Yesterday, in a grand example of what happens when you launch a site without properly preparing for the potential impact of good word-of-mouth marketing, managed to launch and crash an interesting new service in the same day. Zillow has been dubbed the Kelley Blue Book for homes because it aims to allow home buyers to look up valuable data on the homes and neighborhoods where they are considering a purchase.

Users are supposed to be able to look up things like the current home valuation, the date and purchase price of the last sale and information on the prices of comparable homes in the area. The service is free (it's supported by ads) and claims to have data on more than 60 million home throughout the United States. has been funded by about $32 million in venture capital put up by Benchmark Capital, Technology Crossover Venture and other private investors was founded by former Expedia execs Rich Barton and Lloyd Frink.

Unfortunately, along with all the great hype about the service, came waves and waves of interested users that so overwhelmed the site's servers that it became virtually inaccessible. Even today, the site has a notice on the front page that reads "Site seems slow? Close your eyes and envision your perfect home... By then maybe the server can handle our zillions of visitors."

Oddly enough, we were taking about very issue earlier this week at the Web Marketing Made Simple seminar that I spoke at with Matt Bailey. In our session on viral marketing, we talked about the risks that come with rapid expansion. Anyone in the tech field that has been Slash dotted knows that a single listing there can crash your server in a matter of a day. Search marketers watched last fall as Google offered up free analytics and then fell apart under the weight of demand that was two to three times higher than what they expected. Viral marketing and word of mouth can be an amazing way to spread the word about your product, but it can also be an effective way to crash and burn amidst overloaded servers, or on a small business scale, overloaded sales forces.

Good marketing not only entails bringing in the customers, but also being prepared for their arrival. The type of irresponsible planning that it takes to crash from overload on your first day live seems more like something that would have happened during the dot com bubble than in the more enlightened dot com offices of today. It will be interesting to see what the long term implications of the crash mean to Zillow and how they manage to spin it through their public relations machine.

Even beyond the issue of not being to handle the load, I'm a bit suspect of the quality of their information. Having just moved to a new home myself, I thought I'd see what it said about our neighborhood. I was surprised to see that the data that it listed for our home was far from accurate. Our four bedroom home was listed as a 3 bedroom, and the square footage included only the first floor. It also listed our home as having baseboard heat and a fireplace. There is no fireplace and it's actually had a forced air furnace since the prior owners moved here more than forty years ago. Even the tax valuation was woefully out of date, listing the valuation that the home had received at least a decade or two ago, despite having a 2004 date tacked to it. In fact, the only thing the site seemed to have right was the year our home was built and the lot size.

To Zillow's credit, I also went and looked up a few other homes that belonged to people I know. The data seemed to be a little bit more accurate for my brother-in-law's neighborhood, but when I typed in my parent's address, the valuation that came up was what they paid for the home...more than thirty years ago. I'd imagine that this is simply the type of thing where you need to consider the data on the site in regards to what you already know. I certainly wouldn't think that users can blindly trust any data that's provide, but I'd like to think that Zillow wouldn't have launched such a potentially powerful tool without doing at least some work to make sure the data was accurate.

What lesson can you learn from this? The need to make sure that your product is truely ready for launch before you begin promoting it. Before you take on a new search marketing campaign, or a new viral marketing or link building campaign, consider the implications. Are you ready for the influx in traffic, in visitors, in sales? Will your business be able to handle the extra load, or will you wilt under the pressure? A little advanced planning can save a lot of headaches.

Discuss this article in the Small Business Ideas forum.

February 9, 2006

Jennifer Laycock is the Editor of Search Engine Guide, the Social Media Faculty Chair for MarketMotive and offers small business social media strategy & consulting. Jennifer enjoys the challenge of finding unique and creative ways to connect with consumers without spending a fortune in marketing dollars. Though she now prefers to work with small businesses, Jennifer’s clients have included companies like Verizon, American Greetings and Highlights for Children.

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