Technology

Can realtor.com catch real estate leader Zillow?

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At Inman Connect in January, Rupert Murdoch wryly quipped, “What the hell does Zillow mean?”

A sassy and tweetable quote, yes — but the savvy media tycoon is not naive about the formidable lead Zillow holds over realtor.com.

Can he catch the online Seattle real estate leader, which dwarfs realtor.com in consumer traffic, has stronger brand awareness and books more revenue? One company is the darling of the space and the other is an underdog that, until recently, didn’t show the grit to fight back.

News Corp. moved quickly to put roadblocks in the way of Zillow, like shutting off the lights on the Zillow/ListHub deal and ratcheting up the legal surge on former realtor.com executive Errol Samuelson.

But these moves are akin to the highway patrol placing thumbtacks on the road when chasing the “Fast and Furious” crew.

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Nothing was more important than putting a new management team in at realtor.com, which for too long was demoralized in its California headquarters.

Ryan O'Hara

Ryan O’Hara

The first hire was the smart and affable Ryan O’Hara, who has been running the show for six months.

His resume is pedigree: Stanford, Harvard, YPO this and YPO that; sports media entertainment big shot; giant partnership sales guy; mega-distribution deal-maker; technology and product surgeon; and company turnaround man who overhauled the musty TV Guide. He has a long association with News Corp. and fits the Murdoch mold of self-deprecating humorous extrovert who’s tough as brass and a fearless and loyal warrior eager to make billions.

His bio matches the gang at Zillow, many of whom were educated on the bright side of the Charles River in Boston.

O’Hara is speaking at Inman Connect on Thursday, Aug. 6, at 9:20 a.m. on How the Underdog Plans to Win

O’Hara dipped into a sticky wicky. The previous realtor.com management team behaved a little like trust-fund babies running an unimportant part of the family business. Dabble a little here, dabble a little there, never make waves and keep the low-voltage lights on. Nice guys, but not capable of challenging the Zuggernaut. And its overprotective mother (NAR) was happy playing the enabling parent.

Now, mommy is gone and many realtor.com folks have exited as well. With the vesting and resting over, we hear that the new team works harder, acts smarter and is not timid about chasing Zillow.

One smitten insider pointing with one hand at an abandoned 1960s pale blue VW bug and the other towards a gleaming silver Tesla said Move “went from that to that, overnight.”

Not sure about that, but people have stopped gossiping about the wilting realtor.com brand, and insiders say the enterprise is recharged. The backdrop of a Zillow stock plunge, its departing CFO and woes with the Trulia merger would seem to create even more short-term opportunity.

Importantly, some agents say lead quality is improving at realtor.com. (See the Facebook comments at the end of this story.)

The prize is big. Zillow has a $4.5 billion valuation on a good day. News Corp. purchased Move for $1 billion, when it was ranked third in consumer traffic with only 7.8 percent share behind Zillow and Trulia with a combined share of 30 percent.

Now it is second at 10 percent, ahead of Trulia, which was acquired for $3.5 billion. Shaky math might tell you that Move has already doubled or tripled its valuation if it were to spin the company off.

But Move must make many more big plays to stand tall with Zillow, which still talks, acts and plays like LeBron James.

Deals with Airbnb, The Wall Street Journal and Mansion are eye-catching, but not game changers. Their new ad campaigns are very clever, but Zillow is outspending them. O’Hara is expected to announce more executive hires — a marketing rock star will go a long way.

One piece of O’Hara’s strategy is gunning for the agent software business that could help customers increase their return on investment. This is a hole left by Spencer Rascoff’s disdain for the industry software business.

It’s not a very well-kept secret that Zillow is trying to unload Market Leader, the software suite inherited in its acquisition of Trulia.

Trulia acquired Market Leader for $355 million in 2013, but the sunk cost for the rich acquisition shouldn’t be on the Zillow books (I think). The price could be right.

Move is actively marketing its Top Producer product to Market Leader customers who may be shopping for an alternative. They have been running ads pointing to Zillow’s lack of love for Market leader.

One way realtor.com might position itself against Zillow is helping consumers and Realtors complete the last mile from lead to home closing — an Uber-like experience. But Move must make major product upgrades to TP; the product suffers from meager investment over the years.

In the end, Move may look more like LinkedIn, as Rascoff tries to become more like his coveted role model, Facebook. LinkedIn’s market cap is $28 billion and Facebook’s is $224 billion.

Onward!

Feedback on realtor.com from our post on the Inman Coast-to-Coast Facebook page:

russell-stucki

lisa-johnson-sevajian

jason-peck

barry-jenkins

greg-fox

nick-solis
andrea-geller