Technology

Realtor.com climbs in rankings, Trulia’s new look, Homes.com picking up steam

Future MBAs skeptical of portals' prospects

Zillow Group has given Trulia’s home page a subtle makeover, which could foreshadow other changes that would help differentiate the nation’s most popular real estate search portals now that they’re under the same roof.

Before it was acquired by Zillow, Trulia’s home page featured an image of a couple holding hands, strolling up a walkway to the home of their dreams.

Homepage-Trulia

The new version of Trulia’s home page cycles through three images of couples inside homes that look a little like apartments or condos in urban centers.

Is Zillow Group preparing Trulia for a focus on first-time buyers and renters?

At the very least the new home page suggests that Zillow Group, by featuring couples more prominently, will continue gearing Trulia to the audience its $45 million consumer marketing campaign targeted last year: women. (When it launched its campaign last year, Trulia said its research showed women responded more to depictions of couples.)

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Realtor.com leapfrogs Trulia

While Trulia got a makeover, realtor.com replaced trulia.com as the second most popular real estate website in the land for the first time in more than two years in February.

Zillow’s flagship site is still king, but realtor.com, which lost the top spot in the rankings to Zillow in 2012 and then fell behind Trulia the same year, is climbing, according to the latest stats from Experian Marketing Services.

(It’s important to note that this Experian data does not reflect mobile traffic, which now accounts for a majority of traffic to the real estate portals.)

Portal Share of desktop real estate Web market in February
zillow.com 20.64%
realtor.com 8.67%
trulia.com 8.61%

Source: Experian Marketing Services

Zillow alone clearly still dwarfs realtor.com in terms of traffic. With Trulia’s traffic added in, Zillow Group has an even larger lead: 29.25 percent to 8.67 percent.

Realtor.com’s new owner, News Corp., has yet to put its full marketing muscle behind its new portal, so we could see that large gap begin to get smaller.

Given News Corp.’s heavy presence in New York City with publications like The Wall Street Journal, it’s likely it had a hand in realtor.com’s move to bolster its presence in New York City this week.

Competitor lurks in the ranks

Realtor.com wasn’t the only large portal to jump above a more popular site in February.

After trailing Yahoo Homes for more than two years, Homes.com replaced it as the fourth most popular real estate site in February with a market share of 3.02 percent, according to Experian.

Homes.com clearly has its eye on competing with the portals. A day after Zillow’s acquisition of Trulia closed, it unveiled a new ad product that, like Zillow and Trulia, allows up to three buyer’s agents to advertise on its listings.

Future tech talent 

If there’s any doubt that young developers are interested in entering real estate tech, the overwhelming volume of applicants to Trulia’s summer engineering internship program should wipe it away.

In the red

The portal game is still a money-losing proposition, according to regulatory filings from Zillow, Trulia and Move.

Revenue, 2014 Net loss
Zillow $325.9 million $43.6 million
Trulia $251.9 million $75.8 million
Move $183.2 million* $20.1 million*

Sources: U.S. Securities and Exchange filings by Zillow, Trulia and Move. *Through the first nine months of 2014, before News Corp. closed its acquisition of Move.

Zillow and Trulia attributed a big chunk of their net losses to costs associated with their lengthy merger — $21.5 million and $18.1 million, respectively.

The lack of profits doesn’t prevent analysts from taking a bullish view of the space, however.

JMP Securities, for example, gave Zillow Group an “outperform” rating this week after meeting with its investor relations chief, Raymond Jones.

The analysts saw “minimal” disruption for Zillow when it and listing syndication platform ListHub part ways on April 7.

The next generation’s take on online real estate

For some more skeptical views of the long-term viability of third-party real estate search portals like Zillow, Trulia and realtor.com, check out what the next generation of MBA students thinks of Zillow’s acquisition of Trulia.

In a contest sponsored by Muddy Waters Research — a “due diligence” investment and research firm that makes its money identifying companies that may be overvalued so that investors can bet against them by short-selling their shares — 24 teams from business schools around the nation were asked to take a deep dive into the deal.

The contest was judged by Muddy Waters founding partner Carson Block, and the winning entries “were all bearish” on Zillow and Trulia, Block noted.

Block summarized other “key issues” brought up by bearish contest entries:

  • Zillow and Trulia “are dependent on real estate agents and brokers for their content, and there are reasons to question the strength of the relationship between them.” (Written before news broke that Zillow won’t be getting listings from Move subsidiary ListHub after April 7, and that ListHub’s feed to Trulia is also in doubt.)
  • Large companies like Realogy get “significant discounts on advertising because they’re vital for content” — a situation that may be in flux. (See Inman story, “Brokers facing tough choices when portals raise prices for ‘featured’ listings.”)
  • News Corp.’s acquisition of realtor.com operator Move “could present a significant competitive threat, particularly because Move historically has worked closely with the National Association of Realtors.”
  • Zillow and Truila management “have been vague about how they expect to achieve the synergies and cost reductions” (an observation made before Trulia and Zillow announced several hundred layoffs on the day the acquisition closed).

None of those arguments would be news to Inman readers. But the two dozen research papers — available on The Economists’ website, along with video presentations by the teams — make for interesting reading.

The winning paper, by students at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, questioned the emphasis placed on the number of users as a “key performance indicator,” when “revenues for Zillow and Trulia depend upon attracting Realtors and brokers.”

“While the sites must attract enough viewers to entice Realtors to pay for listings, there is a greater emphasis on attracting viewers than advertisers,” the paper concludes. “Zillow CEO Spencer Rascoff addresses this disconnect, claiming that ‘the advertising dollars will follow the audience.’ However, there is much reason to doubt his assertion.”

A team of MBA candidates at the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business was even more skeptical of the deal — not because of its structure or lack of synergies, “but due to the defunct business model on which both firms are built: real estate listing without operating a brokerage.”

“Such a business model has kept Zillow and Trulia from actually upending the inefficient American real estate market and causes the firms to be far too reliant on large brokers to gain increased pricing power in the event of a merger,” the UST Opus team concluded. “Further, because Zillow and Trulia have failed to change the way American homes are bought and sold, the leads generated by the two sites are subpar, even when compared to brokers’ sites.”

Email Paul Hagey.