Zillow, armed with another $30 million in financing this week, once again has many in the real estate industry wondering where this company is going.
Zillow has said time and again that it has no desire to get into real estate transactions, instead favoring a media model that relies on advertising from real estate brokers and agents and also other home-related industries such as home improvement, telecommunications and insurance, as examples.
The venture-backed company is slowly building what many others have tried at and failed — a portal of aggregated real estate information for those looking to buy or sell real estate and also those who just want to learn more about the process, the market and the value of their own homes.
So far, Zillow’s approach has been wildly different than any predecessor, to the point where company executives say they feel they are pioneering a whole new category.
In five years, Zillow could look like the gates to everything real estate online. Every house would have a page on Zillow. Homeowners researching home values or potential remodeling projects would go there to find information. Home sellers looking for comps would go there to gauge their markets. Home buyers would go to see listings, learn about the transaction process and potentially to find an agent.
In a perfect world, advertisers would flock there to find consumers.
Whether Zillow succeeds will depend on a number of things, including the biggest wildcard right now: the market.
Zillow co-founder Rich Barton has pointed out the argument that buyers want to research more in a slow market and that could mean more interest in Zillow’s site. Barton also responded to a recent blog post at Future of Real Estate Marketing that questioned the future of ad models in today’s shaky real estate market:
“When business gets tight for advertisers, they tend to look hard at their ad spending and retreat back to spending that is more accountable. This hugely favors Internet advertising spending over harder-to-measure offline expenditures. I believe an overall economic downturn, if it comes, will lead to a more rapid shift of offline ad expenditures to online,” he wrote.
The pool of agents and brokers is already shrinking from the housing slowdown, but Zillow also reminds us that it is eyeing all aspects of the industry for potential advertisers — home improvement and mortgage brokers are two examples.
Let’s revisit what Zillow has so far:
Money: With this week’s announcement, Zillow’s total funding to date is now $87 million.
Solid team: Zillow founders Barton and Lloyd Frink built Expedia, which changed the travel industry and proved itself worth billions of dollars to its ultimate buyer. The latest round of funding will be used to grow its advertising sales team.
Traffic: At number seven on the latest Hitwise report of online real estate traffic, Zillow has lots of eyeballs. Whether those eyeballs are consumers looking to take action with the site’s advertisers is unknown. Zillow’s advertising products are still new and since the company is private it isn’t sharing information about revenues.
Listings: With about 300,000 listings, Zillow is still short in the grand scheme of listings aggregation. But the company recently said it will be enabling bulk data feeds for brokers who want to send all their listings for free exposure on Zillow. The company’s listings arsenal could change quickly after this move.
Free data: Zillow has information and property-value estimates on 70 million homes. Consumers can log on and glimpse their home’s value without having to give up any personal information or e-mail addresses.
Community: Zillow has empowered consumers with the ability to update their home’s information, and ask and answer questions that come up within the site. Industry salespeople can also jump in and communicate with others.
Back to the question: Where is Zillow going? It’s clear the company is approaching uncharted territory with its plans to pioneer a new category. The company no doubt has a long way to go, and based on its history so far, we can expect to see things added only one piece at a time.
As for its business model, company officials are sticking with the advertising focus, though many industry observers are critical of that approach and suspect other plans may reveal themselves in due time.