Is Zillow building a ghost town?


I don’t live in the U.S., so isn’t much use to me as a real estate site, but from all I’ve heard it is a fantastic service backed by some smart guys, including several of my friend Stuart MacDonald’s pals from the old Expedia days. You can see how much your neighbour’s house is worth, shop for a new home, etc. Great tool. Now, Zillow has apparently decided it needs to get all Web 2.0 and is adding social networking and even “citizen journalism” features such as chat forums and online polls.

snipshot_e41lnjism6lk.jpgAccording to the Zillow blog, the site has launched more than 6,500 community pages in 134 cities, with more to come. Although the pages have been “seeded” with info, the site says that “the bulk of the content on the Neighborhood Pages we have left up to you, the Zillow community.” The blog encourages users to come to the pages to “meet your neighbors, talk about local news, publicize events like garage sales and get the inside scoop by asking questions of residents who know the area best.” Users can also share photos of the neighbourhood and (of course) check out house prices. John Cook at Seattle PI thinks it could even lead to e-commerce possibilities, and Eric Berlin also sees some potential there.

Colour me skeptical. Could this lead to hundreds of thousands of people forming an online community around their neighbourhoods and chatting, posting news items and photos, etc.? Perhaps. But I just don’t see what is going to be compelling enough to get them to do that — and if there’s a suspected pedophile in the neighbourhood or something that might actually draw people together, it’s unlikely Zillow would want to play host to that.

Greg Swann at Bloodhound Realty shares my skepticism. For one thing, he seems to see the whole effort as a bit of “tit-for-tat” or me-too-ism between Zillow and Trulia, another real-estate service. He says that “neither of these two Realty.bots has come up with a reliable formula for producing that sticky Wiki-Ebay-Amazonian loyalty that will result in a true category-killer.” Both sites are essentially ghost towns, he says, “replete with absolutely everything it takes to make a town except people.”

It may be too early to declare Zillow’s attempt a futile one, but if the failure of Backfence — and before that Bayosphere — have taught us anything, it’s that you can’t just sprinkle some features around and add water and produce a community. It’s a lot harder than that. A lot. As he often does, Jeff Jarvis has some worthwhile thoughts on the topic of local communities, and Amy Gahran looks at why she thinks Backfence failed. Her reasons include: Starting too big and not having enough focus.

Comments (11)

  1. Eric Berlin wrote::

    Well, I think the “ghost town effect” is a potential risk for any web community. The key is how you scale it up, and it may well be that Zillow is making a mistake in opening up 6,500 communities at once *or* not seeding enough content/community in an invite-only phase. Time as they say will tell.

    It’s totally correct to say that just because you have great content, doesn’t mean that people will automatically want to sign up for a profile, upload pics, and blog about it.

    So, down to more important business: when is my MathewIngramWorld profile going to be ready? I’m on the invite list, right? ;-)

    Wednesday, July 11, 2007 at 8:51 pm #
  2. Joe Duck wrote::

    I’m also skeptical but this is no Backfence – here Zillow will not pay to have the content developed so if communities do sprout up they’ll be gravy to the Zillow bottom line which should only have to pay a modest amount to ramp up and keep this going alongside their core competency, RE listings.

    However the *idea* of local voices is excellent, in fact I’m hoping to create a more tourism focused approach with local bloggers rather than contributors to a community in which they have little stake. Hyperlocal *news* will keep failing but hyperlocal *blogging* has only begun to flourish, and IMHO could become the dominant form of human communication. (insert trumpet fanfare here)

    Wednesday, July 11, 2007 at 9:55 pm #
  3. Mathew wrote::

    Thanks, Eric — if I ever set up MathewIngramWorld, you will be the first person on the invite list :-)

    And Joe, I agree that there is great potential for hyperlocal blogging and other community-type things — I’m just not sure anyone is going to want to hold that kind of party at a real-estate website.

    Thursday, July 12, 2007 at 12:03 am #
  4. Fred wrote::

    Will Zillow succeed as a hyperlocal news hub? Probably not. I just don’t see anyone heading there who’s not in the market to buy a house, sell a house, or extract information about their neighbors because they are nosy.

    That doesn’t mean it will be a failure, however. US laws and Realtor codes of conduct mean that there is a host of information realtors cannot provide buyers. How are the schools? What’s the crime rate? How many students get free or reduced-price lunch (unfair and classist, perhaps, but fairly well correlated with school performance)? All of this information is easily obtainable, just not from your agent. If it (and more subjective discussion of “is the neighborhood a nice place to live”) is available from Zillow, it gives them something their meatspace competitors don’t have.

    Thursday, July 12, 2007 at 9:25 am #
  5. Rex Hammock wrote::

    I too am skeptical. I’m also tired of joining social networks. Frankly, I have lots of ways to hang-out with my off-line friends, my hyperlocal friends, in ways that don’t needs to be branded by Zillo. However, if I were buying or selling a house — or moving into a new community, I might feel differently. Different strokes for different folks. On the real estate front, a new feature of My Maps on Google Maps is pretty cool, by the way.

    Thursday, July 12, 2007 at 11:21 am #
  6. Is there really potential for hyperlocal blogging, etc., or do we just wish there was? How much interaction does the average person have with their neighbors as it is? How much interaction do they want with their neighbors?

    What channels are most effective at enabling neighborhood-level conversations?

    The web is good at bringing far-flung groups together – the long tail, etc. I’d suggest that hyper local groups self-organize and manage organically as much as they need to, simply by virtue of proximity. As demonstrated by the examples noted, attempting to web-ebable these communities is tool without a need. IMHO.

    Thursday, July 12, 2007 at 12:59 pm #
  7. Mathew wrote::

    Rod, I think you might be right — we may instinctively believe that people want a way to interact with their physical neighbours, but it could be that they already have plenty of ways of doing that (if they want to, which many may not) and therefore don’t necessarily need an online version.

    Before the Internet, physical proximity was pretty well the only way you *could* form a community, but now it’s possible to form a virtual community based on just about anything, with people from just about anywhere.

    Fred and Rex, thanks for your comments too.

    Thursday, July 12, 2007 at 1:38 pm #
  8. Kyle J. Else wrote::

    Great post – with excellent reference links. Im wondering if Zillow or Trulia will start to aggregate news content from local papers or blogs – this would help “seed” content.

    Friday, July 13, 2007 at 12:50 pm #
  9. luca wrote::

    Not only is Zillow building a ghost town a host of originals (homegain) and imitators have emerged that also provide free home value estimates
    The Zestimate is not ZO original anymore
    You can try and many others
    Zillow Zucks

    Tuesday, August 7, 2007 at 10:40 pm #
  10. Homeowner wrote::

    I found to be a LOT (pun intended) more accurate.

    Monday, October 15, 2007 at 4:24 pm #
  11. Well, whatever they did it seemed to work well for them. Zillow is probably one of the largest real estate websites online and receives a lot of traffic. I am sure that a lot of their success is due to their heavy real estate marketing tactics that require a lot of money and time, but regardless of how they got it, they got it.

    Wednesday, April 29, 2009 at 8:08 pm #