Problems at Zillow? Confusing UI? Yes. Deceptive? Maybe.

UPDATE: Zillow has replied, see the comments section.

Don’t get me wrong, I am (or at least was) a fan of Zillow, but my personal experience, described below, suggests that there may be problems beneath the surface (otherwise how and why would this have occurred).

I’ve asked the company to comment, but have received nothing, unless you count the two customer service emails I received (screenshots below). I ask them again at the end of this blog.

So, the problem started when…

…on September 24th, I went to re-order a Zillow “EZ Ad” I ran earlier this year.

I signed on and navigated to “My EZ Ads” (screenshot below).  So far, so good.


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The following screens are what come up when you get into the EZ Ad section:


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As you can see, the screens let you:

  1. create a new EZ Ad, or
  2. renew and existing one, which is what I did (or thought I did).

Everything worked great. I found my previous EZ Ad, went through the renewal process, and paid $43.  Done deal (I thought).

The next day (September 25th) I logged on to my account to see how the ad was doing and this is what I saw (sorry, I saved these pages as PDFs, not knowing this would develop into a blog):


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Highlighted in yellow, and barely noticeable, you see it says “Showcase Ad,” which is not what I ordered.  In fact, I had no idea what it was, even after looking around the website to try to find out.

I then looked for Zillow’s “Contact Us” link, which every reputable website has, usually in its footer. Zillow has no “contact us” link. The closest it comes is a “Feedback” link and a “Help” link (see below).  Why no easy way to “Contact Us”?  It can’t be because they don’t have the money, they do, they’ve raised over $87 million in venture capital.


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When you click to either of those pages, there is no contact info or even a link to a page with contact info. In fact, to find any mention of the word “contact,” I had to search the Internet, which lead to a FAQ page that says “We’re not really staffed up to answer calls or e-mails yet”:


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Luckily, the next time I logged in to check the ad status, I did see a showcaseads@zillow.com email address. So I immediately sent the following email to Zillow.


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Yes, I was a little annoyed, but I didn’t flame them. Yes, I did let them know that I’m a blogger and that if this turned into something newsworthy, I would write about it, which is what I’m doing now, but that was not meant as a threat.

The next day, not having received a reply yet and wondering about the status of the ad, I signed in and took the following screenshot, which shows zero ads displayed so far (note: the Zillow stats are on 24-hours lag):


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At 7:24 PM, I took another screenshot, which showed the ad had started running, accruing 26 impressions:

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Here’s my second attempt to contact Zillow (also sent on the 26th):

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Maybe I should have waited another day or two, and maybe I shouldn’t have mentioned the blogger/website stuff, but I was annoyed about having to be deal with this “ordered one thing and received something else and now must fix” situation.

Plus the incident was starting to smell newsworthy, especially if Zillow failed to reply or its reply suggested it was actually ok with taking some little customer’s $43 when that person made an honest mistake and contacted them about it immediately and before a single ad was shown or penny spent.

It’s an even bigger story when you consider the possibility that the little customer was intentionally deceived, or even bait-and-switched.  I’ll give Zillow the benefit of the doubt, as I don’t yet know when they discontinued EZ Ads and started switching people into Showcase ads.  Zillow, what is that date? The story gets bigger and bigger the longer ago that happened, because it means that all that time the same thing that happened to me was probably happening to other people.  You can also make an educated guess that not all of those people complained, let alone persistend after receiving Zillow’s “too bad, no refunds, like it says in the fine print” reply — yes, that’s coming up (after the following sidenote).

Sidenote: I am a persistent person.  I am especially persistent if I think I’ve been ripped off.  I’m even more persistent when I think people less able to stand up for themselves be getting ripped off, which is case here, which is why I’ve spent hours putting together this blog post. I cannot and will not stand for that.  I’m sick of all the “me, me, me” shit.  We (all of us) need to stand up for each other more than for ourselves.  Imagine if standing up for each other was the norm?  I’ve ranted about that numerous times before, (here’s one spot).  In this case, if by calling Zillow out on this, fewer (no?) people get “confused” into buying something they didn’t want and/or get denied a refund when they catch the “mistake” and contact Zillow to fix it or get a refund, then I’ve done the right thing, even if it’s cost me hours of my time (and I’m busy as heck right now, just like everybody else).

One more thing before we get back to the Zillow chronology:  On top of my “not gonna get ripped off and not gonna stand by while other people get ripped off” motivation, Zillow is a Web 2.0 site run by people who I (used to?) look up to.  As many of you know, I’m struggling to launch a Web 2.0 project called BuzzPal – The World Is Your Party! (here’s a 1-minute YouTube video of me explaining BuzzPal).  I read about Web 2.0 founders and teams like Zillow every day (and I meet these people at events).  These Zillow guys, Richard Barton and David Beitel, are quite something.  They are Stanford and Cornell guys, then Microsoft, from where they grew and took public Expedia, then sold it to IAC Interactive, one of the largest online media companies in world, then started Zillow, for which they’ve so far raised over $87 million in venture capital.

Richard and David are privileged and in a position to set good examples and make a difference in the world with their money and influence.  I am shocked and disappointed that they have chosen to do this, which would be the case if they (a) did it on purpose; (b) know about it, but did nothing to fix it; or (c) knew about it, but dragged their feet to fix it.  I’m stil disapointed if they are so out of touch with their business as to not know about this troubling situation. Who knows, maybe it was all some kind of mistake.  Maybe Zillow literally JUST canceled the EZ Ads the day I tried to renew, which might help explain the confusing screens and the problem they caused (but not Zillow’s initial reply to me).  Anyway, everybody gets the benefit of the doubt in my book, it’s their reputation, and if throwing that out the window for money is what they want to do, that’s their choice.  I don’t think that’s what they want to do, and this blog is my invitation to Richard and David to clear the air and make things right, fix the problems that lead to this, and change the refund policy for people caught in this “mistake.”  Also to go back to when the EZ Ads were cancelled and make sure everyone who contacted them about this problem is taken care of, with their choice of some credit on Zillow or a 100% refund.  What say you, Richard, and David?

Ok, almost done with this sidenote.  Let me close by saying that the Web 2.0 startup and developer community is full of great people, which I’ve found refreshing after spending some years in an aggressive venture finance shop.  Don’t get me wrong, that was a priceless experience (and mostly fun) for me as a startup founder, but it was extreme capitalism.  Now I live in Sweden, a country where everyone has healthcare, childcare, a month or more off every summer, plus dozens of other days off, holidays, I think a year of family leave for every kid, a fantastic transportation system, and much more.  I’m not saying Sweden has a perfect system, but it’s really fascinating to see a system that holds the good of the many above the good of the few.  And it’s interesting to learn that, contrary to what most American politicians, big businesses, and media companies would have you believe, it is cheaper and better to run a system like this than it is to run a system like the USA has (but they like the status quo, the profit from it, at everyone else’s expense).  The average person I have seen here in Sweden has a really nice quality of life, a much higher standard of living than the average American I have seen, and that is no exaggeration at all, come see for yourself.

Back to Zillow: It is offering advertising to people like me, who was trying to spend $43 to advertise my $139,000 lot in Montana. I thought these kinds of small consumers were supposed to be handled with kid gloves, no? If they get confused, help them.  Stand behind your products and services.  Offer a guarantee.  At least make sure they get what they think they’re getting and try to minimize the chance that they get confused or deceived, and if they do, fix it or offer them a refund without a hassle.  It’s quite simple.  It’s basically a form of the Golden Rule (treat others how you would like to be treated).

Now back to the timeline (we’re almost to the part that got me heated up enough to write this blog).  This next screenshot is from the 29th at 11:30 AM and it shows 79 impressions:


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That means there were 53 impressions in 2.67 days, or about 20 per day (average rate). The Showcase Ad I was switched into runs for 30 days.  At 20 impressions per day, that would be 600 impressions.  At $43, the cost would be $0.07 per impression.  My original EZ Ads cost, as I recall, $0.01 per impression.  So this “mistake” or deception or whatever you call it resulted in me getting something that cost seven times more than what I thought I was getting. No wonder Zillow wants to switch people into these new ads, huh?!

Finally, six days from when I sent my original email plus a 2nd attempt, I received the following email from Zillow (on October 1st):


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I was pretty pissed and shocked and sent the following reply (on October 2nd), this time copying in Zillow representative Amanda Hoffman, with whom I corresponded regarding this blog post:


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To which, on October 3rd, I received this email from a different customer service rep at Zillow. Still no reply from Amanda Hoffman:

To which, the same day, I sent this, my final email, about this incident. I still have not heard a back from Amanda or any other Zillow management, just the customer support personnel you see named in the two Zillow emails above. They don’t even use their last names (for safety?) and it’s not even the same person who replied to the messages.

Open Questions to Zillow’s Management:

  1. On what date were Zillow EZ Ads discontinued?
  2. Do you agree that some people may have been (maybe still are?) “confused” by the apparent ability to buy or renew EZ-Ads when in fact Zillow no longer offers them?
  3. If not, please explain how that can be when you look at the screenshots presented here.
  4. If so, what are you doing about it and when?
  5. Do you think it is ok to switch people into products they did not buy and may not want?
  6. Will you offer refunds to other people who were “confused” without them having to go through the gyrations that I did (I was initially denied a refund).
  7. What about the initial response I got, was it acceptable?  Is it acceptable, in general, to not refund money to people who were switched into a product they didn’t want?
  8. What about the 6-day response time I got?  Does that meet Zillow’s quality standards?  What are Zillow’s standards in that regard?
  9. Do you think the terms of service to which your customer service rep referred need updating in any way because of this?
  10. Why is there no “Contact Us” link? Why are you “not really staffed up to answer calls or e-mails yet,” which is what it says on this page, which I screenshoted above?  When and how are you going to make it easier for people to contact you?  Please tell us about your current “customer service” process, policies, reporting, staffing, etc.

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6 thoughts on “Problems at Zillow? Confusing UI? Yes. Deceptive? Maybe.

  1. Hi Chris, it’s David G from Zillow,

    You received a full refund for your ad on October 8th which was our commitment to you in our last communication to you. If you expected more than that from us you certainly did not say so when you thanked us for agreeing to your request for the refund. As such, it’s honestly surprising to be sideswiped by this rant. Please correct your post with the current facts in this regard.

    Please click on the 2nd and 3rd screenshots above and look to the right. How is it possible – especially with all of the time spent on this post – that you did not see the 1-800 number and e-mail address for contacting Zillow’s ad support team? Zillow certainly provides support to advertisers. Please correct your post on this issue as well. The “How can I contact Zillow” page that you referenced has nothing to do with ads and obviously relates to the millions of homeowners that use the site and may want to discuss their Zestimate etc. with us. Hopefully you can understand that Zillow, as a media company that publishes this information fro free, can not afford to staff an 800-number for answering calls about individual homes’ values. We do however moderate and respond to discussions on the site relating to home values and the other free features on Zillow.

    You have neglected to post any screen-shots of the pages you clicked through to and where where you actually ordered the showcase ad. Those pages do in fact very clearly indicate the pricing and the terms of that purchase. It is unfortunate that you didn’t notice the pricing of the ad when you ordered it but it was very clearly communicated to you. Obviously we would offer a similar refund to anyone else who is similarly confused but you may be interested to know that you’re the only one that has been confused by this. I agree with you that we could more clearly explain the transition in the EZ Ad re-ordering process and so we are adding messaging to ensure that this is fool-proof but the fact remains that the pricing of the showcase ads was clearly communicated to you prior to you purchasing that ad.

    None of this should have surprised you. Showcase ads launched on August 14th and I can understand that you missed my blog post (http://tinyurl.com/4922nd) but I am surprised that you missed the personal e-mail that we sent you explaining this change. All previous EZ Ad customers received an e-mail explaining the re-branding from EZ to Showcase Ads and I’ve confirmed with our e-mail folks that you were on the list as a recipient of that mail. In that e-mail we explained how re-ordering an EZ Ad now creates a new Showcase ad – for the convenience of our advertisers who want to retain the creative from their EZ Ads. So please also correct your post to reflect the fact that Zillow did personally communicate this transition to all prior customers.

    If there is some further satisfaction you expect from Zillow in regards to your confusion about purchasing Showcase ads, please e-mail me personally with those details. Otherwise, please just correct your post.

  2. I’m not going to defend my post, and I don’t think it needs any “correcting,” although I will make it clear that as per the Zillow’s October 3rd email, my $43 was refunded (it says so right in that email).

    I will also respond to your comment about “how could I not see the Zillow email address”:

    I did see it, and I did use it. That’s the email address I used in communicating with Zillow, as shown in the email screen shots.

    I will also say that the fact that you did not notice the email address shown in my email screenshots, such as this one http://i27.photobucket.com/albums/c176/skibumcolo/2008/email-2nd-reply-from-zillow-2008-10.png show that it is quite easy for people not to notice things other people think they should notice. It happens. When it does, you should not react like you did. You should understand it happens, people make mistakes, and try to help them, not initially try to keep their money when they come to you and say there was a mistake and they got something they didn’t want and they want to cancel it and get their money back.

    Finally, I am satisfied with your statement that “we would offer a similar refund to anyone else who is similarly confused.”

    And I am partially satisfied with your statement that “we could more clearly explain the transition in the EZ Ad re-ordering process and so we are adding messaging to ensure that this is fool-proof.”

    However, I do wonder why does Zillow even have an EZ-AD reordering process if it no longer sells EZ-ADS (and instead sells something many times as expensive). Could this be the root of the “confusion”? I think so. I mean the UI should in no way suggest that people can reorder something that they can’t reorder. It should not be an option (or look like an option to people like me). That should still be fixed.

  3. Sorry to hear about the layoffs at Zillow (see the below official Zillow announcement that came the day AFTER I published this blog). It’s interesting timing, given my experience, which made me think there were problems, the company was running out of cash, crossing lines, etc. Now we know. Zillow is in full-blown survival mode:

    Difficult Times, Difficult Decisions
    By: Rich Barton, CEO | October 17, 2008
    http://www.zillowblog.com/difficult-times-difficult-decisions/2008/10/

    “This week we are reducing our workforce by 25%. This was an incredibly painful decision for me and the leadership team, but, in the end, we concluded that we had no choice…”

    1. I too, am very upset with Zillow.com and would like to know how to get my property off the site. I would also like to know what criteria they use to evaluate a property. In my experience in several different properties, they don’t use the same criteria and thus, end up with a very inaccurate number. Also, it seems that if they are so short handed they wouldn’t look at a property weekly and change the month’s number — i.e. a home in our neighborhood changed -$12,500 from the 1st to the 28th of the same month, but showed the lower price on the graph as the value on the 1st of the month. I have ZERO confidence that Zillow knows what they are doing.

  4. I know this is not the same subject as the previous blogs, but I don’t know of any way to get in touch with Zillow. Any suggestions anybody??

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