In the U.S., real estate search sites like Zillow have attracted huge enormous user bases and record venture capital funding rounds. This was an idea whose time had come, given the widespread consumer distaste with having real estate sales information controlled by the Multiple Listings Service. A far cry from the Internet’s open ethos.
Not quite so in Canada. Canadians have tended to be stuck with the Realtor.ca (also accessible at MLS.ca) site. Some upstarts have come along, but they’ve faced resistance, and legal challenges for their habit of scraping information. The best known is Zoocasa, a real estate search site powered by funding from Rogers Ventures.
Now, the nation’s three largest real estate brokerages may be launching a “challenge from within.” They’re bent on creating a branded website offering that offers better functionality than the old MLS site, but maintains some of the data integrity and conservatism they charge is lacking on “syndicated information” sites. Representatives from Royal Lepage, Century 21, and Re/Max are meeting today, according to the Globe and Mail.
A quick peek at traffic rankings on Alexa indicates that the brokerages have little to fear from Zoocasa, which has failed to gain major user traction. Meanwhile, the MLS.ca site continues to lead the pack in its vertical by a considerable margin. Therefore, the launch of a new broker-driven branded site has to be mainly a challenge to MLS.ca; consumers frequently complain about its outdated approach and clunkiness.
Can this possibly work? Won’t consumers be limited to listings from just three major real estate companies, so therefore still dependent on other sources of information? This branded site could be squeezed on the “open, universal” side by Zoocasa, and the “closed, nearly universal” side by MLS.
Still, the new site could have unique advantages. First, it would pool resources of three major national real estate companies who were going to be going toe-to-toe anyway, each with their own branded websites. Collectively, they’ll provide original canonical content, so may fare better in search engines than the growing legions of de facto scraper sites (which search engines don’t like).
It seems like a uniquely Canadian sort of compromise. It remains to be seen what the outcome will look like, but promoting the website could be a costly venture. Reaching “brand recall” status is key for a real estate site. A cursory look through many of the search query results for real estate queries shows Zillow doing fine (first page listings) but by no means dominating the page or frequently reaching #1 or #2 spots. Zillow could not survive on search discoverability alone. Many consumers have simply heard of Zillow through frequent press coverage and partnerships.
It does not seem, in any case, like Zillow and the like have much interest in entering the Canadian market. So for now, there will be plenty of room in the search results for new generation ways of providing real estate information.