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VIRTUAL REALTY

Dot-Com Means Dot-Competition

April 22, 2001|JENNIFER OLDHAM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Competition escalated last week between the Internet's top real estate portals, Microsoft's HomeAdvisor.com and Westlake Village-based Homestore.com.

Rival news releases claiming the most traffic in March prompted a disagreement about how each company measures and interprets the number of visitors to its Web offerings.

HomeAdvisor said it logged more traffic last month, about 3.6 million unique users, than Realtor.com, Homestore.com's flagship Web site, with 3.3 million users, according to data compiled by Media Metrix, an independent service that rates Web sites. These figures mark the first month HomeAdvisor eclipsed Realtor.com on the Media Metrix scale.

Homestore.com countered that it logged twice as much traffic as HomeAdvisor, according to Media Metrix figures, with 7.2 million users in March for its family of Web sites.

HomeAdvisor argues that its traffic should be compared with Realtor.com, while Homestore.com says figures for all its sites should be considered. Traffic figures are important because real estate agents and multiple listing services use them to determine where to post their home listings, and advertisers and investors look at them when deciding where to spend their money.

Since it released its revamped Web site last spring, HomeAdvisor has been trying to catch up with 4-year-old Homestore.com, the Internet's largest real estate portal. Homestore.com built a tremendous lead in online real estate by affiliating with the National Assn. of Realtors and signing exclusive agreements with real estate boards throughout the country for their home listings.

These exclusive arrangements, which are under investigation by the Department of Justice because they allegedly prevent other sites from using the listings, allowed Homestore.com to build the largest unrivaled database of home listings on the Internet. Home listings are considered the most important ingredient for real estate Web sites because they attract visitors, boosting traffic.

In addition to disagreements about how to compare traffic figures for Web sites, Homestore.com alleged last week that HomeAdvisor is inflating the number of consumers that visit its service each month by counting users that visit non-real-estate-related Microsoft Network sites.

For example, users that click on the classifieds link on the Microsoft Network's home page are directed to a listing of classified ads posted under the address http://home advisor.msn.com/classifieds--a site that also lists classifieds for autos, travel and jobs, Homestore.com said.

Also, visitors to Microsoft's TerraServer site, at http://terraserver. homeadvisor.msn.com/default.asp, where users can view satellite pictures of homes, are also illegitimately logged as HomeAdvisor viewers, Homestore.com said.

"It would seem to be obvious that they're trying to put forth to the real estate industry that they have more traffic than they probably do," said Stuart Wolff, chairman and chief executive of Homestore.com.

HomeAdvisor countered that Homestore.com inflates its numbers by counting traffic to Cendant Corp.'s Web sites, such as http://century21.com and http://coldwellbanker.com, which don't provide direct links to Homestore.com or show its brand on their home pages.

It added that because HomeAdvisor is considered part of Microsoft Network's menu of services, it's legitimate to count traffic to certain MSN sites as HomeAdvisor traffic.

'One of our biggest assets is our relationship with MSN," said Matt Heinz, a product manager at HomeAdvisor. "We're trying to leverage that relationship and get those people to visit HomeAdvisor."

Heinz added that the TerraServer feature is real estate-related and is popular with real estate agents and brokers.

Homestore.com countered that the inclusion of Cendant's user figures in the company's overall numbers is also legitimate because they're real estate-related sites.

HomeAdvisor and Homestore.com aren't the first to clash over how to count traffic online. Its not unusual for Web sites to inflate their user numbers in an effort to attract advertisers and to satisfy investors and venture capitalists, industry observers say.

Several independent ratings boards, including Nielsen NetRatings and Media Metrix, count traffic for the Internet's most popular Web sites and release these figures monthly. These firms install software on consumers' home PCs to track which sites they visit each month. The services then use this data to estimate U.S. traffic on the Web.

When asked about the dispute between Homestore.com and HomeAdvisor, NetRatings and Media Metrix representatives said they didn't think either service was inflating its numbers.

"There's no inflation going on," said Max Kalehoff, a senior manager at Media Metrix.

As important as traffic figures at these real estate portals is the number of home listings available.

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