The myth of the ‘Zillow-killer’

Giant destination sites will always be middlemen

Last week, I came across an article on Inman touting the launch of a new listing portal that some have enthusiastically dubbed a “Zillow-killer.”

It seems like every few months, news outlets are covering another macro-level destination site that’s set to transform real estate search. While I welcome disruption in our industry, I can’t help but think that these folks are fundamentally misinterpreting the kind of innovation real estate professionals need, as well as the direction the business is headed.

Giant image via Shutterstock.
Giant image via Shutterstock.

Perhaps it’s natural that real estate professionals are looking for someone to challenge Zillow. After all, Zillow wants to own real estate search on the Web, and it’s well on its way to that goal: The site now accounts for over 17 percent of all real estate-related traffic, and powers the search results of several other leading sites, including Yahoo! Homes, HotPads and, most recently, MSN Real Estate.

At the same time, Zillow has also been criticized for a number of its practices, including consistently displaying inaccurate property data and pushing lead-buying platforms that both agents and consumers find disingenuous.

Nevertheless, replacing Zillow with a different real estate mega-portal is akin to overthrowing one dictator and installing another in his place. Whether it’s a startup, or Trulia, or any other company, giant destination sites will always be middlemen.

Search innovations, gamified user experiences, new agent marketing schemes — none of these change the fact that destination sites are forcing themselves between real estate consumers and agents and holding both sides hostage with their massive market share.

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Of course, destination sites paint predatory agents as the problem, suggesting that it’s their job to “insulate” their users until they’re ready for a transaction. I, for one, am tired of hearing that homebuyers and sellers need any kind of protection from real estate professionals.

Sure, big real estate portals make finding a home easier. But they also make finding the right agent more difficult."

Year after year, consumers have reaffirmed the value of working closely with agents and brokers. In fact, the share of homebuyers who purchased their home through an agent or broker has actually increased by almost 20 percent since 2001.

Perhaps more important, the vast majority of consumers are satisfied with their agents. In 2013, two-thirds of buyers interviewed only one agent, and 88 percent said they’d use their agent again or recommend them to others.

Clearly, consumers don’t want to be insulated from agents. Yet despite this, destination sites insist on hijacking the process and keeping them at arm’s length. In turn, agents have no choice but to buy into advertising and lead generation programs that favor the portal, not the professional.

Perhaps that’s why consumers aren’t especially loyal to any specific destination site. Sure, big real estate portals make finding a home easier. But they also make finding the right agent more difficult.

Instead of trying to get in the middle of every real estate transaction, real estate technology providers should be acting as partners, empowering agents so that they can connect with consumers on their own terms. The future of real estate technology isn’t about building a dictatorship on one real estate search portal and disenfranchising everyone else.

Popular opinion aside, I’d guess even the major destination sites wouldn’t want that. Our industry is too diverse, too locally driven for that approach.

Instead, it should be about democratizing the tools and strategies that destination sites have piloted, about creating powerful, flexible platforms that agents and brokers can adapt and apply to suit the needs and wants of their clients.

Agents and brokers are the true movers and shakers of the real estate industry. They’re involved in their communities, they know their markets, and more than ever, they’re the people consumers depend on to find the right home.

Real estate has always been and will always be a local business.

It’s time technology providers see it that way, too.

Matt Barba is the co-founder and CEO of Placester, a Boston-based real estate technology company that helps real estate professionals, developers, and their partners create real estate websites.


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