Property search and the portal wars, by Ben Harris

As much as we’d like to think so here at TM Group, the term ‘property searches’ doesn’t just refer to those done by a conveyancer once a property is being transacted. It’s actually much more commonly used to refer to the consumer’s activity to find that dream home in the first place.

Consumers searching for their next home typically go online to one of the property portal websites – a space that has been dominated for the last few years by the big two: Rightmove and Zoopla.

Rightmove, celebrating its 15th birthday this year, is the most visited property portal in the UK by some stretch although Zoopla has made significant ground in recent years to consolidate its position at #2.

In January of this year, the status quo was disrupted by the launch of an estate agency-owned portal with low fees called OnTheMarket.com (OTM) which is now gaining market share by allowing its estate agents to advertise on just one other portal.

What impact has this had?

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Property portals rely on the 19,000 estate agents in the UK to be signed up and listing property and so the OTM ‘one other portal’ rule is designed to eat into Rightmove and Zoopla’s market share.

According to OTM’s Chief executive, Ian Springett, they had signed up more than 4,000 estate agency branches ahead of their launch. Rightmove announced that their advertiser numbers rose by 5% in 2014 and were unchanged at the end of February, following the launch of OTM.

In contrast, Zoopla recently admitted that its 16,500 agency advertiser numbers fell by 11% over the year to January but, even so, OTM still only has around a quarter of the advertisers that Zoopla does.

Stock
A property portal wouldn’t be a property portal without property, so a key measure of their success is the volume of stock on each portal. A recent report by investment bank Morgan Stanley says that Rightmove has one million listed properties, Zoopla has 650,000 and OTM 350,000.

Visitors
There have been no discernible changes to visitor traffic at Rightmove or Zoopla in the two months since the launch of OTM and this is where the challenger meets its biggest obstacle. Since the conclusion of their 6 week launch marketing campaign, OTM has actually seen its initial traffic volumes fall, according to Experian Hitwise figures, and their traffic remains 21 times smaller than Zoopla’s.

OTM’s major challenge without a doubt will be building a recognisable brand that can pull in the right level of sustained traffic to compete with the big boys. Rightmove and Zoopla have invested heavily in this area over a number of years and so there is considerable catching up to be done if OTM are to warrant their place at the top table.

Shares
Rightmove shares actually climbed 10% in January and February but, in the same period, shares in Zoopla Property Group have fallen by 8% in the wake of their announcement about falling agency members.

So, in summary, OTM have publicly stated that they are confident in becoming the #2 portal by January 2016 – which is looking like a pretty bold statement as things stand, certainly in the eyes of the public.

Between the top two, it’s Zoopla that has been the clear loser in the property portal wars so far this year but there is still a huge gap between themselves and OTM and it is apparent that OTM will need to play the long game to increase their visitors as this audience cannot be built overnight.

It’s hard to argue against OTM being successful at some point down the line but much will depend on the patience of their agency owners – and they will need advertisers to be prepared to play the long game too. If OTM do make significant progress this year the twist in the tail could turn out to be that Zoopla are forced into turning their hand at estate agency and using their brand power to go straight to the general public.

Whatever happens it will be an interesting year or two in the property portal wars.