Most people, except for a few competitors maybe, would agree that PropertyGuru is the leading online property portal in Singapore. But also in Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia they have a leading presence. Recently, they announced a brand relaunch, accompanied by the integration of Artificial Intelligence to improve the user experience. We took the opportunity to interview PropertyGuru CMO Björn Sprengers to get a better understanding of the why and how.

It is safe to say that machine learning and artificial intelligence are at the forefront of marketing discussions today. But is anyone really doing something meaningful in this area? PropertyGuru recently came to AdAsia’s attention with a firm ‘yes!’.

The AI that PropertyGuru are introducing, has been built into the portal’s search functionality. The AI processes and learns about the visitor’s behaviour and as a result the more you use the site, the better your search results get. PropertyGuru is launching the newly designed AI module in conjunction with a complete rebranding of their site. Why introduce these two at the same time? we ask Björn.

“PropertyGuru has been market leader in Singapore for many years now. Our technology was built to provide maximum transparency. But that is no longer a strategic advantage. To keep our leading position, we took a good look at how we create value for customers, which we did based on our corporate vision: become the trusted advisor in the real estate area.

“We realised that to achieve this we needed two things: a new identity and brand position and in addition define what is the end objective. To us that is to match the aspiration of the majority of our users; to move up the property ladder. Many buyers and renters aspire to this.

“In the process, we came up with the new brand message: Find your home. We also knew early on that to achieve the position of trusted advisor, responding to the aspirations of our portal visitors, we need personalisation of content and messaging. From there it was a logical step to look at how AI can help us.”


Leapfrogging to the new website. The newly designed branding is clearly there but the rest of the site seems to be functioning the way it did before. How does a user actually experience the AI component?
“There are two ways in which you will experience this. First, the more you use the site, the more personalised the search results get. The AI function starts learning about your preferences. This can be anything from location to number of bedrooms and property type. The second one is less visible to the user but is applied to the listings. When a listing is created by e.g. an agency, the AI rates the listing the moment this is done. Among other things it analyses the images uploaded for quality. It can check if the image is valid and if the agent is on the image with a phone number. We know that visitors don’t like the agent’s face and phone number on images, which in turn reduces the response rates. The AI can flag this during the list creation process. Monitoring this permanently ultimately leads to better content quality.

“AI improves content and UX in a number of ways; it can assist the agent during uploading which provides a better user experience for them and helps improve listing quality. This will be appreciated by the user who gets better information and starts trusting our portal. The optimised search results also contribute to the trust and ultimately the conversion factor of the site.”


In Singapore, many home searchers rely on agencies and they are considered as trusted advisors. What is the position of PropertyGuru regarding this?
“The agent is certainly an advisor who is supposed to know a lot about the objects. But one way PropertyGuru helps the agents is by providing a pricing widget. This widget checks the proposed price or rent based on information that we as PropertyGuru have gathered over the years. Over time we have made this more granular, so it looks e.g. also on the level of the unit, which side it is facing and other aspects that can cause variance in price or rent and even yield when it is an investment object.

“That way we provide added value to the listing, so both the agent and the searcher know that the pricing is aligned with the market reality. We have this for Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia as well.”


Is there such a thing as PropertyGuru becoming too transparent? The agent at times may have information that he or she doesn’t want to share with the potential buyer or renter. If PropertyGuru adds this to the listing, e.g. an indication that the property is in a noisy location, will the agent not shy away from PropertyGuru and go elsewhere?
“That is an interesting discussion we do have internally. The solution is actually simple; we choose to deliver the best possible service to the searcher. Companies that do that will always win. We are in the business of lead generation for property and if the service quality is good, both sides win; the lister and the searcher. We are convinced that competitors have not done this and that is why we are market leader in all the markets where we are present.”


What is PropertyGuru’s business model?
PropertyGuru main source of revenue comes from the listing fees that agencies pay, and advertisement sales, primarily from project developers. But we also have an awards platform. This is the biggest property awards platform that covers 13 countries in Asia. We organise events that developers attend to present their projects. We have independent experts that do an audit of the property and then announce the winners.

We also do project research. For this we have experts that visit the property and write a report. In that report, we talk e.g. about location, materials used and quality of the construction but also about yield potential for investors.

“Finally, we organise sales events where property seekers and developers meet and buy online. In 2013, we organised the first Malaysia Property Show that grew to one of the biggest sales events in Asia. This has declined in recent times, but we see a surge again around Johor Bahru where in April this year we have another Property Show.”


Which technology has PropertyGuru used for the AI engine?
We use Tensorflow, software that was originally developed by Google but is now open source. I am not an expert but I was told that this is the gold standard in AI. It is an open source platform that has been around since 2015. We have a data science team that works with this and develops algorithms. They also massage and improve the data quality. This is important because as you probably know, bad data means bad AI.


You just mentioned that PropertyGuru gets the majority of its revenue from advertising and agency commissions. Is there a strategy to offer adjacent products and services such as insurance?
“There are two business models for marketplaces; go broad and go deep. And example of the latter one would be that the transaction happens on the portal. At PropertyGuru we don’t see the need to either go broad or deep. We see ourselves as a marketplace that relies on data and technology and keep building our USP on that. We will add for instance immersive experiences proposing 360 video visits and continue to innovate based on what we learn from our AI component. Right now we are convinced that this is sufficient and sustainable.”


What is PropertyGuru’s international expansion strategy?
We are currently active under our own name in 4 markets: Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, and in Singapore which is our home market. We are market leader in Singapore but we’re not complacent. Other players want to win here because there is so much at stake due to the price levels, which in turn means that potential commissions are high. The economy is coming out of a recession as well, so there is room to grow again.

In Malaysia we caught up with the number 1 last year. In Indonesia we have 50% of the market and in Thailand more than 50%. Finally, we have invested in the biggest player in Vietnam.

What we do realise is that the needs of property seekers across these markets are more or less similar. This means that we don’t have to propose widely different services across markets so we can offer economies of scale. But we do see a difference in the way property agents work in these markets. This, means that across markets PropertyGuru needs to be there to provide different amounts and types of assistance.

This is what we mean by our aim to become the trusted advisor for real estate in Southeast Asia.

The PropertyGuru portal can be found here:

Editor: Matthieu Vermeulen


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