Initial Thoughts on the Listhub-Zillow Divorce

By now, any reader of mine has heard about Listhub and Zillow waving goodbye to each other. As the great American philosopher Louis CK once observed, “No good marriage ever ends in divorce.” Clearly, this divorce was coming for years and years.

I’m writing this in large part to figure out what I think about it. The overwhelming impression within the real estate industry appears to be that this is bad news for Zillow. Inman’s headline is “Rupert Murdoch Playing Hardball With Zillow” (Subscription Required) after all.

If this is playing hardball, it comes a few days late and more than a few dollars short. We’ll see how it plays out, but I wonder if this isn’t worse news for Listhub/Move than it is for Zillow.

Who Dumped Whom?

The first thing to consider is that this appears to be the case of Spencer playing hardball with Move, not Rupert Murdoch picking up a baseball at all.

From HousingWire:

But a in a statement provided to HousingWire, Move said that it hoped to continue the listing agreement.

“ListHub has been negotiating in good faith a new listing distribution and reporting agreement with Zillow on terms that reflect the best interests of the brokerage industry,” Move said in a statement. “As communicated in public announcements, Zillow decided to end those negotiations and announced the launch of their own platform. Zillow chose their own route for their business model and interests.”

That hardly sounds triumphant to me. YMMV, of course.

Obviously, Zillow and Listhub have been negotiating for months, if not longer. And as observed in these pages, Zillow’s been thinking about the Listhub issue for years. Indeed, Zillow (and Trulia) began investing millions of dollars into Industry Relations as a direct result of Move’s acquisition of Listhub, including the contentious hiring of Errol Samuelson and Curt Beardsley. And they’ve gone all-out in getting direct feeds from brokerages, franchises, and MLS’s.

If there was hardball being played, it was in the months leading up to this announcement. In all likelihood, Listhub was demanding restrictions and concessions on data usage “that reflect the best interests of the brokerage industry”. And clearly, Zillow refused to play ball.

There are those in the industry who thinks this will hurt Zillow. But Zillow’s walking away from the deal, combined with announcements that follow on the heels of the breakup, suggests that Zillow isn’t particularly concerned.

Nor should they be.

The Dashboard & Retsly

The first shoe to drop is this one about the new Zillow Data Dashboard:

“As we enter a new year, we are cementing our commitment to be the best industry partner to the MLSs and brokers who send listings to Zillow,” said Greg Schwartz, Zillow chief revenue officer. “The Zillow Data Dashboard firmly puts control of listings, and where their listings appear, in the hands of brokers and agents. The direct flow of listings from our partners enables us to provide the most accurate and timely listings to the millions of consumers who come to Zillow each month to find homes and connect with agents.” [Emphasis mine]

Let’s not kid ourselves here. The Zillow Data Dashboard is a direct competitor to Listhub. Move’s statement to Housingwire says as much.

Now, remember the small little acquisition that Zillow made last year? A small Canadian startup called Retsly? Among the skillsets and technologies acquired with Retsly is the ability to send listing data to various places. Doesn’t much matter the how, does it? That’s syndication, folks, plain and simple.

I just spoke with Greg Schwartz, Zillow’s Chief Revenue Officer, for a few minutes about this and he tells me that Zillow has no plans at this time to syndicate listings to any website outside of the Zillow Network (which will eventually include Trulia). So it’s not “syndication” as we have come to accept the phrase.

He further elaborated that this system — Data Dashboard — and Retsly are independent of each other, at least at this time. Furthermore, Diverse Solutions — the IDX website company owned by Zillow — is independent of this initiative.

Nonetheless, between Retsly, Zillow itself with this Data Dashboard initiative, Diverse Solutions, and the main Zillow website folks… I wonder if there are many companies with more expertise and experience with real estate listing data out there. Then you add Trulia, which sits on the Board of RESO, and all of its talent with real estate data to the mix at some point in 2015. Hmm.

Then consider this:

Zillow spokesperson Katie Curnutte told GeekWire that if listings from ListHub were removed from Zillow today, the service would lose “a few hundred thousand” listings out of the 3.6 million on its site that it doesn’t receive through any other channel. That’s why Zillow is launching the Data Dashboard. Curnutte said that the company’s preference is to get up-to-date data from agents and brokers directly through the new system, rather than relying on deals with third parties like ListHub.

So in the short-term, presumably Zillow will be busy trying to replace the Listhub feed with direct feeds, powered by Data Dashboard. They have 90 days to do that, and clearly, they’ve been laying the groundwork for months to make the switchover.

Greg wouldn’t say how things are going, but he allowed that of the Top 50 MLS’s in the country, they have commitments or agreements with “double digit” numbers of them, and that Zillow is speaking to every one of those MLS’s as well as many outside the Top 50. He further mentioned that they are taking inbound calls from MLS’s and brokerages about participating in the Data Dashboard.

He did not sound distraught at the loss of the Listhub feed.

Listhub, On the Other Hand…

What I can’t quite understand is why Move refused to budge. Maybe this is Ryan O’Hara, the new CEO of Move, who comes from outside the industry, making his first major strategic decision. And from his perspective, as a media guy, I completely get it. Why would you give away content to a direct competitor?

Thing is… this is Listhub’s front page today:

ListHub

It’s going to be awfully hard to keep claiming you’re the Nation’s Leading Network for Marketing Real Estate when you don’t have the top two websites in the Nation on your Network. Three of the four flagship websites right on the homepage belong (or will soon belong) to Zillow.

Back in July of 2014, when the Zillow-Trulia deal was announced, the two combined made up 89% of the traffic to the Top 15 websites in the real estate category. Since then, both companies have continued to grow their traffic by double digit percentages. They might be over 90% of the traffic to the Top 15 in the real estate category by now.

I don’t know offhand just how long the Long Tail is in the real estate category, but it seems quite unlikely that Zillow + Trulia isn’t the biggest of the big dogs.

Then consider the trend in the whole syndication kerfuffle over the last couple of years. I wrote about that here, discussing Clareity’s Beyond Syndication white paper:

Couple that to the recognition — that some have been arguing for a while now — that Zillow, Trulia and Realtor.com aren’t going anywhere, and we basically have:

“Get rid of Listhub, so you can limit your syndication to websites that matter, okay?”

It’s solid advice, actually, but hardly… dramatic. So let’s get dramatic, shall we? I know that’s what you love about this here blog: the drama that rivals Puccini.

So… where’s Listhub after cutting itself off from “websites that matter?”

There’s also the issue of Listhub’s actual business model: charging brokers and agents for reports, and charging “publishers” to receive the feed. The latter won’t be affected that much, one imagines, since Move wasn’t counting on the dough from Zillow and Trulia to keep itself afloat. But that pay-for-reports business just got undercut by a free competing product from Zillow: the Data Dashboard. (I did confirm with Greg Schwartz that Zillow will not be charging for the, in his words, “beautiful, laid out, designed, printable” reports from the Data Dashboard.)

Far More Interesting Question: Project Upstream

If the Listhub/Zillow divorce ended there, it’d be an interesting little tidbit about two huge companies playing tic-tac-toe with each other. But there’s an angle here no one is considering.

As rumors have it, and as I’ve boldly predicted (sure to be wrong!), the Broker Portal will launch this year. I think Project Upstream — the initiative by the largest brokerages and franchises — to create a national property database “upstream” of the MLS will be involved in that launch.

The goal of the brokerages obviously is to create a mechanism by which they own and control the data and the distribution.

Listhub was negotiating with Zillow for “terms that reflect the best interests of the brokerage industry.” Meanwhile, the brokerage industry appears to have decided that its best interests are served by doing something that isn’t Listhub.

Here’s the thing, though. Suppose that Upstream does launch, it’s real, and it’s well-operated and well-governed. (I know, that’s a lot of ifs there, but bear with me.) We know from previous statements by folks like The Realty Alliance that Upstream isn’t about the portals: it’s about the MLS.

Listhub today is partnered with nearly every MLS in the country (with one exception in North Alabama). As of April, that partnership will offer brokers in that MLS a bunch of websites that aren’t Zillow (and one assumes, Trulia, at some point in 2015). You’re a broker in that MLS. Your listing agents want their listings on the top two most trafficked website in the country, because their sellers expect that. What do you do?

The answer, to me, seems to depend on whether Upstream intends to be a competitor or a partner to Zillow. If competitor, then data in Upstream won’t make it to Zillow, which puts it in the same category as Listhub. If partner, then Upstream becomes a channel into the Zillow Data Dashboard, which is not exactly bad news for Zillow.

It also seems to depend on how Upstream’s business model works. If it’s a subscription fee to participating brokerages… while Zillow’s Data Dashboard is free… then I can see some issues developing there.

The interesting twist to this is… where is the MLS in this environment? In the most dramatic, dire portrayals of Project Upstream, it’s intended to take power away from the MLS into the hands of the (mostly larger) brokerages and franchises. If that is what’s coming, then doesn’t Zillow with its Data Dashboard become the MLS’s best friend?

Whoa. My mind just spun for a minute.

Conclusion?

It’s far too early for conclusions, of course. As I said, I wrote this mostly to figure out what I think of the news. Having said that, there are a few preliminary conclusions that I think one can draw:

  1. Zillow broke up with Listhub, not the other way around
  2. It did so with confidence, having prepared the Data Dashboard and all of the related initiatives for months in advance
  3. Listhub’s future suddenly seems rather… dark…

And of course, for the commenters who like to point out certain realities…

No, this does not change anything on the ground at all for the day to day work of the real estate agent. Continue with your belly-to-belly relationship building and showing houses and so on and so forth. Your lives are not affected in the least bit… yet.

I’d love to get your thoughts, as always.

-rsh

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