Apartment Internet Listing Services are dying. Here's more proof.

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J Turner Research recently produced a new study on how renters are finding their apartments. And the results are not good news for internet listing services.

(Note that the results of the survey are listed according to popularity in 2015, but the squares in the far right column show the same results from 2012. So you can see the net shift in popularity from 2012 to 2015 by comparing those two numbers.)

What does this data mean for the future of online apartment marketing?

Listing services, of course, are going to point out that the top two sources in that graphic are listing services. But don't be fooled by that. Look at the numbers on the right showing the 2012 results and then compare it to the results on the right showing results from last year. Here's how that breaks down:

  1. Rent.com fell in popularity by 13%. They lost nearly half their users, in other words.
  2. Apartments.com fell in popularity by 3%. (This is a success story, relatively speaking.)
  3. ApartmentFinder.com fell in popularity by 5%. (That's another success story.)
  4. Craigslist fell in popularity by 6%, which is between 1/3 and 1/4 of their users.
  5. ApartmentGuide.com fell in popularity by 5%, about 1/4 of their users.
  6. ForRent.com fell in popularity by 8%, about 2/5 of their users.
  7. Finally, "generic internet search" grew by 13%, meaning that more than twice as many renters found their apartments via generic internet search in 2015 compared to 2012.

This is a change that we have been observing in the industry for several years now and this new data from J Turner Research simply confirms what we have known to be true for some time. There is not a single listing service that is more popular with renters today than it was in 2012, Craigslist included.

Why are ILS's dying?

That's simple: The way we share and find information has been radically transformed in the past 20 years.

There are two things responsible for this change.

  • First, it is much cheaper to produce and distribute media on the internet. You don't need printing presses. You don't need tons of people to distribute your media to specific locations. All you need is a server to host your content and a domain name where people can find that content. You can find hosting for as little as $5 a month. The domain name will cost you about $10 per year in most cases. So for something like $5.83 per month you can produce your own business website for your restaurant, clothing boutique, or... apartment community. That's ridiculously cheap compared to the cost of publishing a newspaper or print guide. And it means that it's not just media companies that can produce media. Now businesses can as well.
  • Second, search engines made it easy to access information online. If the only thing that happened with the internet is it became easier to produce content but not easier to find or distribute content, then we'd have a major problem on our hand: We'd have tons and tons of content and no way to access it easily or to share it effectively with other people. Search engines change that. Search engines make it possible to quickly and easily find exactly what piece of information you need.

And here's the really important thing: Because of the way search engines work, finding any kind of information is now remarkably easy. 

Before the internet, when you needed a piece of information you had to search indexes of various kinds manually to find it. So you had a lot of indexes and they took a lot of time to use.

  • If you wanted a body shop to fix your car, you used the phone book.
  • If you needed a book at the library, you used a card catalog.
  • If you need an apartment, you used a printed guide or the newspaper classifieds.

All these indexes served as information middle-men. You needed to find a business. You needed a single index that held all that information. Then you needed to look through that whole index in search of whatever information you wanted to find. So we had tons of separate indexes and all of them existed in printable media that was expensive to produce, difficult to distribute, and took a lot of time to use.

Search engines transformed that model in a few key ways:

  • First, because anyone can produce a website and because Google crawls the entire internet (or does the best it can to do so), that eliminates most of the indexes we need. Rather than having a bunch of different, specialized indexes for different things, we now have a single index called "the internet."
  • Second, because you can simply type in what you need, using that single index is very easy.

Essentially, Google took all of the various indexes that store information and made them invisible. They all exist behind this one simple page:


The net result is that businesses can now produce their own media because of the internet and consumers can find that media because of search engines. All those old information middle men like phone books, card catalogs, and listing services are no longer needed.

If ILS's are dying, what does the future of apartment marketing look like?

Instead, we are seeing a new apartment search process emerging out of the old way of doing things in the pre-digital era.

23% of prospects in 2015 (up from 10% in 2012) are now beginning their search on general search engines like Google and Bing. From the search results page (SERP) on Google or Bing, they are then navigating to a variety of sites—some are listing services, but they are also going to community-specific apartment websites or company-specific websites. In addition to that, they are also navigating to local business listings that are displayed on the search engine result page itself.


This means that the most important thing to understand about the future of apartment marketing is that Google and other search engines will be preeminent. This means that you need to think primarily about how your prospects will find you via Google rather than how they will find you in listing services or, heaven forbid, the local newspaper.

How do people search for apartments on Google?

Regarding how people search for apartments on Google, there are two basic approaches.

The first is to cast a broad net by using very general search terms like "apartments in omaha ne" or "pet-friendly apartments in reno nv".

The typical search engine result page for those search terms looks like this:


Interestingly, this is where the ILS's are still doing really well. For the moment, Google is still sending apartment searchers to a page dominated by organic search results that point users to online directories.

That said, the move Google is making as a company more broadly is to take search terms like these and pull the relevant data into properties they control in-house which can be accessed directly on the search results page.

So rather than linking their users to websites that exist independent of Google (like Apartments.com, ForRent.com, and ApartmentGuide.com) they want to show users local business listings that are controlled by Google.

So if you search "hotels in Omaha NE", you get a result like this:


On this page, you can see that the ads are still prominent, but Google has now pushed the organic search results well down the page and replaced them with a local business directory that uses a map widget and local business listings to help users find a hotel.

They are doing the same thing with other local business search queries:


Once more:


So on these kind of SERPs, Google is still sending apartment searchers to online directories, but on most other local business queries Google is taking over the SERP with their own local business data—and the external directories for those industries are gone.

Obviously this system works great for Google because it keeps their users on Google web properties—so Google can keep gathering information about them and advertising to them.

But it also works well for Google's users: They can click on the map and search the exact geographic area they need. They can also access review information, contact information, and information about business hours directly on the search results page. They don't need to click through to other websites, hunt for a phone number, hunt for business hours, and so on. It's all there already.


This system also can work for businesses too—it makes it very simple to get basic business information to prospects and for happy customers to give great word-of-mouth recommendations. So everyone wins with this sort of SERP in a way that simply is not the case with the older sort of results that we still see on queries like "apartments in omaha ne". 

Because of how well this search results page design works, it is highly probable that in the future we'll see Google do something similar with apartment searches—which means listing services are living on borrowed time on those SERP results. In the future Google will populate those SERPs with their own local business data, just as they have with the other local search terms shown above.

Searchers will also search for specific businesses on Google—and online directories have already disappeared from those SERPs.

So the first way people can search for apartments is by typing in something like "apartments in sacramento ca". We already discussed that above.

There is a second way to search for apartments in Google. The other way prospects can search for apartments online is by searching for a specific community by name.

If they do that, they'll see a results page that looks like this:


If you look at this page, you can see that the top ad, top organic, and the local result all point users to web properties controlled by the community itself and not to an internet listing service. The ad and organic results both direct users to the Tamarin Ridge website. The local business data points them to the business directory that is controlled by Google and managed by Tamarin Ridge.

Sure, the second organic result is an ApartmentGuide.com link, but given that the ad and top organic link likely attract 60% of all the clicks on this SERP, there simply isn't a lot of traffic (probably 11-14%) going to the ApartmentGuide link.

Put another way, for every one user that goes to Apartment Guide, there are 4-6 users who go to the Tamarin Ridge website.

This is a huge win for Tamarin Ridge because it means the vast majority of people who search for them by name are ending up on their website rather than an ILS listing where the prospect can also find all of Tamain Ridge's competitors. But this is also a better user experience for the prospective resident. They are specifically looking for Tamarin Ridge, so it's also better for them to be taken to the Tamarin Ridge website rather than to a listing service. They want information about Tamarin Ridge so that is what Google is serving them.


Obviously there is a ton of information in this post. If you really want to understand everything about why ILS's are not as powerful as they once were, then you need to read the post.

That said, here's a short summary: Because of how the internet and search engines have changed the way we find and share information, community websites have become a much more valuable marketing source than internet listing services where prospective residents can find you alongside all of your competitors. You might even say that internet listing services exist chiefly for people who don't know how to use Google.


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