Growth Hacking the Real Estate Market – Zillow Rises

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You’ve all seen them and used them. That awesome little mortgage / insurance / car payment / whatever online calculator. They come in handy at just the right moment. You visit some site, probably one that is only loosely related to the calculator, you use it, and then you blitz off on your merry way to web world.


Little did you know that that innocent little sheep is really a wolf – a sophisticated growth hack designed to grow someone’s business – and it isn’t who you think it is.

Where’s my traffic coming from?

First, let’s review the basics of online traffic sources.

Search Traffic
Simple. This is traffic that comes from organic search. These are the people that type in keywords on Google, Yahoo! or Bing and are then magically, effortlessly transported to your content. Search traffic probably fuels the bulk of your web traffic.

Direct Traffic
If you’re lucky enough to be an enormous brand, traffic coming directly into your site is direct traffic. Or, you could be running a promotion, advertisement, or some other campaign that drives people directly to a page. Either way, direct traffic is typically high quality, but, very expensive to get.

Paid Traffic
This is traffic coming in from your paid media efforts – PPC, display advertising, paid social, etc. Usually, this is related to online paid media as a lot of offline is typically captured in “Direct”. However, it really depends on how you setup your programs and web analytics tool.

Referral Traffic
Referral traffic is virtually anything else coming into the site.

Okay, now that I threw that hand grenade out, let me just clarify. There’s a lot of debate about other different types of traffic and where it all fits. For instance, some people are carving out Social Media as it’s own bucket. There are also nuances to traffic that don’t exactly fit in the “Referral” bucket. But, for the sake of simplicity, let’s just say that if another site (not a search engine) drives traffic to your site, that counts as referral traffic.

Growth hackers love growth. When running an online business, one of your primary objectives is to grow traffic. Once you have a traffic stream, you can leverage that into revenue and other growth opportunities. But, traffic is paramount to an online business. The least expensive sources of traffic are typically organic search and referral traffic. They are VERY enticing to eager growth hackers.

Realtors are “hackers”, too

Realtors have become online savvy over the years. Contactually has some really awesome stats reflecting how good realtors are at using digital channels.

  • 70% of agents have a website
  • 56% of Realtors use social media
  • 92% of Real Estate Agents prefer email in communicating with clients
Own the customer, grow your business. Click To Tweet

It makes perfect sense. Real estate is a competitive market and those realtors that can establish direct relationships with clients early will have an easier time growing their business. Why? Because of these additional stats:

  • 88% of buyers would use their agent again or refer them to others
  • 84% of sellers would use their agent again or refer them to others
  • 92% of consumers trust recommendations from friends and family above all other forms of advertising

Own the customer, grow your business.

The Fist Fight – vs Zillow vs Trulia

The case of is a sad one. was one of the first major online home buying sites on the internet. How did they do this? Simple, they OWN the MLS listing. represents the National Association of Realtors and therefore owns all of the local MLS data around the country. You could say that was never really an aggressive little startup – they were already a large organization looking to ride the web wave. They were the only player with real assets driving millions of unique visitors to their site every month.

One of the services that the National Association of Realtors provides is licensing to their MLS system and data. Third parties can enter into an agreement and become a consumer of local realty data. That’s exactly how companies like Zillow, Trulia, Redfin and others exist. In a sense, the NAR enabled competition against it’s own initiative –

Zillow exploded in growth in just the past few years. Notice that in early 2011, Zillow and were pretty close in size. By the end of 2012, Zillow had established dominance in the market which has continued to today.


Also notice that Trulia is right behind both of them – sometimes taking the lead over In fact, put the two together – Zillow and Trulia – and you have a mega company – something Zillow Group actually did in 2014.

How did Zillow get its initial growth, you ask? Well, growth hacking. In fact, Zillow embarked on an aggressive traffic acquisition strategy, driving growth across all traffic bucket types. One really interesting growth hack they employed has to do with – you guessed it – online calculators.

Zillow’s Online Calculator
Zillow’s online calculator started off simple enough. It was a simple form that spit out mortgage payments and how much home you could afford to buy. Here’s the first calculator seen on, launched around April 20, 2011 (courtesy of – unfortunately, it was probably better formatted in the original version.)


However, in August, 2011, Zillow added a sneaky little feature called “Get Widget”.


Once you click that, you can “customize” the widget, add the code to your site and KAPOW!, you’ve got your own online calculator for users to enjoy.


Zillow’s dark secret
Unbenknownst to users, Zillow’s calculator has a deep dark secret. The guys at exposed this in their article “How You’re Helping Zillow and Trulia to Outrank You”

The secret sauce is found in the code of the widget and the terms of use. First, the code:

<a href="" target="_blank" style="font-weight:normal;font-style:normal;font-size:10px;padding:0;width:144px;color:#666666;text-decoration:none;line-height:1.2em;" scen="s1">Homes for Sale in <span class="region">San Antonio</span></a>

That doesn’t seem too nefarious. But, wait. First of all, webmasters and bloggers didn’t really realize that what they are doing is giving Zillow a free backlink from their site, thereby boosting Zillow in the rankings. This backlink strategy propelled Zillow in the rankings – which have persisted to this day. Here’s the ranking report for calculator related keywords. Notice Zillow’s position (number 3 as of April 5, 2016) and notice the amount of search volume associated with the keywords – HUGE!


Next, the terms agreement, which can be viewed at the article. Suffice it to say that the terms prevent you from changing the widget code in any way, allow Zillow to change the widget results and even allow Zillow to monitor your site for compliance of the terms. Wow – forget about hacking the widget.

OK, so, you help Zillow out with some rankings. Who cares? Well, the very people boosting Zillow’s rankings are the same people being hurt by their acquisition of market share.

Remember the bit about “owning the customer” at the beginning. Well, on, the customer “owner” is the listing agent – it’s always the listing agent, as it’s supposed to be in the real estate market. However, if you’ve used Zillow or similar services, have you ever noticed that that gorgeous home your wife is obsessing promotes local realtors that you can contact about the house? Makes sense.


However, those realtors aren’t the real selling agents. They are realtors who are smart enough to pay Zillow to put their profiles next to houses. They are lead trolls – which is all good and dandy when you aren’t the seller’s agent and that’s YOUR listing! But, when you are … well, you can see why selling agents are frustrated with Zillow, Trulia and similar sites that “steal” their traffic and their potential customer relationships. Other agents love the new channel. Either way, it was a brilliant growth hack. And, while Zillow’s insane traffic growth can be attributed to a host of activities, growth hacks like this, along with smart digital and content marketing, made all the difference in the world.


It’s a wrap
Embeds, done right, are a brilliant growth hack. They often provide a valuable tool users engage with while driving referral traffic to your site. Zillow’s use of embeds along with clever digital strategy turned the online realty industry on its head. Zillow is now the behemoth real estate site, with still scratching it’s head and figuring out how to compete. Remember – in growth hacking, a little bit of something can go a LONG way!

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  1. says

    Brilliant article, Taylor. This is a well-researched case study of traffic sources, and how savvy marketing and nifty embeds can topple giants. Kind of gets the wheels turning with ideas. Thanks for the brain food!

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