Ratings Matter

Learn how to manage your reputation in the age of social media.

March 1, 2009

The Internet of the 1990s was about anonymity. Consumers battled Web cookies, registrations, and other tracking devices that Web site owners could use to turn visits into revenues.

Today, the Internet is about transparency. For consumers in the market to buy or sell real estate, the Web allows them to pull back the veil on all things housing—from the price their neighbors paid for their home to the reputation of local real estate practitioners. If consumers search your name on Google, chances are they’ll find information that paints a picture of you—your capabilities, your work ethic, your professionalism. Will you like the picture they find?

For a look at the potential perils out there, visit OutrageousAgents.com, a site founded by a former ABC News correspondent who’d had a terrible experience with a practitioner. The site makes clear its aim to smoke out incompetence, with a tag line that reads: "The site real estate agents hate." Here are a few of the couple hundred postings by consumers:

  • "What she actually wants is just your money and your prompt action to close a deal. Strongly recommend to step away from her."
  • "This guy sold me on his experience and on how many homes he has sold. His promises were all lies and he did nothing to sell my home."
  • "Lazy!!! I did all the work!!!"

OutrageousAgents.com isn’t meant to disparage all real estate salespeople, says founder Andrew Colton. "There are great agents out there I’d go back to in a heartbeat." But Colton believes he has struck a nerve with his site, where consumers can vent their frustration and even link to their state’s Web site to file a complaint.

The site represents one small slice of the growing business of rating real estate practitioners online.

Driving this development (not just in real estate—there are rating sites for doctors and lawyers, too) is popular literature, such as James Surowiecki’s best-selling book, The Wisdom of Crowds (Anchor Books, 2005), which looked at the value of collective intelligence, and Groundswell (Harvard Business School Press, 2008), Forrester analysts Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff’s book on how companies can turn customers’ connections to their advantage. All over the Internet, people are putting these insights into action in the form of customer ratings and comments.

The bad economy may be accelerating consumer interest in online ratings. "It’s in difficult times like these that experience shines through," says Angie Hicks, cofounder of Angie’s List, the Internet’s most well-known site for rating service providers. "It’s worth the extra time for a person to do some homework to find a good quality agent."

One result of the trend is that traditional advertising and marketing are falling out of favor with consumers, says Frances Flynn Thorsen, e-PRO, a practitioner with Purple Sage Realty in Tucson, Ariz. "Word-of-mouth marketing and conversational media are receiving increasing attention," she says. "Consumers trust fellow buyers more than marketers." Thorsen is the former community manager for Trulia, a site where users post real estate questions and share advice. She’s now CEO of Socialebb Strategies and Solutions in Tucson.

Some practitioners say the rating sites that exist today aren’t worth your time. "I won’t waste a minute on them. They have no bearing on my business," says Atlanta practitioner Jim Crawford, who uses his online time to engage with other practitioners and potential customers through his blog and social networking channels (see "Take Your Wisdom to the Web").

Others take the ratings seriously, tracking mentions of their name and responding directly to consumer criticism. REALTORS® in Houston recently have gone so far as to set up their own rating system. Their members will be able to opt in to or out of the system at any time. "Our research tells us a majority of consumers want it," says Bob Hale, CEO of the Houston Association of REALTORS®. "So we did it."

Ultimately, because your reputation matters, your ratings matter. Online, you and your services often stand alone—apart from your brokerage, your brand, and your offline reputation. Whether you choose to actively engage with online rating sites or not, you’ll benefit from knowing how these sites work and learning how to protect yourself against inaccurate or misleading information.

Welcome to the age of the citizen expert.

A Survey of What’s Out There

Consumer comments on the Internet aren’t new. Information managers use the term "reputation systems" to describe utilities that allow Internet users to rate and comment on what they see—whether it’s the article they’re reading, a recipe they’ve tried, or the name of a professional they’ve worked with. If you’ve ever made a purchase on eBay, you’re probably familiar with its reputation system, which gives you detailed feedback from users on a seller’s eBay history.

When it comes to rating service professionals, it’s Angie’s List that started the online conversation. The site, founded in 1995, rates contractors and professionals in hundreds of specialties, including real estate sales, home staging, home inspection, and homebuilding. Nearly 750,000 people pay a fee (starting at $8.75 a month or $67 a year) for the ability to find highly rated service professionals.

Angie’s List subscribers use report cards to rate service providers on experience, price, quality of work, responsiveness, punctuality, and professionalism. The company alerts you the first time a report on you is posted, and you get a chance to respond. It’s a model that’s been adapted for real estate rating sites, which typically offer some combination of star ratings, rankings, consumer comments, and practitioner responses.

When you’re evaluating real estate–specific sites, it’s a good idea to understand their profit motive. OutrageousAgents.com is something of an anomaly: Comments are mostly anonymous, and there’s no obvious method for practitioners to respond to criticism. At the same time, Colton’s not in it for the money. Most real estate rating sites are run by companies in the business of selling you advertising, leads, or Web site services.

Getting the equivalent of a five-star rating at these sites is something like trying to improve your FICO score, says Vicki Moore, GRI, a salesperson with RE/MAX Dolphin Real Estate in San Mateo, Calif. It’s not easy to figure out. "The ratings are based on things that don’t always define the quality of the agent," says Moore. For example, you may be judged by such factors as how many listings you have, how many pictures you post, whether you have a welcome message, or whether you use videos. Or, you may simply have to pay for visibility.

"I’ve researched these sites," says Moore, "and found that one of them had [a practitioner] in the top position who hadn’t sold a house in two years. It’s another way for people to make money off of agents."

The sites’ operators say that’s just part of the story.

One site, still in beta testing, is AgentRank. Its rankings are composed of up to 25 data points. When you sign up to be evaluated, you provide information on your professional network, client endorsements, sales history, market forecast, blogs, experience, and designations. AgentRank is a sister site to RealtyBaron, a Web site that matches practitioners with consumers; practitioners pay a fee if the transaction closes.

At AgentRank, real estate practitioners invite their customers and clients to post reviews, explains founder Marc Dugger. Negative reviews aren’t posted, but they do go into the overall evaluation, he says.

"It’s not about tearing down agents or pointing the finger; it’s really about elevating great agents," says Dugger. "No one is searching the Web for a bad agent."

Browsing these sites, it’s clear they’re not yet ready for prime time. A quick search at AgentRank of Dallas ZIP code 75204 shows five practitioners, only one of which has posted a photograph. The first—with a ranking of 9 out of 10—had no client recommendations, market forecasts, blogs, sales, or other information posted, just an invitation to visit her Web site.

Another site, Homethinking, calls itself a "real estate agent search engine," uses public data to show transactional histories of practitioners: days on market, how much homes are discounted, sales price, and number of homes that went unsold. "Now, the consumers will have the numbers, and the numbers speak for themselves," founder Niki Scevak told Trulia Voices bloggers in 2007.

But one problem with the site seems to be that brokerages aren’t distinguished from individual salespeople. Judge Fite, REALTORS®, in Dallas is a brokerage, not a person. Yet it’s featured as the sixth search result for ZIP code 75204. The site said in December: "Judge Fite Dallas has sold 30 homes and is selling 137 homes at the moment." The same numbers appeared a month later—with no note of explanation to the consumer about the time period in which the homes were sold.

When Windemere salesperson Loren Stubbert of Eugene, Ore., checked out his profile on Homethinking, the only information that was correct was his name and brokerage. "They didn’t even have my town right," he says. "They included a few sales from my daughter-in-law, who has the same last name, and omitted some sales of mine. When I posted my concern to Trulia, I thought Homethinking would contact me, but they never did."

At the site, anyone can update information on past sales activity, post neighborhood information, and respond to customer comments. Other services come at a premium. For $49 a month, you’ll get top placement on searches in your area, along with the opportunity to post your biography and photograph. If consumers click on "get three proposals from local REALTORS®" (misuse of the term "REALTORS®" is common in the online rating world), practitioners who’ve paid the monthly fee will be among the three that appear. Scevak didn’t respond to requests for an interview.

For a true ranking and comments experience, visit IncredibleAgents.com, which invites consumers to review real estate practitioners they’ve worked with. If you’re reviewed, The site sends you the review and you’re invited to respond free of charge. The site gives each practitioner a score. Practitioners who visit the site can click on the "Agent Signup" to edit their profile. At another link, "Real Estate Websites," they can sign up for a free, basic site—or a $75 per month premium package.

Seek Out Your Own Customer Feedback

Apart from these sites, brokerages have been doing their own surveys and associate ratings for well over 10 years. Both GMAC Real Estate and ZipRealty ask consumers to rate their practitioners. They say it’s the best way to achieve a better understanding of how they can improve or maintain high-quality service.

ZipRealty provides its customers with satisfaction surveys to complete after closing. Scores are translated to rankings from one star (completely dissatisfied) to five (completely satisfied), based on the answer to the survey question, "How satisfied were you with the service you received from your agent(s)?" explains Marielle Covington, ZipRealty spokesperson. The ranking doesn’t appear on the sales person’s online profile until they’ve received three or more surveys.

GMAC Real Estate uses third-party research and rating services Leading Research Corp. and Quality Service Certification. Individual practitioners can keep the consumer satisfaction ratings private or opt to have the ratings uploaded to their online profiles. Customer names are anonymous, and brokers and their associates can view and analyze the results to improve service.

"We believe that having ‘satisfied’ customers is not good enough," says John Bearden, GMAC’s CEO. "Our goal is to ‘highly satisfy’ our clients because our research shows passionate referrals only come from highly satisfied customers."

Neither company posts negative comments online, but the broker of record certainly shows the surveys to the associates.

The Houston Association of REALTORS® worked with QSC for two years before deciding to launch its own rating service, says CEO Bob Hale. After a closing, HAR will send a survey to customers asking them to rate their agent on a 1–5 scale on such factors as communcations skills and professionalism. The scores will be added up to give the member a score for each transaction. Members will be able to decide whether to display customer ratings and comments on their HAR profiles and respond to comments. The service was expected to launch in February.

As Hale sees it, the ratings are an opportunity to help members, serve consumers, and keep HAR.com the top real estate site in Houston.

So, will the wisdom of crowd revolutionize the industry or go the way of the Pet Rock? It’s hard to say. One thing’s certain, however: Having a good reputation will never go out of style.


Social Media: Keep It Ethical

Is the REALTOR® Code of Ethics positioned to deal with social media? Yes, says Orange County, Calif., practitioner Bob Hunt, author of Real Estate The Ethical Way (Bella Vista Publishing Co. Inc., 2008). “It’s the nature of the Code to frame issues at a high level of generality.” Thus, Article 12, dealing with truth in advertising, and Article 15, which prohibits making false or misleading statements, both apply to any medium. Bottom line: Even online, let your professionalism show.

Take Your Wisdom to the Web

Rating sites aren’t the only place where you can build an online reputation. Many real estate practitioners are making a good name for themselves by actively engaging in what’s been informally termed the “RE.net,” the new electronic water cooler and backyard fence, where practitioners meet, exchange referrals, and communicate with consumers. For professional networking, popular sites include ActiveRain, AgentGenius, RealTown, Inman.com, and LinkedIn. For consumer outreach, there are sites such as Trulia, Facebook, and MySpace. (To be fair, most sites typically have both professional and consumer channels. For example, both the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS® and REALTOR® Magazine’s Young Professionals Network have groups on Facebook.)

Many of these sites have their own kind of practitioner ratings. At ActiveRain, you get points for such activities as creating a profile, inviting others, blogging, commenting on blogs, and linking. At Zillow, your contributions can lead to a professional badge such as “Local Expert” or “All Star.”

“Social networking sites provide a low-cost way to reconnect with people in your life and to connect with new people in your market, therefore increasing the number of people you reach on a daily basis,” says Philadelphia practitioner Bill Lublin, CRB, CRS®, CEO of Century 21 Advantage Gold in Philadelphia and an active AgentGenius blogger. “Through these sites, you have the opportunity to display who you are and what your expertise is. As people learn about you and experience the depth of your knowledge and integrity, they’ll learn to trust you and be predisposed to do business with you when they’re ready.”

There’s the rub. Being a great online networker is no substitute for being a knowledgeable professional. You have to know your business, know your market, and communicate effectively in writing—without obvious spelling and grammatical errors.

You also have to make time for online networking. “Set aside an hour a week with a recurring appointment in your calendar,” advises Joeann Fossland, productivity coach and trainer. “You obviously still need face-to-face contact, but online social networking is going to replace some of this. Generation Y, in particular, is texting and using Twitter and Facebook and will be looking for recommendations from others in those places. Join groups on Facebook and LinkedIn and sites that benefit consumers, like Trulia, and then post relevant information.”

If the social networking site has a consumer Q&A, sign up to participate. Sign up for e-mail alerts so you can answer consumers’ questions promptly. If the site includes a recommendations feature, write letters of recommendation for colleagues, strategic partners, and clients. “Acknowledge them freely, unannounced, and without condition. Put the law of reciprocity to work and watch the magic happen,” says Fossland.

“For those that think before they write, social networking within the framework of real estate is the perfect tool,” says Jim Crawford, of RE/MAX Greater Atlanta in Roswell, Ga. Crawford estimates that 85 percent of his business comes through online contacts. “It allows instant visibility with peers and the opportunity to win over new clients. Think of it as an online living resume.”

Making intelligent contributions to the RE.net can also shield you from the occasional negative comment. Saul Klein, CEO of Internet Crusade, calls it building social capital. “People are getting better about sorting through details and going to more than one source,” he says. “If people see you participating and providing accurate, valid information about the homebuying process, they gain confidence, and that one negative post will have less weight.”

Don’t Hide Your Online Identity

When you join a social networking site, you usually start by creating a profile.

Your online profile should be complete and truthful without giving away too much personal information. A complete profile can help you get the kind of positive exposure that leads to business. This is an easy concept for the under-30 set, but those of us with a pre-Internet sense of privacy may find the process unsettling. A profile typically includes, at a minimum: 

  • Your company information 
  • Phone numbers
  • E-mail address
  • Areas of specialty
  • Niche markets
  • Educational background
  • Links to your Web site and blog

Keep your profile up-to-date. If you change companies, for example, be sure to update all the sites where you posted your information. Putting all this data in a Word document will help you create and update profiles quickly.

Your Reputation, Your Responsibility

Overwhelming? Yes. Beyond your control? No.To manage what’s being said about you online:

  • Search Google and Yahoo for your name and your company’s name. Save each search as a browser favorite and check them daily, suggests Frances Flynn Thorsen, a practitioner with Purple Sage Realty in Tucson, Ariz.
  • Sign up for Google Alerts so that you’re notified when your name appears in a search. Also set up alerts for variations of your name, your company name, and other keywords. Thorsen has alerts for Frances Thorsen, Fran Thorsen, Trulia, mortgage fraud, HUD homes, and about 30 other words and terms.
  • Set up a Twitter search to find out what people using social media are saying in real time. You can also create a search for your Twitter handle (user name) as well as your name and company. Thorsen’s handle is FrancesFlynnTho.
  • Register at Career Connection Network and use the company’s reputation awareness feature. It pulls data from 40 social outlets so that you can check out what’s posted about you online.
  • Correct errors quickly when you find information about you that’s inaccurate. Immediately contact the Web site and be willing to prove your case with information from your MLS or other sources. Your correction will hold more water if you’re active in the online community where the error is posted.
  • Be proactive in asking customers for reviews. “Get testimonials from people you’ve served,” advises John Reilly, CEO of RealTown. “If there’s a bad comment, and the company isn’t willing to remove it, it’s valuable to have people in your corner.”
  • Don’t respond to criticism flippantly or with anger. “Seeing your name online gives you an opportunity to respond quickly in an appropriate manner,” says Thorsen. “Say, ‘Thanks,’ when the words are complimentary. If the words are less than laudatory, give serious thought to a measured and wise response.” In the end, “nothing succeeds like the truth,” says Bill Lublin, CRB, CRS®, CEO of Century 21 Advantage Gold in Philadelphia and 2008 chair of the National Association of REALTORS® Professional Standards Committee. “Unflattering or inaccurate statements are best handled by presenting your side of the story while avoiding personal attacks or reacting defensively. Be professional and open, explaining the facts as you know them and the logic that determined your actions. Remember, when you get down to wrestle with someone in the mud, both of you end up covered in dirt.”

Blanche Evans is a writer/editor and CEO of evansEmedia. Formerly, she was a senior editor with Realty Times, where she was named by REALTOR® Magazine as one of the most influential people in the real estate industry.