opinion, but its staying power and success can’t really be in doubt, even among its most ardent critics.
Given the experimental nature of the internet in those early days, it’s perhaps little surprise that so many have failed to pass the test of time. That said, for only two out of 69 sites to still be in operation is a pretty damning statistic.
Parallels between Rightmove and Just Eat
There was an interesting episode of Panorama on Monday night, which explored the rapid growth of Just Eat (a FTSE 100 company until very recently) and Deliveroo, and how these tech disrupters are shaking up the industry they operate in.
It analysed how intermediary platforms – such as Just Eat – can make a lot of money and morph into massive organisations by virtue of being fairly low-risk: low overheads, no need to provide an actual product, effectively acting as the middle man between provider and customer.
In the programme complaints were made by small takeaway owners about signing up to Just Eat and then facing steadily rising commission costs, as well as the impression that Just Eat was now too big to care much about its customers. At the same time, takeaways need Just Eat and its competitors to thrive in a modern, tech-savvy, internet-obsessed world.
It struck me that there are similarities in the property industry, with intermediary platforms such as Rightmove and Zoopla enjoying phenomenal success by way of acting as the middle man between customer and agent. They spotted a gap in the market and seized upon it, with it now being a must for agents to appear on a portal or risk losing out to the competition. At the same time, frustration exists over the costs they charge and the accusation that they see their customers as just another number.
Tech disrupters often improve and enhance an industry by giving it a kick up the backside, but like with anything there are for and against arguments for the long-term good they do.
People now expect to be able to order takeaways at the tap of a button and browse for property online, but some would argue that the platforms providing this get away with too much as a result of their huge success.
It’s the whole chicken and egg argument again, isn’t it? Agents need Rightmove, but just as equally Rightmove needs agents. The similarities with Just Eat are also clear in that agents control the stock, while Rightmove brings the consumers, just as Just Eat draws in the punters while the takeaways themselves provide the goods.
The bones of contention then come from the balance of power in this arrangement, given that both need the other to function successfully. Many would argue that the intermediaries hold much more power/control, which is where the frustration from customers arises – they feel they are being treated unfairly.
We’ve seen numerous stories in recent years of agents standing up to Rightmove over price hikes, threatening to boycott it if costs continue to rise at an unsustainable rate. In one case, a threat to quit worked wonders, with Antony Richards of the family-run, single-branch lettings business Antony Richards Property Services refusing to pay a higher fee to Rightmove and giving notice to quit the portal. As a result, he was offered – and accepted – a subscription fee at a reduced cost than the one he signed up with originally.
It shows that David can still stand up to Goliath, and that huge organisations like Rightmove are still wary when they are perceived to be taking advantage of their customers.
The power struggle between intermediary platforms and their customer base will continue for many years to come – it was these conditions that led to the formation of agent-owned portal OntheMarket and has seen a backlash against Just Eat from some restaurants and takeaway establishments.
A middle-ground approach would arguably be best for all sides, but whether that can be the case remains to be seen.
That’s it from me…until next time.
*Nat Daniels is the Chief Executive Officer of Angels Media, publishers of Estate Agent Today and Letting Agent Today. Follow him on Twitter @NatDaniels.