Whether or not you live in New York, visit Blocksy.com. It’s a whole new way of thinking about what a portal could and should be — no ads, all agents, cool free tools. It’s downright sticky.
Jason White, founder and CEO of Blocksy, has lived in a lot of apartments in New York. More, he’s quick to point out, than your average New Yorker.
To find each of them, he used all of the online services available to him before he started Blocksy — StreetEasy (before it was acquired by Zillow) and Craigslist being chief among them. But because New York City is a unique market, without a central multiple listing service, he was hamstrung by his ability to easily search for what he wanted.
No site offered a complete set of listings, the search tools seemed outdated, the data was incomplete or inaccurate, and the design seemed decidedly old-school.
Blocksy.com • New York City • Real Estate Portal • Free
White, a serial entrepreneur with little experience in the residential real estate market before starting what was to become Blocksy, thought he could do better.
Though White was busy with his incubator/software development company, Venture321, he put up what he now calls a “terrible” product in 2011 just to test a concept: That real estate search in New York City could be consumer-centric while simultaneously focused on the needs of real estate professionals, all while making the most of big data.
An Immediate Hit
White’s first site, then called Blockhawk, was decidedly simple. You could search for property in Manhattan or Brooklyn. White assembled detailed real estate records for residential and commercial buildings, as well as listings of homes for sale and apartments for rent in New York City. He made all of it available to everyone who visited the site — for free. The design was about as basic as it gets.
Yet the site was almost immediately a hit with information-starved New Yorkers. Within months, White says the site drew hundreds of thousands of users. The site proved his thesis: There was a market need for a site that presented comprehensive data about New York real estate.
“I just knew at that point that we were on to something, and that my next venture was choosing me,” White says now. “The passion was there from the users — and even though it was a shoddy version of the product … it was still better.”
White also realized that the name Blockhawk had to go (too many confusing mispronunciations) — and Blocksy as we know it today was born.
Aligning the Goals
As White and his partners dove into building the next iteration of Blocksy, they realized that the secret sauce of Blocksy would be a philosophy: That agents and brokers owned their listings … period.
White calls this philosophy “alignment.” He says that Blocksy aligns the goals of consumers to get information with the desire of real estate professionals to provide it. It’s a direct, one-to-one relationship that is the bedrock of everything Blocksy offers. But White says other portals (including Zillow’s StreetEasy, his main competitor in New York) that surround listings with ads from competitive agents are “misaligned.”
“Portal sites are misaligned because they don’t really meet the needs of consumers or real estate professionals,” White explains. “Consumers want information. When they submit an inquiry, they want an agent to call them back. But when a listing is covered in ads for five different agents, and they get a call back from someone who isn’t even the listing agent, that’s misaligned and bad for everyone.
“For agents and brokers that syndicate their listings that they’ve worked so hard for, it’s a complete misalignment of goals,” White continues. “The goal is not to advertise for other agents. The goal is to advertise your own listings. Those listings are precious, and agents and brokers need to keep ownership of them.”
That’s why Blocksy’s listings are only associated with the agents and brokers who put them on the site. There are no ads on the site, a refreshing change.
“For us, it’s really about how you make the listings beautiful and trustworthy for consumers, and then how you make the platform easy to use, valuable and intuitive for brokers and agents,” White says. “It’s about removing the friction between consumers and professionals, and making sure everyone is in alignment.”
Over the last two years, White says Blocksy has been perfecting its search function and building photo-heavy listing pages that enable it to be a full-featured portal. Some of those features, like hourly updating of listings data, coverage from every brokerage in New York, and in-depth reporting on individual listings, are meant to set Blocksy apart.
White says the site is already making money, even though it just started selling enhanced services to agents and consumers. The first of these products, Blocksy Edge, is a $15 a month paid service that gives subscribers early access to and alerts about new listings, and the ability to send urgent inquiries to agents.
In a highly competitive market like New York, it’s easy to see that Blocksy Edge’s tasty combination of comprehensive coverage and an early warning system for new properties is likely a winning combination for buyers and their agents.
With more than a million users on Blocksy on a monthly basis, it seems certain that Blocksy will stay in the center of the New York real estate scene.
Powerful Free Features
Although Blocksy Edge is an important strategy, White says the site will always focus on free features that help agents and brokers build their business — and coincidentally drive traffic to the site.
Two features promise to do that. Blocksy PowerShare is a unique sharing tool that enables an agent with a listing on the site to share it via social networks or email. The advantage is that once an agent shares a listing using the tool, consumers who visit Blocksy as a result will see only that agent’s contact information — everywhere on Blocksy.
Essentially, PowerShare enables agents to do a site-wide takeover, so that their clients will only see their contact information everywhere they go on Blocksy.
Blocksy Tours are another free means of traffic and lead generation available to agents. Agents simply click a button to create a tour. Blocksy will select the 10 “freshest” properties for your tour by default, but you can override the site’s choices and select your own listings using by bedroom, bathroom, amenities, price or type of property.
The tours work for both for sale and rental listings, though you can’t combine different types of listings into a single tour. You can weed out listings you don’t like, suppress pictures and put in your own comments.
Once the tour is complete, you can post it to social channels or email it to your clients. White suggests that theming the tours increases their virality and relevance. For example, sending a tour of 10 properties in Chelsea that overlook the Highline will be compelling and engaging to buyers who want to live in the area.
Steal These Ideas
[Editors note: I realize that the video for this story is long. But if you’re about to redevelop your website and are looking at how to handle search and listings, check out Jason’s description of how Blocksy works. You’ll be glad you did.]
Whether or not you live or work in New York City, there are plenty of usability lessons to be drawn from Blocksy.
The first of those lessons is about ease of use, particularly when it comes to pictures. You can instantly unfurl a row of pictures of any listing within a page of search results, without having to click through to an individual listing. When you’re looking at dozens of listings at once, this is a real time saver. Imagine this applied to your IDX feed.
You can search multiple neighborhoods at the same time. A map presents listings at the top of the list view, making it easy to move from neighborhood to neighborhood, or see where the listings are located in proximity to one another.
The search function isn’t just limited to bedrooms and bathrooms; it includes amenities, neighborhoods and many of the soft features (e.g., furnished? Property age?) of listings that help consumer quickly home in on what they want to see.
Real time data about the neighborhood is automatically presented in the right hand column, and updated according to your search criteria. If you’re searching in multiple neighborhoods, you can compare stats about the average rent or price, square footage and the number of available listings.
Once you’re in a listing, you can see an enormous volume of information about that property, the building it’s located in (if it’s an apartment), the listing’s sales history, or pull up an exceptionally detailed neighborhood report. The charts for details and features and amenities make it easy to scan through a property’s particulars.
What’s especially nice is that the massive volume of data associated with every listing is logically organized. The design piques your curiosity and invites you to peruse multiple listings. It’s easy and enjoyable to wander from listing to listing, because similar listings are presented as a natural part of the experience. You can also see which listings other Blocksy visitors have viewed.
Blocksy goes a step further than other portals with respect to listing details, because it also provides in-depth details about the building, neighborhood, borough and pricing history. When possible, Blocksy pulls in additional information about the listing from sources other than the broker, which paints a more comprehensive picture for consumers.
Then Blocksy does something interesting: It tries to tell consumers how popular a listing is in a building or neighborhood — and goes so far as to rank certain listings as “hidden gems” or “cream of the crop.”
“It’s traditionally very hard to flesh out interest levels in listings,” White explains. “If I’m looking at a property I love, I’m not going to tell anyone about it. I’m not going to share or like it. I’m not going to do things that are highly visible. It’s a finite resource. I don’t want someone else to take that apartment. ”
White and his team figured out a way to measure the signals of popularity without relying on site visitors to make their interest known. They created an algorithm that measures the number of views and inquiries a listing gets, along with other factors, to measure the listing’s popularity on Blocksy.
“If you do right by the users you will do right by the pros and vice versa,” says White of Blocksy’s development priorities and philosophy. That could be why, at least for the foreseeable future, White intends to keep Blocksy free for consumers and professionals alike.
Blocksy users can instantly pull up comprehensive neighborhood pricing reports for homes for sale and rentals, and even compare neighborhoods by a variety of filters, including price per square foot and average size. Blocksy puts big data put to work for the benefit of consumers and professionals, and presents it in an assortment of elegant and interactive graphs and charts.
There’s so much information on the site that it’s easy to spend hours flipping between neighborhoods and comparing listings to one another.
“It’s about giving the consumer — and the professional — great transparency into the data,” White explains. “For agents, we’ve given them a tool that enables them to show their clients their knowledge about the market. We want to bring as much information to the surface as we can to help people make better decisions.”
The upshot? Blocksy is sticky and extraordinarily useful. Whether or not you live or work in New York, visit the site today.