Realestate.com.au is owned by News Limited and has grown into one of Australia's most popular property related Web sites. In February 2007, the same company launched property.com.au, which contains identical data to realestate.com.au, but has completely different user experience.
Property.com.au uses Web 2.0 technologies to offer visitors a very different user interface by including an interactive map, which gives the exact location of the advertised properties. Because of these relatively new features, the site remains in beta test mode. ZDNet Australia met with Chris Vulovic, the CIO of realestate.com.au, to find out her vision for the future.
Chris Vulovic, thanks so much for joining us. Now, what are some of the technologies that are exciting you at the moment?
Vulovic: Well, all of that's really driven from better ways for users to interact with our content. We have a lot of content -- 90 percent of real estate agents in Australia advertise on the site. So, that's a lot of content.
How do you give users better ways to interact with that? Things that we are looking at are things like better mapped-based searching, RSS feeds, better ways for users to sign up for e-mail alerts and really specify exactly what they're looking for. Those are the kinds of technologies we get really exited about. Obviously there's also AJAX, and giving people a better user experience on the site. Those are really the things that we are spending a lot of our research and development time on.
There are a number of different ways to get our properties. You can get them by e-mail alerts, right now. RSS is just another way to plug that property search into your page to search for properties, and then link directly to them. So, instead of having to go to the site and do the search for the properties, you kind of have something right there that says these are the properties that are relevant to you today.
We already have e-mail alerts. We allow people to check suburb price on a number of different suburbs. So you can have one e-mail alert that says, look, I'm looking for townhouses anywhere in Victoria with (because maybe you're an investor) different sizes of bedrooms. Other advanced types of search are available as well. I think everything that's available in our advanced search is available for the e-mail alert.
Looking back at 2006 in terms of cost savings, can you name one big project that really made a difference?
Vulovic: Well, I guess, in terms of cost savings on the public side, any projects that were kind of driven by technology we wouldn't really class as cost savings.
But we did do a massive internal project, which was a document management system with Documentum and Captiva -- formerly, we had contracts that were faxed in. At the end of the month the fax machine would be busy. No more contracts could come in. We also had a file clerk and a room full of Compactus cabinets. So, about 18 months ago we moved to eFax, so that everything comes in via PDF. We now have Captiva and Documentum suck it right in and read it into our system.
So that has been a tremendous cost savings, just in terms of it used to take us up to 10 days to process a contract. When you're getting in thousands of contracts it can take that long. Now, it's two days to process a contract. So, that's been the biggest cost savings, really, for us.
Our agents will always want to fax the contract. That's why we have eFax -- it comes in via PDF and we're able to process it.
We're actually moving to a system where when we print out the contract it has a barcode on it, so that when that contract gets faxed back in, Documentum can actually read the barcode and can classify the document immediately for us.
We're a company that lives on e-mail and the Internet. We're used to dealing with PDF documents. It's very easy for us. But we understand that our customers are still going to want to sign and fax the contract. So we're allowing for both.
How much did that cost?
Vulovic: I think it was around $250,000, but it was well worth it. We've been able to double our capacity and improve our time to process contracts. It's been absolutely well worth it.
What impact has Google Maps had on your users?
Vulovic: Google Maps is really exciting because users like to interact with the maps. And the interface for the map provider that we previously used, Whereis, was very lacking. Plus it didn't have satellite photographs that users absolutely love.
What we found is that there's more interaction with the map than there used to be. People are dragging, and resizing, and playing with the map all the time. It used to be people didn't really realise they could interact with the map. They saw the map on the property details page and they kind of left it alone.
With Google Maps people know they can interact with it. And they're turning buttons on and off, hybrid of both satellite and street map. So, we're finding that they're interacting with it a lot more. And it's giving them a better user experience.
You recently launched a new site, property.com.au. Tell us why you did it and what makes it stand out.
Vulovic: I think that what's so special about the site is still really the content. We have the lion's share of content in Australia. But on top of that, it's really just a simplicity and an elegance that we wanted to see if we could bring to the property search. And you can't go onto a site where 3.8 million people use every month and do something radically different.
This is a way for us to do something radically different and to test what people like. I think the use of AJAX and the use of a lot of the more interactive elements makes it a better experience for some consumers.
It's interesting. Some consumers love it. Some of them hate it because they're used to the real estate search that they have on realestate.com.au. So, we actually found both ends of the spectrum there.
We spend a lot of time on research and development. We also spend a lot of time overseas looking at what other people are doing. Not only in the countries where we have other properties, but also we spend a lot of time in the US and looking at what they're doing.
It was really generated by seeing what else is out there on the market globally. And not just from a classifieds perspective, not just from a real estate perspective, but from a search perspective -- how are people interacting with content. And that's what we wanted to test out with real estate classifieds -- how could we bring all of those best practices and innovations to real estate in Australia.
We spent about six weeks building it, so it was actually a really quick build. But we spent a bit more time than that thinking about it. We've been thinking about these types of things really for the last six months. And probably in design we probably spent three or four weeks before the build phase. In terms of people working on it, we had a team of about four people working on it.
So, what kind of pressure are you under with the launch of PBL's myhome.com.au?
Vulovic: We have personal relationships with our customers, with 8,000 agents. So they're going to have to go out there and make those personal relationships with those agents. That's not going to be something that's easy to do. And from the user's perspective, we have the content.
So, in terms of running faster, doing things differently, we always try to do the best for our customers, the agents, and our consumers. And we're going to continue doing that. We're not terribly worried about PBL. We're just doing what we do best. And that's built great relationships with our agents, and provided great content, great ways to use the content, and ways to search through the content to our users.
Chris Vulovic, thanks.