Homes.com could become No. 2 search portal in 12 months, says CEO
In an exclusive interview, CoStar CEO Andy Florance shared his ambitious road map for Homes.com’s growth and a critique of the site's competitors.
- Florance presented a candid take on other portals and what they offer agents and consumers.
- He believes Homes.com's business model provides a superior consumer experience and benefits more agents, not just "the one-percenters."
- The company has been investing in marketing and SEO, as well as new content that creates value for consumers.
It has been just over two years since commercial real estate giant CoStar acquired residential search portal Homes.com, and the company has invested a tremendous amount of money and effort into growing the platform in that time. While Homes.com has witnessed a substantial uptick in traffic — a 113% increase year-over-year, according to Similarweb — the site still trails leaders Zillow, Realtor.com and Redfin by a wide margin.
But CoStar CEO Andy Florance remains confident that Homes.com will be a big success, and he predicts the site could become the second most-visited portal by this time next year. It won't become a contender by sheer brute force, however. It will succeed because it has a fundamentally different business model, said Florance.
For the first part of an exclusive two-part interview with Real Estate News, Florance discussed the Homes.com model and what it means for consumers and agents. Read part two here. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
You've used the phrase "your listing, your lead" — what does that mean to you, and how does that approach differ from competitors?
I think what "your listing, your lead" means to us is really just trying to communicate a different approach to the business and a different approach to the model. And it's really hard for people to understand it, because they've so internalized the existing models. The top five platforms are "your listing, our lead," so everyone thinks that's the only way to do it.
But I've spent a lot of time overseas with our other businesses, and these models are actually in the minority, and they are not terribly successful when compared to all the others. Apartments.com operates at a 40-something percent margin. If I take the last 10 years, [competing portals] have operated at a negative margin, if you sum it all up.
If you can grow your business up to billions in revenue, I can't say your model is bad, but I sure think we have a better model. We know agents aren't terribly excited about the Zilltor model. I think that's pretty widely accepted. And I know from focus groups that consumers don't like it.
How do you plan to grow traffic for Homes.com and attract consumers to the site?
Homes.com is definitely the fastest-growing site out there. I think we are growing 30% month-over-month. When we bought Homes.com, they were at 6 million uniques, and we just closed April at 34 million. So we're up 550%, and everyone else is down. We're getting up to an Apartments.com level of engagement, and at the current pace, the numbers are staggering. It is likely that we could move into the number two position within 12 months.
As consumers learn about the site, they find out it doesn't have diaper ads, it doesn't have minivan ads, and you can actually see who the agent is. It's also the fastest performing site out there right now. The homepage loads in four milliseconds — which is 250 times faster than one of the other players we're trying to catch up with — and Google cares about that.
(Note: While Florance did not name Realtor.com directly, a spokesperson from Realtor.com told Real Estate News that there is a negligible difference in site speed between Realtor.com and Homes.com based on data from PageSpeed Insights and Google's Core Web Vitals.)
We also have around 800 people working on content, and this is stuff we've run through focus groups that consumers find valuable. It involves hundreds of thousands of hours of video, millions of images, hundreds of thousands of paragraphs of text, and all that stuff is super valuable to SEO, while everyone else is sort of running the exact same content. If I go to site A, B, C, D, it's all basically repackaged content from other sources.
We have a 10-point plan, and we are probably executed through step three or four. So we have a robust series of additional steps.
Is becoming one of the biggest portals as simple as throwing money at it?
If I attempt to take the last 15 years and I look at Realtor.com's spend on marketing and SEO, and I take Zillow's spend on marketing and SEO, there's a direct correlation between the advertising budget and the number of people who land on the site. So it's not a mystery. You can actually show up with a wad of cash and buy your way up the line, but you have to do it thoughtfully and you have to do it efficiently.
It certainly has worked with Apartments.com. We invested 500% of the EBITDA into marketing and took the company into a loss, but today, our EBITDA on Apartments.com is four times the total revenue from when we started.
So you get to a place where it's efficient, but that efficiency depends on not putting a lot of friction in the way with things like the "Contact Agent" button and ads. That is a negative consumer experience.
And then you've seen our Apartments.com ads with Jeff Goldblum? So, your question of are we gonna throw money at it? That's called branding. We're currently talking to some very well known celebrities for Homes.com. We have some things in the works that I think will get a lot of people's attention.
But it's not just about consumer engagement — you're also looking to build an audience with agents.
One of the things that I'm really happy about is the 1.1 million agents who are registered and using the site. There are about 400,000 using it monthly and we've seen 67% growth in agents returning to the site. So if agents like this site more than other sites, they won't use the other sites. They can't actually fully use the other sites if they're not the one-percenters who get the benefit from it.
It's not about how much traffic you have, it's about what traffic you have. If agents feel safe in our environment and they invite their buyers into our environment, that is a huge source [of traffic]. If I take the MLSs, agents are distributing 28 million packages each month to buyers. So there are 28 million times a month they're sending a list of properties to buyers, and if we can get more of that onto our platform, it's a huge draw outside of SEO, SEM and branding.
So, the point is not to reach the boss's employee who wants to see where the boss lives. The point is to reach people buying homes, and the agents are key to that. And so presenting something that is friendlier to agents we think will be very central to a strategy of building up the most meaningful traffic.
This brings us back to the importance of "your listing, your lead" then?
A really important, immutable fact is that in the "your listing, our lead" model, a teeny percentage — like low single digits — of agents benefit from that platform. So 90-some percent of the agents are not getting any value, and they're just seeing leads that would have come in to them off their listings going to a competitor. So the vast, vast, vast majority of agents don't benefit from those models.
So if we're providing value to the majority of agents and someone else is providing value to a teeny single-digit minority of agents, but at the expense of the majority of agents, that's what we're going for. It's the better business model.