Is Zillow building a ghost town?

I don’t live in the U.S., so isn’t much use to me as a real estate site, but from all I’ve heard it is a fantastic service backed by some smart guys, including several of my friend Stuart MacDonald’s pals from the old Expedia days. You can see how much your neighbour’s house is worth, shop for a new home, etc. Great tool. Now, Zillow has apparently decided it needs to get all Web 2.0 and is adding social networking and even “citizen journalism” features such as chat forums and online polls.

snipshot_e41lnjism6lk.jpgAccording to the Zillow blog, the site has launched more than 6,500 community pages in 134 cities, with more to come. Although the pages have been “seeded” with info, the site says that “the bulk of the content on the Neighborhood Pages we have left up to you, the Zillow community.” The blog encourages users to come to the pages to “meet your neighbors, talk about local news, publicize events like garage sales and get the inside scoop by asking questions of residents who know the area best.” Users can also share photos of the neighbourhood and (of course) check out house prices. John Cook at Seattle PI thinks it could even lead to e-commerce possibilities, and Eric Berlin also sees some potential there.

Colour me skeptical. Could this lead to hundreds of thousands of people forming an online community around their neighbourhoods and chatting, posting news items and photos, etc.? Perhaps. But I just don’t see what is going to be compelling enough to get them to do that — and if there’s a suspected pedophile in the neighbourhood or something that might actually draw people together, it’s unlikely Zillow would want to play host to that.

Greg Swann at Bloodhound Realty shares my skepticism. For one thing, he seems to see the whole effort as a bit of “tit-for-tat” or me-too-ism between Zillow and Trulia, another real-estate service. He says that “neither of these two Realty.bots has come up with a reliable formula for producing that sticky Wiki-Ebay-Amazonian loyalty that will result in a true category-killer.” Both sites are essentially ghost towns, he says, “replete with absolutely everything it takes to make a town except people.”

It may be too early to declare Zillow’s attempt a futile one, but if the failure of Backfence — and before that Bayosphere — have taught us anything, it’s that you can’t just sprinkle some features around and add water and produce a community. It’s a lot harder than that. A lot. As he often does, Jeff Jarvis has some worthwhile thoughts on the topic of local communities, and Amy Gahran looks at why she thinks Backfence failed. Her reasons include: Starting too big and not having enough focus.