About two months ago, I pointed out a cool functionality of Google Maps that allowed users to look up foreclosure listings in a particular location. While this made it possible marvel at the incredible number of foreclosure listings in some regions like South Florida, it also had a functional purpose for perspective home buyers that were looking to score a deal on a distressed property. This morning, however, a reader named Mark e-mailed me to let me know that this function is no longer exists. What happened?
Sadly, Mark is right. In fact, Google Maps has scrapped its entire real estate listings capability, as of February 10th, 2011. You can still do all sorts of great stuff with Google Maps, but searching for real estate isn't one of them.
I contacted Google to ask them what happened. They pointed me to a blog post that explains the company considers the real estate function a failed experiment:
In part due to low usage, the proliferation of excellent property-search tools on real estate websites, and the infrastructure challenge posed by the impending retirement of the Google Base API (used by listing providers to submit listings), we've decided to discontinue the real estate feature within Google Maps on February 10, 2011.
We've learned a lot and been excited to see real estate companies use Google Maps in innovative ways to help people find places to live, such as Coldwell Banker's use of Google Maps and YouTube, or Realtor.com's Android app that lets you draw a shape on a map to find all properties you're interested in.
Yet we recognize that there might be better, more effective ways to help people find local real estate information than the current feature makes possible. We'll continue to explore this area, but in the meantime, Google offers other options to home-seekers: you can still access other information in Maps such as local businesses, directions and transit times, as well as aerial and Street View imagery to explore where you might want to move, and also use Google search results to find helpful real estate information and websites.
The low usage I get: this functionality had been around since 2009, and it wasn't until late 2010 that I even knew about it -- and I had covered the foreclosure beat throughout that period. But that could be more due to a failure to advertise the functionality than too little interest in it. You had to really search through the Google Maps options to find the real estate function to begin with. So I'm not sure if I really buy low usage as the central reason to the function's elimination.
Could it have more to do with those "better, more effective ways" to help people find real estate information? If you actually tried to use the function for finding foreclsoures to purchase, then you would have become quickly frustrated. Often, the flag locations Google Maps would show was more an art than science, since not all foreclosure listing sites that reported foreclosures to Google gave precise addresses. As a result, the general vicinity was correct, but to get more exact information, you had to sign up for the website that claimed to have the listing.
Ultimately, it's a pretty tough job to keep a database of real estate listings from a number of different real estate firms up-to-date, and I suspect Google didn't think it was worth its time. Think about it: as soon as a property sells, it should be removed from the database. Google was merely relying on information from real estate listing firms, which may or may not update Google on a timely basis. This likely made for significant inaccuracies, and Google would have needed to devote a lot of resources to make it more accurate. This might also be connected to the infrastructure issue that Google cites.
Of course, that doesn't make it any less disappointing that the functionality is gone. Something imperfect is better than nothing at all. Although Google says other places offer such services, they aren't providing the same results. Coldwell Banker's site does not appear to provide other realtor listings -- for obvious reasons -- or foreclosures. Realtor.com's site does a little better, as it includes multiple realtor company listings and foreclosures. But those foreclosure listings are scarce. Back in December, a foreclosure search I did for an area in South Florida pulled up a few hundred foreclosure listings on Google Maps, but the same search bounds on Realtor.com only finds 21 foreclosure listings.
But then, perhaps Google Maps was exaggerating the number of foreclosure listings if they were not being updated properly. And that could be one of the reasons the project was killed. At any rate, foreclosure hunters will have to look elsewhere going forward.