Is Facebook coming for Rightmove?

If there’s anyone that you might think would have a chance of toppling Rightmove’s near two-decade dominance of property search in the UK, you’d probably think of Facebook. Your mind might trip over Google on its way to the social media giant … but would then recall that Google tried to be a portal in the late-2000’s with dismal results. Never say never, but for now it’s Facebook that we need to talk about – and it’s urgent.

The TL;DR version is that Zoopla (ZPG) and OnTheMarket (OTM) have syndicated their lettings property stock to Facebook, which it is to merge on its Marketplace and become a destination for renters to find their next property. So far, so whatever.

But – and it’s a big one – this kind of ‘portal for the portals’, aggregating two distinct aggregated property stocks, hasn’t been allowed before. A few have tried it, Nestoria springing to mind, but in general anything that’s going to create a better site with higher abundance of listings than the sources is not going to be tolerated by said sources. That makes sense – a “meta-portal” becomes more attractive to consumers than the portals themselves and, therefore, they lose direct traffic (and value) as a result.

Which is why this move is so huge. Rightmove – in what could well be a direct reinforcement of their name – has chosen to remain on the sidelines in this. They don’t want to compromise their hard-won position as the definitive portal. You want to see most properties available in the UK? You go to Rightmove. Had they piled in with ZPG and OTM and joined Facebook, they’d be signing their own, very slow death warrant. Have ZPG and OTM already done that?

My sense is that ZPG’s move is more strategic. Regular viewers will know that I am convinced Silver Lake – the fund that acquired ZPG for £2.2Bn a few months ago – has plans that will see the portal become an agent before long. Having access to Facebook’s audience makes sense in that context.

OTM, on the other hand, just needs more leads to its members, in order to justify charging them soon. Currently, the majority of them have joined on free trials and need to feel that they’ll be getting incremental – ie distinctly different – value from the portal, otherwise they’re not going to bother parting with even more cash.

But therein lies the rub – if Facebook’s partnership with OTM results in more direct leads, it means that FB is capturing buyers, sellers, landlords and tenants better than OTM is on its own. FB has no reason NOT to allow private sales or lets on its Marketplace.

Could agent-owned portal OTM finally be the conduit for introducing For Sale By Owner (FSBO) into the mainstream, via Facebook?

And, in helping to drive traffic to FB’s Marketplace by providing great content, could OTM also be giving succour to ZPG’s new owners and convincing them that going straight into FSBO on their own site is the next step for them? A step that could be the last before they go full agent, without Alex Chesterman’s restraining hand …?

Plenty that the bland PR around this move doesn’t even begin to cover – but it will play out live, in HD widescreen, for the whole industry over the coming months and years. And one thing’s for certain – there are fewer agent-friendly actors in positions of strength than they were.