I’m not one of those guys who thinks that Zillow aims to put agents out of business. Zillow needs agents, as they are Zillow’s primary revenue source. But neither have I deluded myself into thinking that Zillow is not competing with agents & brokers. They clearly are. Many Zillow apologists will deny this, claiming their only goal is to help agents succeed. Yes, Zillow does help many agents get business, but that’s not mutually exclusive with competing against them. (More about this later.) This, in and of itself, does not make Zillow evil. But recently I noticed Zillow doing something that many think crosses the line. Zillow is now using your own name against you.
The other day I happened to Google my own company name and found that Zillow was running PPC ads with my company name, and my wife’s name, in the title. This brought questions to mind in a number of areas, including legality, ethics and just plain good business practices. Under Google AdWords guidelines, one can use a competitor’s trademark as a keyword, but they may restrict its use in your ad text or title. For example, Chevy is free to run ads when people Google “Ford Trucks.” They could run ads that claim Chevy Trucks are better than Ford. But they can’t make the title of their ad “Ford Trucks.” That would be deceptive.
Fortunately for Zillow, most agents have not registered their names as trademarks. Even company names, though they are licensed and registered with their state, are not automatically registered trademarks. So from a Google policy standpoint, and probably from a legal standpoint, Zillow has a green light to go forward with this kind of ad tactic. But is it ethical? Is it good business practice?
After discovering this, I posted this in a Facebook group on search engine marketing that I belong to. It quickly drew a great number of comments, mostly from other agents and brokers who were upset by this tactic. A Zillow director entered the conversation and ensured us that this was just a “test.” However, agents didn’t seem relieved to know that Zillow is just “testing” siphoning traffic from them by using their name in arguably deceptive advertising tactics. After several agents expounded on how this tactic could hurt them, the Zillow director forwarded this feedback to high-level executives and, to their credit, they have “paused” the ads. Of course, there’s nothing to stop them from resuming these ads again.
Wherever you fall on the love-hate scale for Zillow, it would serve agents and brokers well to remember that, if you have a website, Zillow is always competing against you. Again, this doesn’t make them bad. You can both cooperate and compete against someone simultaneously. Agents do this all the time when co-oping on deals with other local agents. That agent might be bringing a buyer for your listing now, and competing against you for a listing later. Folks in other walks of life might find this strange. But that is the conundrum that is the real estate industry.