Technology

Zillow just gave consumers something more than a cow pie

Agent matching is the new frontier in real estate search

Realtor.com couldn’t do it. Redfin couldn’t do it. Even the Houston Association of Realtors tried and failed.

Now Zillow’s done what the industry establishment couldn’t: It’s helping consumers find agents in their area who have the greatest number of sales, the most listings or the best reviews.

Zillow’s revamp of its “Agent Finder” tool represents a new frontier in real estate search, and it’s a bold move, especially considering the timing.

Zillow Group has been scrambling to secure direct listing feeds from brokers and multiple listing services before April 7, when a subsidiary of realtor.com operator Move Inc., ListHub, is scheduled to cut off the flow of listing data to Trulia and Zillow.

Past attempts to help consumers find a Realtor by making agent performance data searchable were met with hostility by many agents — and ultimately shut down.

Some agents who have objected to past attempts at agent matching have complained that the statistics they rely on are not always accurate, or they are incomplete. That’s a legitimate concern, which Zillow is attempting to address by inviting agents to help it get the facts straight. Zillow began automatically adding transaction histories to agent profile pages last fall, but the company encourages agents to report sales that fall through the cracks themselves.

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Another objection that some in the industry have voiced about agent-matching tools is that if consumers are able to search for an agent by the number of homes they’ve sold or listings they represent, that could put new agents at a disadvantage. Although Zillow doesn’t seem to have entirely solved that problem, it does allow for more nuanced searches than some previous attempts at agent matching.

When consumers use Zillow to search for an agent in their area, by default, the site will sort the results based on who is “most active.” As the website puts it, “Agents are ordered using an algorithm that weighs different types of activity in the region, including reviews, sales in the last 12 months, and listings.”

Consumers can also sort search results by “most recent sales,” “most reviews” and “most listings.”

But it’s also possible to further fine-tune agent search results using additional advanced search criteria to find agents who speak your language, specialize in certain types of sales (foreclosures or short sales) or property types (houses, condos, townhouses, manufactured homes or land).

So if you’re looking for a Spanish-speaking agent who specializes in getting condo short sales approved, you just might be able to find that needle in the agent haystack.

It’s easy to imagine that there was some internal debate within Zillow Group between those responsible for convincing brokers and MLSs to provide listings, and those who have been working on revamping the Agent Finder tool.

If you’re trying to make nice with brokers and MLSs, this might not seem like the best time to walk into the agent matching minefield.

But it’s not a stretch to imagine that many agents with strong track records will welcome agent-matching tools on Zillow and other sites (FindTheHome recently rolled out similar, but more limited, agent-matching capabilities).

As Jay Thompson, Zillow’s director of industry outreach, pointed out on today’s Inman story about the launch of Agent Finder, any real estate professional can be included.

Zillow “doesn’t charge for inclusion or give preferential treatment to those that pay for advertising,” Thompson said.

Whether or not Zillow has actually accomplished it at this point, helping buyers and sellers find the right real estate agent would be one of the most consumer-friendly developments in online real estate in years.

While consumers have a staggering amount of information at their fingertips about listings, neighborhoods and housing markets, many are clueless about how to go about finding an agent.

As Inman Publisher Brad Inman pointed out in a column last spring (“Give the consumer more than a cow pie, then Zillow and Trulia can turn on a referral fee“):

“Zillow and Trulia do not discriminate between good and bad agents when they sell ad units. They have figured out the front-end consumer experience of home search, but everything can break down when the buyer and seller are kicked around like a soccer ball from vendor to vendor and get stuck with a low-performing or incompetent agent. That is why consumers end the marathon with a bitter taste about the industry. Regrettably, good agents must carry around this crummy industry baggage.”

After years of talk about the need to “raise the bar” in the real estate industry by weeding out unqualified agents, Zillow may have just started the ball rolling in that direction.

If that leads to a world where there are fewer agents competing for the same amount of business, agents might find themselves spending less time and money chasing new clients, and more time helping the ones that come to them.

That wouldn’t necessarily be good for Zillow, Trulia and realtor.com, but it would be good for agents and their clients.

Email Matt Carter.