Many lenders are no longer getting mortgage borrower leads from the Google Comparison Ads platform, as the search engine giant has suspended its rate search and lead generation tool in all but four states and the District of Columbia.
But the closure, which happened on Nov. 21, is only temporary, sources say, as the search engine giant prepares a reboot of the service — which is a component of the Google Advisor platform that offers search tools for consumer banking and credit products including credit cards, certificates of deposit and checking and savings accounts.
Mortgage rate searches are still available to borrowers in Alabama, Alaska, California, Pennsylvania and Washington D.C. But when searching for loans in other states, the website says, "The Google Advisor mortgage product is not available at this time."
Officials at Google did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
"They have an interest in enhancing the approach that they take and they felt the best way to do that was to pull back on that broad footprint and focus in on a subset of what they had been doing and really get their entire process working as efficiently and effectively as possible, and then to rather rapidly expand back to the full footprint," said Bruce Backer, the president of LoanSifter, a Appleton, Wis.-based product and pricing engine vendor and one of the latest technology providers to integrate with the Google platform.
"It was explained to me as being a temporary transition to allow them to better focus in on a smaller market and then once they've proven out the enhancements that they want to make, they want to thoughtfully broaden it back to the stage where it is national again," Backer continued.
"They were optimistic and wanted to get back to the full footprint ASAP, but I sensed that it was going to be 2012, earlier rather than later," he added.
Backer said he didn't know the nature of the planned enhancements, but said he doesn't anticipate making any changes to the integration his company's technology has with Google.
One possible change could be to the way Google ranks lenders in the rate tables. Under the existing platform, lenders who pay to advertise their rates are ranked by their quotes' annual percentage rate.
But a Google promotional video describes plans to overhaul the ranking system to reward "high-quality" lenders.
"In the future, we will build out something called a Google ranking, in which we reward high-quality lenders by showing their offers higher on the page," Maren Bean, an account manager for Google's comparison ads product, says in the video. "We're still working on the details of how we'll build and measure this system, but we'll be looking at things like accuracy of rates and closing costs, turnaround time to following up on leads and overall customer satisfaction."
The video was published on YouTube in June 2010, but is "unlisted," meaning it is only accessible to users that directly access the video's URL.
The platform's shutdown came without advance notice to Google's lender clients, who were notified by phone of the news — atypical for Google, which traditionally relies on email communication with its clients.
Keith Luedeman, CEO of GoodMortgage.com, estimates his company spends as much as $2,000 per month on Google rate advertising and said leads generated on the platform account for 30 to 40 loans per month, or about 10% of the Charlotte, N.C.-based originator's monthly loan volume. Now, only six of the 262 loans in the company's active pipeline were initiated with a Google lead.
"As we were just about to put our foot on the gas and spend a lot more time focusing on it, that was about the time they pulled back," he said.
Since the shutdown, Luedeman said his company is spending more on lead generation with the other sites GoodMortgage uses, like the Zillow Mortgage Marketplace, as well as starting to advertise with other rate table search websites, including QuinStreet, Bankrate, Informa and ICanBuy.
"It was such a little part of our overall company volume, it was easy enough to replace that with Zillow," he said. "It was an annoyance more than a big impact."
"But if you're one of these companies doing 50% to 60% of their volume on Google, those are the guys who are saying, 'what the heck is going on?'" he added. "It's a major business impact to those guys who came into work one day and saw their number of leads get cut in half."
Erin Lantz, director of the Zillow Mortgage Marketplace, said the Seattle-based real estate listing and mortgage rate website is experiencing an increase in lender clients, but wouldn't attribute it all to Google's shutdown — but also wouldn't rule it out.
"I'm not surprised you're hearing things like that," Lantz said. "We have a platform that works for a lot of different lenders that's compatible with the Google platform, so it's easy for lenders to make that transition if they want to."
Lantz described the climate as "business as usual," at Zillow and said the company's plans to expand its mortgage platform haven't changed. This year, Zillow launched a mobile application for its rate search tool, as well as incorporated it into Zillow's real estate listing app. In addition, the company now publishes its rates on two AOL-owned websites.
There has been speculation that Google was under regulator scrutiny and lacked sufficient licensing to operate the mortgage platform, causing the abrupt shutdown—a rumor fueled by an anonymously written post on a lead generation blog speculating that Google would need to obtain licenses in each state that it operates in before returning to a nationwide footprint.
Not so, said Backer. "I'm not aware of any licensing they would have to go through," he said. "Licensing can cover anything, but I am not familiar with any kind of regulatory or intellectual property issue that they're running into."
Luedeman said he's heard the rumor, but questioned its accuracy. "Nobody at Google has said it's a licensing issue," he said. "That's just a rumor I've heard in the industry, but that doesn't make sense to me because they're not taking a mortgage application."
Luedeman added that there's no clear reason for why Google kept the platform operating in the states it did.
"California is not one that I would consider as really lax. They've got pretty firm engagement rules in California. If they were going with the states that were most lax, that list doesn't match the list of states that are the most lax in terms of regulation," he said.
For its part, Zillow confirmed that it does not have, nor does it need, any licensing to run its rate search platform, because it is "neither a lender nor does it participate in any activities that would require a license."
When, and if, Google reboots the platform, Luedeman anticipates his company will resume advertising rates, but it won't be an automatic decision.
"There are plenty of outlets out there, but none of them with a name as well known as Google," he said. "We'll just have to make sure that we need the additional loan volume and additional leads and if so, then we'll turn it back on."