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Is Zillow Entering the Field as a Direct Competitor?

Published: 19/03/2020

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Mike, from Palm Harbor, FL recently wrote in to advise me of a survey he received from Zillow. I found it both interesting and disturbing at the same time. I thought it would make for an important post for a couple of reasons. First, to give our community a heads-up of what might be coming down the pike. And second, I thought it would give us all an opportunity to share our thoughts on what it might represent for our industry and how best to address it.

Anyway, here is what Mike shared with me:

"I just got an email from Zillow. They said they were surveying their certified photographers, and wanted me to participate. I, like many, am not real enthused about Zillow and what their end game might be. But, I thought I should participate in the survey and flag a couple areas that I thought could use improvement. So I clicked the link.

OMG. It was not a survey about satisfaction with Zillow or Zillow operations. They wanted to know all about my equipment and process. What brand of camera, resolution, lens focal length, if zoom or not, do I bracket, do I do my own processing... the questions did not stop. They wanted to know everything about how I shoot and my equipment.

I was flabbergasted. I answered all of the questions, and not a single one of them did I answer truthfully, or even in the ballpark of the truth.

Years ago, I was involved in another industry where the same types of questions were asked. Within a year, there were mass lay-offs. I suspect that Zillow is looking at getting more into the photography business and is collecting data to establish the procedures and equipment of successful photographers. That's a nice list to have if you are planning to enter the field competitively.

I think the alarm should be raised. Anyone who answers this survey truthfully is not thinking clearly. Zillow is not our ally or friend. They are a necessary part of doing business and we should step forward to hand over the "secret sauce" that makes a photographer successful."

So, what do you think?

Brandon Cooper

22 comments on “Is Zillow Entering the Field as a Direct Competitor?”

  1. I am actually on Zillow’s advisory board for photographers and I am not alarmed at all. There are some things coming that will def be beneficial to those that are part of the program.

  2. All of the questions they are asking sound like they are pretty naive. For questions about technique, they could sign up for Lynda and Kelby and get Scott's and Thomas' tutorials. They could get Mike Kelley's "Where art meets architecture" series from fStoppers and watch any number of tutorials on YouTube. Fixating on the gear is a rookie move.

    They could be looking to create a minimum gear list. If they were to be their own "tour provider" they'd need to know where to put the bar. Not that it matters.

    I wouldn't be surprised if they were gearing up to be a nation-wide MLS with all services under one roof. Aren't they already buying flips and lending money for renovations prior to sale? What if they were getting back channel comments from the existing MLS's about image licensing difficulties. One of my local MLS's is syndicating images at 640x480 again. They may be small, but you can post all you want.

    Zillow isn't necessary. I have some clients with various aversions to different RE ad sites. Some don't like Trulia while others don't like Zillow or Realtor. I can't remember any of those agents giving me a coherent reason why and I wasn't going to push them for one. It just shows that if any one of the big three became too much of a pain, it wouldn't matter. If there were only one, that would be a problem but we'd probably see Redfin ratcheting up their game or a new kid on the block.

    How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice. If all it took was a gear list and some theory, there would be no money in photography for the photographer. It takes skill and lots of practice to deliver a really good image consistently. Sure, we get lucky from time to time, but if Nat Geo sends a photographer out to get a certain gallery of photos according to a brief, they are only going to hire somebody that they know will come back with the goods with no worries.

    If Zillow does get into the photo biz, I won't be too worried. They'll hire people at minimum wage, require unreasonable turn-arounds and won't let anybody get too much work so there is a better chance they won't get classified as an employee and have to give them benefits. Some of my clients have used tour companies and never liked not knowing who was going to show up on a job and what their work looked like. The editing might remain similar, but the compositions were all over the place. My clients know me and know I'm invested in making them look good. They are comfortable with having me meet up with the owners and do the jobs without having to be present. Some agents do show up each time, but they are good at running interference and chivying owners into some last minute prep. I always stress being a good service provider. Most people would rather do business with people they like rather than faceless corporations.

    When I show my portfolio, that's my work. It's not the best work cherry picked out of the entire company's inventory or something they spent big money on creating. Images that the local photographer has no hope of coming close to.

  3. Brandon, we need to fix it so that people that post on here HAVE to actually post a link to their website. If they do not, like post #1 on this subject, they should not be able to post, period.

    Tired of these "clever" people that make vague posts and then hide.

  4. Zillow is admittedly kind of a sore spot.
    I have been called many times by Zillow reps to "pick my brain" while being told that providing a Zillow Tour or Zillow Video is good for my business. BOTH are drastically inferior products however...
    Many of my clients have been told that The Zillow video and Zillow 3D Home Tour moves their listing "UP"... makes them more prominent. I do provide the 3D Home on most listing. The 360 images get substantially degraded when uploaded to Zillow... AND you can't edit them. Other VR Tours are kind of buried.
    Photographers can't advertise on the Zillow platform.
    I finally stopped taking the calls or returning the e-mails.
    I kinda think the next step for Zillow will be mirroring some the national outfits that send out amateurs to shoot homes for 50 bucks...
    Just my 2 cents but I think it's worth a dollar

  5. I would be worried if they succeeded in screwing up the market status quo... but.... what you can see with Zillow is that they are more then likely understaffed for that kind of volume, and seem to be running things via automated software/firmware/algorithms... which may be sufficient for a website featuring listed properties, but is woefully inadequate for replacing MLS, Brokerages, or Photographers.

    Those of us who do this daily know that you have to have extensive photography and PS/LR skills to do what we do, and this is what we essentially do: WE CREATE 'WANT'

    Computers and servers can't replicate that. Photographers can't replicate realtors, and realtors can't replicate photographers. A Theta can't replace a FF camera. Theta doesn't create 'want". It looks like crap. All it does is inform about spacial flow, but by itself, it doesn't make you want to pick up the phone and buy anything. Awesome photography does though.

    In any case, you can see that Zillow can take up to 1-4 days just to put a video we upload onto the listing it goes on, even with the ZPID in the file name... Realtors can accept those delays with video, but not for ANY other item related to a listing. No delays for photos, or the listing itself. Intollerable. And they are not currently equipped to hand even a light load beyond automatic feed from MLS sites.

    Needless to say, I didn't participate in their survey. Not even from the standpoint of providing false survey info. Why? Lets say we all provided false answers. Zillow would have no idea it was false, and you can bet if they went forward with that in their marketing, our realtors would then start requesting us to start implementing the useless information we gave Zillow, because Zillow is better at selling them on what they need next then we are. 🙂 And realtors are anxiously waiting for the next trend... presto! poof! Theta! $hit on a stick. haha

  6. Hi Ken!

    @Jonathon Stewart,

    Hmm, on "Zillow’s advisory board for photographers", no less. So, a quick question; how many checks have you actually received, that were marked as being from a Zillow bank account? Seriously, how many?

    I think you had better figure out who is actually paying your bills, it ain't Zillow. The realtors that are in fact paying you, are getting aced out of deals while you are "advising" their direct competition.

    Let me be really clear, Zillow has NEVER done anything, that has been beneficial to photographers.

  7. @ Kelvin

    I would agree with you in general, but let's be real here. If you look at our monthly contests on here just as an example. It seems that most photographers are now send all their post processing out, which would certainly explain why a lot of images look just the same, over and over. More importantly, anybody can be taught to shot 5 brackets, and sending the all in for processing. That is all that it will take, to be good enough, and good enough is all it takes today. unfortunately.

  8. Old news. Realtors have been aware of this for years. Zillow and their imitators all are "Amazon"ing the business of buying and selling homes.

    My first career...Tool & Die shop owner
    Made in America by Americans supplied to American manufacturers by American skilled labor. Then in 80s, GE built stamping plants in Mexico, then manufacturing tools from China. My business had to switch to automobile parts manufacturing. Then the sequence repeated.

    Second career. Travel and nature photographer. Kodachrome and Velvia 6x7. Average usage sale $300.
    20 sales per month. Then the Digital switchover. Usage price drops to pennies.

    Third career. Realtor in 2006. Struggling to make $50k

    It's our turn. The way Blockbuster goes to Netflix. Now RE/MAX is battling its way with Zillow. And all the related real estate services gather within but at 1975 individual incomes.

    Glad I'm 73 and don't have build another career.

    I still shoot 30 or more homes a year for other agents, but mostly because I like doing it. As a Realtor I help buyers and sellers with homes. It's nice, gratifying work.

    Gardening and watching birds are becoming too interesting during these self quarantined days, though.

  9. I would love to get into a rant or some other waste of effort, but bottom line is you, are you worth hiring or not.

    Zillow and the rest are here to stay, look them over very carefully and figure out what you can do better, then push that. Don't try to compete on their terms, you will lose.

    My early gripe was the newbies that would be gone after they figured out they couldn't make a living, really used to tick me off at the lost revenue to them. My clients are my partners and they know that's how I think of them. If they want to stray, then consider the ensuing divorce. I don't need any ONE of them, and they know it. Zillow is just another wanna be and in the long run they will help your business.

    Look at it this way, do you want a crappy video off a phone or do you want a quality video of the property? Do you want a quick spinner or do you want to showcase the property with a 360 3-D presentation? Pick your words and sell you services. Or worry about Zillow and support the anti-acid industry.

  10. If Zillow does get in to the photography industry I think we can classify them as just another "tour company." We've all dealt with tour companies in one way or another and there are plenty of ways to persevere among them (which have been talked about at length on this website).

    Again, IF they did get in to our industry I would find Zillow a little more concerning than the average tour company simply because of the size and reach of Zillow, however I doubt they would become a career ending/altering threat.

    My experience with Zillow hasn't been all that negative. I get maybe 5-10 shoots a year simply through clients finding me on Zillow. It's usually an agent from out of town that happens to get a listing in my area (maybe selling a relative/friends house) and they can't use their local photographer due to the distance. So they look in to Zillow by default for a photographer.

    I also have a brokerage client that ponied up for a Ricoh camera to shoot the Zillow 3D tours, after a presentation Zillow gave at their office. I agree the Zillow 3D tours are low in quality and UI but it's a selling point for agents in listing presentations and they seem OK with paying a small fee for someone else to do the tour for them.

  11. Hi Darren,

    I see things a little differently, but then I've been around this for a long time, long before Zillow or any of them existed. So when you say "I doubt they would become a career ending/altering threat" you base that on your time in the business. I assure you, they've had a massive impact on the business! And they continue as an ongoing threat.

    All of you that don't see Zillow (or some of the other 3rd party users) as a problem, have you ever considered what Zillow would look like, or how it would function without images? You do realize that they only exist, because they got their hands on a couple of hundred million images that were not theirs, but ours! They simply took our product, and used it to built a billion dollar company, and what did they give you?

    Zillow's goal is indeed becoming the Amazon of Real Estate, as they move into that, the very people that are now your clients, are going to disappear, because Zillow won't need them (certainly not as many as there are now). All us photographers, and very few clients?

    They'll still needs photos? No actually they won't. Certainly not as many as we are shooting now. There is a reason why these 3rd party users are building these giant databases using our images.

    And none of this is a negative?

    Some thoughts to all;

    I would venture to say, that less than 20% of the people that are on this blog now in 2020, will even be in the business in 5 years. Why? Because we've collectively allowed real estate photography to become a commodity, and as photographers, we'll have less and less value. There is a time coming in the pretty near future were we may not exist, unless we rely a little less on tech, and a little more on craft.

    Yes, I know, there are many more "real estate photographers" now than 5-10 years ago, but that is because of technology produced cameras that require less and less knowledge to generate passable photos. Add the sudden need to outsource post production work, and here we are today.

    Yes, technology has help many, and it is a good thing, but I would imagine, that in the near future, there will be a small group of top notch photographers, and they will still shoot real estate, if they are paid appropriately. The rest will have an increasingly hard time surviving as real estate photographers, because how they allowed the business to evolve. You've already taught your clients that you are willing to run around like maniacs shooting multiple houses a-day to survive, instead of asking for a fair amount for your service, and being able to take the time to really deliver a quality product. Real estate photography is now being treated as a commodity, as opposed to a creative craft, and we collectively have allowed this to happen.

    More importantly, apparently we don't even care who makes money using the images we created, and that we sold for less than what Sears charged for miniset of baby pictures.

    Actually, I've said all this before through the years, and I think most of you ignore it. That's okay, you guys do whatever you think it right. I would just advise you to be conscious of what is happening, some of it is right under our noses.


    The Old Guy that doesn't get it.

  12. Being fiercely independent has it's downside. There is power in numbers. A group is much more powerful than an individual. It's the way of the world.

  13. @George My point was more a statement about the nature of Zillow's workflow, rather then its work ethic. They appear to reply on server and computer power, rather than manpower. What I do can't be replaced by computing at this point. Even computational photography cant replicate it. It takes a knowledgable skilled human to do it at this point. I can't even match it using HDR. I've tried. I've done 4 frames, sent them out for processing, and they simply aren't the same. "Passable", sure... but in the interest of "creating want", they don't pass that test. Its the difference between authentic Italian and Chef Boyardee. You can, in fact, eat spaghettio's.... but you will never "want" them. 🙂

    Which leads me to a suggestion. If more of us commit to better techniques, purposely using (multiple?) off-camera strobes, there will be a visual difference in our product vs an automated one. Let's be Massimo Bottura, not Boyardee.

  14. In the wedding photography industry about 12 years ago a company started "hiring" photographers in all the major US cities to shoot for them. They built a great website and were able to convince brides to go with them instead of directly with the same local photographers the company was hiring. The company attended bridal shows all around the country signing up brides as well as photographers. This company paid the local wedding photographers about 25% of what they would have earned per job compared to them being hired directly by a bride. Photographers only got paid for jobs to which they were assigned. The company promised to increase their pay as they gained "more experience," but that never happened because the company was always recruiting "new" photographers for the same low, original money. So there was a lot of turnover in hired photographers, but that was what the company wanted. They got photos inexpensively and built a very profitable business.

    This company did not have a single photographer in its ranks. The company was a photo lab and wedding album manufacturer that created this "work for hire" business model. So they made money on the wedding photography because they paid so little, but they really made a killing on the wedding albums and print packages. Once the principals became wealthy enough to retire, they sold the company to someone else. The new owner could not make a go of it after a few years, because the market had become so destabilized and the lowest common denominator in quality accounted for over 80% of the business. The gifted, creative wedding photographers who had actually made a good living before this business model took root, were pushed out in many markets.

    I can see a lot of similarities as to what Zillow might do in the RE photography market.

  15. Thank you for this article. You are totally right, the questions were oriented exclusively to find out our best practices. They were not intended to improve their service. Now, I understand what is going on.

  16. @Kelvin, too right. You and George have hit some good points. I'm not opposed to outsourcing post processing, but I have yet to find somebody that can and will deliver a quality product. All I see is overblown, blue-white images with too good to be true window pulls (of the block wall a meter from the window). If I could support hiring somebody like Barry MacKenzie, I'd do that. He would be somebody I could work with to get "my look" consistently every time. The thing is that I still have to be capable of doing it myself since there will be times when there isn't time to wait for changes to come back. Right now, I don't have dire need to free up more time to photograph properties. I'm also doing more pre-processing by dragging my laptop out with me and ingesting images while I'm on the next job and while I'm driving around, eating lunch, etc. When I get back to the office all I have to do is plug in, transfer, brew a cup of tea and I can hunker down and finish images.

    The point about giving away images is a big one. These images are not being thrown away. Storage is cheap and as long as the big companies with lots of attorneys can chase us little guys away, they'll play the odds and rip us off. I'm very frustrated with photographers that don't care. If they aren't going to worry about their intellectual rights, they should just take a job with a tour company and sign them away right from the start. Plenty of young studio musicians do that when they sign contracts to record. They don't do the math and figure out that even if the royalty is only $10/year, if they stay in the business as a career it turns into tens of thousands a year on top of what they get for new work. That is huge when you have health issues as you get older and can't work for a period of time. Sure, there is some things that don't pay a royalty (work made for hire), but you make that the exception rather than the rule.

    The biggest thing about PFRE that turned the corner for me was getting skills and confidence with my compositions. You have to get past worrying about settings, lights, etc. Most of the listing photos I see have very poor composition. It's better when the photos have technical quality, but those are the photographers that have made it that far, but not all of them. A constant turnover of new photographers is going to keep that aspect in the dirt. If you discover that working for a tour provider is a dead end job, you'll only stay on until you find something that pays better and/or has regular hours. You won't be looking to keep improving your skills. That will keep artistic quality low.

    Concentrate on providing superior service and even if you lose a client to a photo mill, they'll often be back. They'll remember that when they called Ken at 8pm for a last minute booking to do the next day, he answered the phone and got them scheduled in. They'll remember that when the .zip file wouldn't unzip, Ken drove over with a thumb drive so the listing could go live for the weekend and stayed to sort out why the first archive wasn't behaving and all it cost was fast food lunch later in the week.

  17. @Theodore, Many photographers get into weddings thinking it's easy. They don't do any research into the business and find out that it's the tangible products where the money is made. They charge $500 and hand the couple a CD or thumb drive with all of the images. Nothing curated, nothing finished. The good photographers know to throw away the poor photos and keep the "negatives". Sure, these days you have to deliver a set of digital images, but you work that into the package of physical products. The mark up is tremendous on prints between cost and perceived value. A huge part of the value will be how the images are presented and not the images themselves. The local Sam's Club has removed their photo service area. They weren't that good to start with. People don't want to deal with getting prints made themselves even if they think they do. They can be very happy to pay good money for a large framed wedding print though. The photo mill knew that there was very little money making the photos and far more in delivered products so they conned a bunch of photographers to work super cheap on the low margin aspect and cleaned up on getting all of the print business.

    The expensive part of PFRE is traveling to the homes and spending the time to capture the images. The balance can be done in a controlled office environment in SE Asia somewhere. A whole room of basic PC's is less money that a reliable car and a couple of cases of photo equipment. Since the location of the office can be chosen for the best cost efficiency and the service location can't, it's easier to optimize costs on the back end. The photo mills will hire below minimum wage when all costs are accounted for the photography and make their money on things they can produce elsewhere in the chain. Agents and offices will go for the one stop does everything package and be relegated to just signing up sellers for the giant conglomerate and being on the hook for the majority of the liabilities.

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