The idea of casual browsing as an issue for property portals is not a new one. For as long as there have been pretty pictures of houses for sale in agency shop windows there have been casual admirers drawn to the window without any intention of purchasing a house.
Idly gazing at houses seems to be less problematic than other forms of window shopping, for one thing, the financial risks associated with Amazon or eBay browsing are negated because, as one Zillow-addicted blogger puts it: “You can't put a house in your online cart and expect free shipping”.
Somehow the materialism associated with coveting a property is judged more favourably than yearning for a shiny new car or watch. Far from being frowned upon, a recent article in the New York Times even suggested that going through listings on property portals could even be an antidote to the ‘doomscrolling’ through social media that those of us who find ourselves housebound have been doing in increasing numbers recently.
Traffic to Zillow’s website and mobile apps reached a record 218 million average monthly unique users which represented a 12% year on year increase. The US giant was not the only one, as throughout 2020 portals from Cambodia to Sweden were happily reporting record visitor numbers.
There has been plenty written about how the socio-economic changes that have accompanied the global COVID-19 pandemic seem to have heightened the appetite for escapism and have lead to more home-hunters viewing more spacious and rural homes across property portals. Whereas prior to 2020, portals’ analytics dashboards were likely to indicate that these users were part of a demographic with the means to actually buy a home, since the pandemic there has been an increasing number of ambitious but penniless millennials ‘manifesting’ their dream lives on the pages of property portals.
There may be some important takeaways from how some property portals deal with being the businesses on whose domains an increasing number of people spend their free time.
Traffic is obviously the metric with the big headline uptick here, and although it is an ever-contentious debate between portals, their clients and their shareholders as to what extent web traffic converts into quality leads, we can say that there is at least some sort of correlated relationship between the two metrics meaning that on some level leading property portals must have been seeing:
Even if we suppose for a minute that all of the extra pageviews don’t result in any billable step-up in lead volumes sent to agents or pats on the back from shareholders, there is rarely a case on the internet in which increased traffic does not lead to increased revenue.
If portals ever do decide to take the plunge and go further down the path of third party advertising to bolster revenues, then each user’s intent to actually purchase a house may not be such an important factor.
Although portals everywhere reported growing traffic in 2020, it seems obvious that the big winners would be the market-leaders with their recognizable brands and household names.
Indeed, perhaps more pertinent than any measurable boost to traffic, leads or revenue however may be the far less tangible effect on brand awareness for these property portals. Way back in 2017 Zoopla was claiming 88% brand awareness and Righmove’s 2019 full-year report to shareholders makes no bones about the fact that “80% of the visits to Rightmove come from consumers typing the brand directly into their web browser”.
Every time there is a big step up in the amount and quality of content to show users whether it be the mortgage calculators, floor plans and interactive maps of a few years ago or the latest incarnation of immersive 3d tours which are on their way to ubiquitousness, each user spends just a little more time on property portals consuming their content and having the portal’s brand slowly percolate into their subconscious.
As property portals’ websites see increased traffic and their mobile apps become part of our daily rounds, their brands become ever more entrenched in our consciousness forming a moat to new challengers and a shield against disgruntled customers. A good example of this is British market-leader and one of the country’s favourite search terms over the last few months. Despite the most turbulent (and interesting) US election for a century, ‘Rightmove’ was still put into Google as much as ‘Donald Trump’ over the past 3 months, and was even searched for around half as much as the country’s most Googled term of 2020 ‘Coronavirus’.
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How far are leaders in mature markets like The USA and The UK off fulfilling their marketing departments’ dreams and becoming verbs like Airbnb, and how might user intention bleeding from transactional and informational into recreational accelerate this?
Conventional wisdom would have it that anything that makes the leading portal brands in a market stronger must be a bad thing for the other middlemen in the property value chain, the agents.
To use The UK as an example again, the uproar at Rightmove’s prices that spawned the SayNoToRightmove campaign came during a tough time for British estate agents, and seems to have petered out now that property sales are abundant and agents are perhaps too busy to worry about portal prices.
When Zoopla urged agents to remain open over Christmas to cash in on all the increased demand, the company may not have expressly been thinking along these lines, but it would be naive to believe that executives at top property portals are not only happy about the public’s increased appetite for moving house simply because it puts their brand in the spotlight.
Not only can we assume that the extra traffic and interest in housing-related content is mainly benefitting the property portal brands rather than those of the agents, any negative side effect from the increased exposure of listings is likely to fall the agents’ way as well. Although some vendors may say they want as many people to see their home for sale as possible, there are legitimate privacy concerns that come with this.
Being such a recent technology, many countries don’t have much in the way of privacy laws around virtual tours, and there are definitely those, such as the aptly named ‘Scary Mommy’ community from the US, who take advantage of the intimacy afforded by virtual tours to judge homeowners for their decor or the price of their home.
Judgemental housewives may not be the only demographic snooping around an agent’s listings. According to the New York Times article from November:
“Zillow surfing is especially popular among teenagers. A TikTok meme over the summer consisted of users talking about knowing where the bathrooms were in their friend’s or crush’s house before ever visiting it because they had toured all of their classmates’ homes on Zillow. Many young people have extensive lists of saved homes and discuss and share listings with friends.”
Due to the way portal terms and conditions are worded and the fact that they very much leave vendor customer service to the listing agent, any issues generated through these undesired views of a listing are certainly likely to fall the way of the agent.
When we spoke to Lou Quinn, UK estate agent and CEO of lead management company homehere, recently he told us that his least favourite task as an agent was going through and qualifying portal leads, with the implication being that many came from portal users who may not have actually been serious about their interest:
“Arriving each morning to a mailbox full of enquiries, I had no qualification information on the people making the enquiry.”
Lead management companies such as Lou’s are starting to break down some of the opacity around how well certain portals’ leads perform once they reach agents. In some markets with increased levels of window shopping there may soon come a time when the number of leads a portal sends its agent customers becomes irrelevant and a new measure of relevancy and qualification is required to justify continued payment to the portals, and with it a shift in the business model:
A fairly safe bet in the world of property portal marketing is that as window shopping traffic on market-leading portals with recognisable brands increases, the ace-in-the-hole challenger portals around the world will be using in their marketing will be some variant of the slogan ‘the home of serious home-hunters’.