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The real estate portal wars are heating up again ahead of third-quarter earnings.
CoStar drew heat this month when it announced its portal, Homes.com, hit 100 million monthly unique visitors in September, according to Google Analytics. The portal reported 46.3 million monthly unique visitors in August, meaning Homes.com achieved a 117 percent change in just one month — enough for it to bypass Realtor.com and Redfin in the battle for the silver medal.
But with great power comes great responsibility, and after that banner month of traffic, Homes.com’s competitors raised issues with CoStar’s reporting methods, traffic monitoring tools and other strategies to boost performance, such as an aggressive paid traffic strategy. “It’s difficult to understand the consistency of their calculations,” the spokesperson for one rival, Realtor.com, told Inman.
The pushback, analysts and other experts told Inman, lays bare the challenges and intense competition real estate portals face today as each vie for dominance in an increasingly crowded — and complicated — field. Beside Homes.com and Realtor.com, Redfin, Trulia and the frontrunner, Zillow, have all reported traffic spikes in recent months as they race to stay ahead of market forces.
“I don’t think it’s winner takes all,” Stephens & Co. Managing Director and analyst John Campbell told Inman.
A research analyst who built and leads Stephens’ Real Estate Services practice, Campbell covers CoStar, Redfin and Zillow among a larger group of 17 publicly-traded companies.
“I think it’s probably a two-sites-take-all situation,” he said. “You see this across industries, like travel with Priceline and Expedia. They compete and everybody else is kind of like a distant third and fourth. We’ll probably see that play out over time.”
Inman attempted to untangle the web of data by diving into third-party traffic analytics and internal Google Analytics and Comscore metrics from each portal. Underscoring how complex measuring traffic can be, one portal provided 12 months of Comscore data while another provided four months of Google Analytics traffic. A third portal acknowledged the use of multiple providers but only shared half of its Google Analytics data, noting the latest numbers will be available during the third-quarter earnings rush.
Another portal didn’t respond at all.
What follows is a look at recent traffic from the leading portals and an account of their reporting methods as they prepare for third-quarter earnings, beginning Oct. 24, when CoStar Group will reveal updated traffic metrics for the quarter.
Monthly unique visitors
The monthly unique visitor metric only accounts for a user’s first visit to a site, according to software development and data aggregation company SimilarWeb. To understand the number of visits per user, companies can divide the number of visits by the number of unique visitors.
For the second quarter of 2023, Zillow Group reported 226 million average monthly unique visitors for its mobile apps and websites. Realtor.com and Redfin had 74 million and 52 million average monthly unique users for the quarter, respectively.
CoStar didn’t provide Homes.com’s average monthly unique visitors for Q2; however, the site’s monthly unique visitors reached 35.5 million in June, the last month of the quarter.
Spokespeople for all four portals confirmed the companies used Google Analytics to report their Q2 traffic statistics.
For August, Semrush placed Zillow at the top with 96 million monthly unique visitors, followed by Realtor.com (42.5 million), Redfin (30.6 million), Homes.com (19.8 million) and Trulia (15 million).
Despite its place toward the back of the pack, Semrush’s data shows Homes.com is the only one to experience month-over-month growth in monthly unique visitors (+56.20 percent). CoStar announced on Oct. 2 that it had reached 100 million unique monthly visitors in September, which equals a staggering 408 percent change from August when compared to Semrush data.
However, it’s that claim that has ruffled feathers among rival portals, with Realtor.com in particular pointing out that the Homes.com numbers don’t match up with “publicly available third-party statistics.”
“We have been doubted before,” a CoStar spokesperson countered when asked by Inman about the alleged discrepancy. “We were doubted before we grew LoopNet to become the leading commercial real estate portal in the U.S. We were doubted before we grew Apartments.com to become the leading multifamily portal in the U.S. This is not our first rodeo.”
Campbell, who specializes in analyzing real estate-related stocks, said earlier signs of growth suggest Homes.com is, in fact, making traffic inroads with each new month.
“[Homes.com’s] portal growth earlier this year was super impressive,” Campbell said. “Over the last couple of months, it’s been remarkable as well. They are clearly spending a lot of capital on growing out the paid traffic side of things. I think that’s natural. It’s to be expected in the early stages. That’s the first challenge — getting ramped to a stage they’re at right now.”
SimilarWeb offers a similar lineup, with Zillow leading in monthly unique visitors (98.43 million), followed by Realtor.com (50.64 million). However, SimilarWeb has Homes.com (36.25 million) slightly besting Redfin (35.38 million) for the third spot, with Trulia (20.96 million) bringing up the rear.
Inman also looked at Comscore’s monthly unique visitor data. Like Semrush, Comscore put Zillow at the head of the pack in August (109.53 million), followed by Realtor.com (56.55 million), Redfin (37.09 million), Homes.com (33.33 million) and Trulia (20.43 million).
However, there’s a stark difference between the statistics each platform provides, due to unique methodologies.
SimilarWeb’s monthly unique visitor estimates are higher than Semrush, with double-digit percentage changes for Trulia (+39.73 percent), Homes.com (+83.08 percent), Realtor.com (+19.15 percent), Redfin (+15.62 percent) and Zillow (+2.53 percent).
Comscore’s data most aligned with SimilarWeb, with the percentage change between metrics for Zillow (+11.28 percent), Realtor.com (+4.85 percent), Redfin (+4.61 percent), Homes.com (-8.03 percent) and Trulia (-2.49 percent) barely breaching ± 10 percent.
Meanwhile, the percentage change between Comscore and Semrush data went as high as 68.37 percent, with Comscore putting Homes.com’s August unique visitor count at 33.33 million versus Semrush’s 19.8 million estimate.
Inman was unable to properly compare Google Analytics data for each portal.
Realtor.com did not provide Google Analytics data, and Redfin did not respond to a request for it. Meanwhile, Zillow Group provided the total average monthly unique visitor data for Q1 (212 million) and Q2 (226 million) 2023 for all of its platforms, including Zillow, Trulia, Street Easy and HotPads. Lastly, Homes.com shared its Google Analytics data for June (35.5 million), July (39.2 million), August (46.3 million) and September (100.6 million).
With that said, how much do these statistics actually matter when attempting to understand the value of one portal over another?
Business intelligence site Investopedia said measuring unique average monthly visitors is useful in gauging “a business’s general health” and is “the basis for calculating other website metrics.” However, they warned battles over this metric create a “slippery playing field” as companies have differing methods for measuring and tracking traffic.
Portals’ organic and paid traffic sources
Another piece of the portal traffic pie addresses traffic sources, which are grouped into several categories:
- Direct: The traffic that comes from users who visit a website through a URL directly from their browser
- Referral: The traffic that comes from another source, such as a user clicking a link on one site that leads to another
- Organic and paid search: The traffic that comes from users who found a site through a search engine. Organic traffic counts when a user clicks a link that isn’t an ad and paid traffic counts when a user clicks a link that is a paid ad for a site.
- Organic and paid social: The same concept for organic and paid search, but instead focuses on social media sites like Facebook, Instagram and TikTok, etc.
- Email: The number of users who come to a site through an email marketing campaign
- Display ads: The number of users who come to a site by clicking a display ad on another website, app or platform
In August, Semrush said Zillow had the most users come from direct traffic (168.1 million), followed by Realtor.com (73.8 million), Redfin (44.7 million), Homes.com (25.1 million) and Trulia (20.4 million).
Zillow and Realtor.com also led the pack in users coming from referral traffic (5.4 million vs 2.7 million), organic search traffic (106.6 million vs 48.4 million) and organic social traffic (3.5 million vs 1.4 million).
Zillow and Redfin were the leaders in attracting users from email traffic (42.5 million vs 20.5 million), and Zillow and Homes.com were neck-and-neck in paid search traffic (1.1 million).
Homes.com took the lead in earning users from paid social traffic (135.9 thousand), with its nearest competitor being Realtor.com (35.6 thousand). The portal rivals were also head-to-head in the number of users from display ad traffic, with Realtor.com gaining 696.1 thousand from the medium and Homes.com gaining 273 thousand.
Once again, SimilarWeb created the same lineup as Semrush, but the numbers were significantly different.
SimilarWeb said Zillow had the most users come from direct traffic (143.6 million), followed by Realtor.com (46.6 million), Redfin (45.18 million), Homes.com (10.56 million) and Trulia (13.88 million).
Zillow and Realtor.com also led the pack in users coming from referral traffic (4.982 million vs 2.142 million) and organic search traffic (154.6 million vs 82.72 million). Zillow and Redfin were the leaders in attracting users from email traffic (2.045 million vs 2.051 million), and Zillow and Homes.com were neck-and-neck in paid search traffic (30.47 million vs 27.25 million).
SimilarWeb also dubbed Homes.com and Realtor.com as the leaders in display ad traffic (2.267 million vs 124.5 thousand). SimilarWeb does not separate paid social traffic from organic social traffic; however, Zillow (9.884 million) and Realtor.com (4.886 million) led the social categories.
While paying for traffic can, at times, be frowned upon — thanks, Meta — marketing specialists agree that a well-rounded marketing strategy includes paid and organic methodologies, which have their place in bolstering visibility and building trust.
“Both paid traffic and organic traffic can be effective ways to drive traffic to your website,” online marketing expert Michael Larkin explained in a blog post. “Paid traffic offers a high degree of control and flexibility, while organic traffic can be more sustainable and effective at building trust and credibility with your audience.”
Who’s winning? Who’s losing?
While some say Zillow is — and will remain — the leading portal in the U.S., Campbell has a more tempered outlook, saying CoStar’s Homes.com has the potential to match Zillow’s dominance.
However, he said it depends on several factors —their ability to prove consumer “stickiness” through other traffic metrics like bounce rates, maintain growth after they slow their paid traffic spend, and draw listing agents from Zillow through Homes Pro, which boasts a “your listing, your lead” promise.
“The way these [buyer-broker commission] industry lawsuits are moving, it’s playing directly into CoStar’s strategy, which was forward-thinking and set up with the belief that some of these things would play out as they are now,” he said. “These industry lawsuits are essentially attacking the buyer agent commissions, which is the lion’s share of Zillow’s revenue. That left people thinking Zillow is in big trouble.”
“But there’s nothing that CoStar Group is doing that Zillow can’t do itself,” he added. “You’re already seeing them open up some avenues that could look a lot more like CoStar Group’s model [with Homes Pro]. Look at [ShowingTime+] Listing Showcase. Then they have brand notoriety and embeddedness [with] consumers … They’ve got an equal shot.”
As for the rest of the field, Campbell said Realtor.com must create a stronger narrative among investors and Redfin must untangle their financial woes to fully reap the benefits of their RentPath acquisition.
“People are thinking that this is largely a race between CoStar Group and Zillow, and everybody else is just going to be left behind,” he said.
Campbell said the next chapter of the portal wars will unfold over the next year, with Zillow, Homes.com, Realtor.com, and Redfin’s ability to pivot their products toward listing agents being the greatest factor in their future success.
“If you can get listing agents to start spending for a product they never really spent on in the US, that could be a part of the story for next year for sure,” he said.