LAS VEGAS — Representatives for Google and Zillow, during a National Association of Realtors technology session Wednesday, assured real estate professionals that they are allies, not enemies.
“A valued, trusted consultant is absolutely fundamental to the process. I would not do a transaction myself without an adviser, and I don’t know many people who would,” said Rich Barton, Zillow founder.
Barton, who earlier founded online travel site Expedia, said that real estate transactions are more complex than booking a trip, and “for the vast majority of travel transactions they are total commodities,” with no consultation required.
The Internet isn’t going to change that for the real estate industry, Barton said. “No data supports this fear, this myth that the Internet is going to dramatically increase (for-sale-by-owner sales) vs. agent interactions,” he said.
Zillow offers automated home-value estimates, other property information, a question-and-answer forum, and real estate search and marketing tools, and the company does have its share of critics who charge that the value estimates are inaccurate and can confuse consumers about the true value of their homes.
But Barton deflected that criticism. He said the company’s estimates, called Zestimates, can serve as a gateway to productive conversations about home value and present an opportunity for real estate professionals.
“I think what Realtors should see when they see Zillow is opportunity. It’s a real topic of conversation — that gives you a real open door.”
Some industry participants have also suggested that posting property listings on third-party online sites is like giving away the secret sauce to their business, though Barton said participating at such sites is a way to reach more consumers, as the site is drawing millions of users each month.
“(Consumers) are already coming to Zillow and looking at that house, so why not get your free marketing message against that house however you can. It’s not the time in the industry to be picky and choosy about how you get customers,” he said.
Before Zillow’s launch, the company was the subject of much speculation in the real estate industry, with some industry participants expressing worry that the new company would threaten their business and serve to disintermediate real estate agents and brokers from the transaction process.
“Anything new that has come along, that’s not understood — the first reaction by many is to be fearful,” Barton said, adding that he has been encouraged by comments from real estate professionals who are using the site.
Google’s Justin McCarthy, strategic partner development manager for real estate, also noted that the industry is sometimes skeptical about new technologies, though he said, “It’s amazing how quickly things change and how quickly we lose site of the past.”
The discussions that the company is engaging in now with real estate industry participants have moved well beyond those early fears that conjured up talk of the “lion on the hill” — an analogy to an infamous speech at a 1993 National Association of Realtors conference that warned of new threats to industry participants.
He said that Google is now accepting property listings data feeds from about a dozen MLSs “and we’d like to work with about 880 if we could.”
Google, through its Google Base classified site, accepts property listings submissions from sellers, agents, brokers and MLSs. Likewise, Zillow is also accepting for-sale property information from sellers, neighbors, agents, brokers and MLSs.
McCarthy said that Google has no plans to get into the real estate brokerage business. And he said that online some online sites, Google does not try to keep real estate searchers captive on its site and should not be considered a real estate destination site.
“We’ve been really careful about not branding anything ‘Google Real Estate,'” he said.
Both Barton and McCarthy said that they do expect online advertising to grow based on where consumers are going for information.
Barton said he expects Zillow to offer some super-targeted advertising opportunities as the site develops, noting a recent ad contract through which a lawnmower company could target its ads to viewers of properties with large lots that would presumably have bigger lawns.
Real estate professionals should spend ad dollars at places where they can track the success of the campaign, and not to commit to long-term commitments with unknown payoffs, McCarthy said.
And Barton said he imagines a day when real estate professionals can stop spending money on items such as direct-mail postcards because they will be replaced by electronic, “virtual postcards.” “We’re getting there,” he said.