Meg White is the former managing editor of REALTOR® Magazine.
Everyone knows that the listing agent’s duty is to get property sold under the best conditions for the seller. Usually that means getting the listing in front of as many eyeballs as possible. But spreading your data far and wide can have unforeseen consequences. “A lot of folks don’t know where their data is going,” says Kip Cooper, CEO of the Huntsville (Ala.) Area Association of REALTORS® and the North Alabama Multiple Listing Service. “They just set the dial and forget about it.”
After hearing from frustrated members—including one whose listing was next to a video explaining how to buy and sell property without the help of a real estate agent—the association decided it needed a different approach to distributing its data. It was time to “take control of the information,” he says.
More on the listing data debate
The North Alabama Multiple Listing Service took one route—ending an agreement with a company that distributes listing data to more than 50 websites—but there are almost as many distribution scenarios as there are listings at any given time. From a “pocket listing” with no public exposure to a listing advertised on a public-facing MLS site, brokers’ sites and feeds, realtor.com®, Zillow, Trulia, Homes.com, and the local newspaper site, or some combination thereof, the possibilities are virtually endless.
The one thing nearly everyone can agree on is that sellers should have the final say as to where their property is advertised online. To make an informed decision, they’ll need your guidance. That starts with understanding syndication—the process of distributing listing data to online portals.
Typically, when you enter listing data, including photos and video, into your MLS, you have options regarding just how the MLS and other MLS participants will use your content. The National Association of REALTORS®’ Internet Data Display (IDX) and Virtual Office Website (VOW) policies authorize electronic display of listing content by other cooperating participants under specific rules. The policies also say a broker’s listing content can’t be transferred to a third-party site without the listing broker’s consent. The purpose is to ensure that brokers retain control over where their listing content appears and that the data is up-to-date.
What is IDX?
Also known as “broker reciprocity,” Internet Data Exchange gives MLS participants the ability to authorize other participants to display their listings electronically and exercise some control over the display of listing data. In May 2000, NAR’s board of directors voted to add IDX to the existing MLS policy. The IDX policy has been modified six times since then. Learn more at NAR's IDX topic page.
But such safeguards aren’t necessarily in place when it comes to data aggregators (sometime referred to as portals, sites that display listings from several sources) or syndicators (those who push listing data out to other sites). Displays that aren’t governed by the MLS rules or controlled by a person connected with the transaction can easily become out-of-date or contain inaccurate information, as any agent who’s had to answer e-mails from excited buyers inquiring about a home that sold months before can wearily attest. Finally, there’s almost zero control to be had over the information posted by data “scrapers,” who lift listing data and often post it far and wide without any rights to do so.
MLSs have been syndicating their data to aggregators since 1996, when realtor.com® put the real estate industry at the center of the burgeoning dot-com world. Today, a majority of MLSs syndicate their data under the premise that it’s the best way to reach consumers where they’re shopping. Syndicators like ListHub and Point2 make it relatively easy, delivering data to dozens of aggregators including Zillow and Trulia—and providing analytics to MLS participants. But in the past year, MLSs and syndicators have been moving toward imposing more controls on how data is used.
Update: ListHub recently ended its syndication agreement with Zillow Group. Learn more about the split here.
Besides the concern that consumers will see out-of-date or inaccurate data, critics charge that third-party aggregators use their listing data to attract traffic and ad dollars and to capture and sell leads. Others are frustrated with aggregators that sell ZIP code–based “local expert” status to their competitors or present a distorted view of market values.
And as in Huntsville, MLSs are beginning to assert their own interests, says Saul Klein, industry principal with Yardi-owned Point2. Without controls on what data is syndicated and how it’s used, he says, MLSs could be giving away the farm. Klein’s talking about monetization of “derivative works,” or companies profiting from big-data solutions built using MLS data.
Not surprisingly, third-party aggregators see things differently. Zillow positions itself as the go-to resource for consumers, but Chief Revenue Officer Greg Schwartz says the company is working hard to build relationships within the industry. Schwartz notes that the company has signed more than 200 brokers to its Zillow Pro for Brokers program, through which brokers provide an MLS-sourced feed of their listing data to Zillow. In areas where Zillow has multiple agreements covering the same market areas, the free program allows brokers to choose the data source—whether it’s the brokerage’s data, a ListHub aggregation, or an MLS feed—that will take precedence over or trump other sources. Brokers also get analytic data and preferred placement for agents on their own listings.
Trulia, too, is actively courting the industry. The company purchased the marketing and lead management solution Market Leader in 2013 for about $355 million and has launched a number of tools for real estate agents and brokers, including an app, Trulia for Agents. “We get some listing information from MLSs that syndicate their data,” says Matt Flegal, senior manager of communications for Trulia. “We also allow MLSs to use our Trulia Data Connect service to share listings directly. And, we get listings directly from brokers and agents. Our goal is to have the most current, accurate data possible.”
As the official property listing website of NAR, realtor.com® has the advantage of direct relationships with more board- operated MLSs, which gives it the ability to say its data is most accurate. The site, which is operated by San Jose, Calif.–based Move Inc., receives listings from more than 800 MLSs and updates most listings every 15 minutes. Like its competitors, realtor.com® sells marketing solutions to real estate practitioners. However, it doesn’t charge for leads, and its core mission includes keeping real estate brokers and agents central to the transaction. “It’s not something that can be quantified in dollars and cents or in traffic. It’s just a very important part of continuing to build what we believe is a unique brand value proposition,” says Move CEO Steve Berkowitz. “We will always be promoting the value a REALTOR® brings to the transaction.”
While most brokers have embraced the idea of sharing listing data, there are plenty of practitioners who just wish the third-party sites would go away. But that’s not realistic, says Jeff Barnett, vice president of the Los Gatos, Calif., office of Alain Pinel, REALTORS®, during an MLS forum at the REALTORS® Conference & Expo in November. “I would love not to have Zillow, Trulia, and all of the rest of them, but in reality that’s not the way it works.”
Recognizing the staying power of these sites doesn’t mean giving up the fight for consumer attention. In some areas, MLSs are looking to wrest away that coveted top spot in a Google search result by making their own consumer play. The public-facing, broker-run MLS site used by Barnett’s office is well-liked by consumers and “has leads that go back to the agents,” which Barnett says translates to a 99 percent opt-in rate among brokers.
One of the most successful examples of a public-facing site is that of the Houston Area Association of REALTORS®. HAR.com debuted in 1997; by March 2013, HAR says, the site had facilitated 1 million home sales. The Houston association recently announced a public-private partnership to launch a mobile app connecting real estate data with city services and other local data. Houston city officials see the marriage of real estate and municipal information as a natural for consumers. “This app meets the needs of our new residents while being equally valuable to those who’ve called Houston home for some time,” Houston Mayor Annise Parker said in an October 2013 statement. “They need quick and easy access to real estate resources as well as general information about the city.”
Other public-facing MLSs are integrating new tools to bring in more users from all over the world. The Metropolitan Indianapolis Board of REALTORS®’ public-facing MLS site offers listings in twelve different languages, each with a direct link to the brokers’ site and contact information for the listing agent.
Not everyone likes the idea of these consumer sites. Critics see the public-facing portals as direct competition with brokerage websites and individual IDX feeds. Because brokers pay to participate in the MLS, they might also see the sites as a forced contribution to the visibility of competitors.
John Mosey, president of NorthstarMLS, which serves the Minnesota-Western Wisconsin market, says he has been asked by nonmember shareholders to create a public-facing MLS site but has resisted because of broker opposition. “We serve our broker and agent community,” Mosey said at the MLS forum in November.
The Indianapolis board has a different perspective, CEO Stephen J. Sullivan told attendees at the forum. “Where would [consumers] go if they didn’t go to our website? They would probably go someplace that’s going to charge [brokers] to get those leads back,” he said. “That’s why some of the larger brokers tolerate it.”
Whether or not they host a public-facing site, all MLSs have to answer to their participants on the question of data integrity. Indeed, one criticism leveled by practitioners has been that MLSs’ syndication agreements themselves are responsible for the far-flung presence of their listing data.
In general, though, individual brokers are the ones with ultimate control. Syndicators such as ListHub—owned by Move—rely on a prescribed set of data standards to access listing data. Designated brokers can log on to ListHub and manage how their office’s listings are syndicated across a variety of online aggregators. But, as Cooper in Hunstville discovered, just because brokers have control doesn’t mean they are actively managing the feeds.
Cooper isn’t the only executive whose MLS is moving to a different distribution model. After receiving unanimous consent from board members, the Austin (Texas) Board of REALTORS® announced last September it would end its ListHub agreement on April 30. The association’s task force in charge of studying the issue found that, in the five years since the agreement had been forged, many brokers had their feeds on autopilot.
“Most did not remember setting up ListHub, nor did they have any idea which websites their agents’ listings were being sent to,” says task force member Jonathan Boatwright, co-owner of Realty Austin. He says brokerages set their syndication levels to maximize online marketing impact years ago. That was before ListHub’s reach had grown to 58 different third-party websites, where, in some cases, data wasn’t updated frequently or was blended with information from outside sources.
“Members voiced concerns about the way their listings were being presented and the confusion it caused,” he says. “[The blanket syndication] causes consumers to question our credibility as they inquire about outdated listings and then feel like they are getting the bait-and-switch.”
When the direct ListHub feed to aggregators ends this spring, the board’s 9,400 brokers and agents will have to decide where and how they want to post their listings online.
Though he’s an agent with Keller Williams, a company that provides listing syndication to its agents and brokers via Market Leader, Jordan Gouger believes ABoR made the wrong choice. Home buyers are “trained to go to Trulia and Zillow and maybe realtor.com®,” he says. In addition to having his leads syndicated out to aggregators via ListHub, Gouger advertises on Trulia. He acknowledges that the data quality isn’t perfect on outside aggregators’ sites but says that’s where the consumers are.
The Austin association says the decision wasn’t about punishing the aggregators or syndicators for inaccurate data. “We are simply getting the Board of REALTORS® out of the business of syndicating member listings to nonmember websites,” Boatwright says. “Third-party websites will continue to provide advertising services for members who find value in their services, but members will be able to negotiate directly with each company they choose to advertise with, rather than blindly sending their listings to 58 different publishers.”
Cooper’s North Alabama Multiple Listing Service Inc. also made a move away from ListHub, but it decided to become more involved in syndication rather than less. In October 2013, the MLS—which represents more than 2,000 real estate professionals in seven markets—set up separate, confidential agreements with sites such as Trulia, Homes.com, Zillow, realtor.com®, and others. Each agreement forges a direct feed of members’ listings to each site and delivers web analytics data from the sites back to brokers. Listings are syndicated by Atlanta-based Bridge Interactive Group. Cooper says the agreements ensure that listing data from brokers trumps all other data that third-party sites might normally add to a listing without such protections. “This puts all of the power back in the hands of our REALTORS®. It puts them back in the center of the transaction,” says Cooper. The new system also helps the MLS see where the data goes after that first syndication push. “We know the minute our feed goes someplace that it does not belong.”
Cooper cites the same issue as Boatwright in Austin: Many brokers weren’t managing the aggregation process under ListHub. “There are controls that ListHub puts in place, but it’s up to the brokers to limit it,” Cooper says. Even if brokers are vigilant about each and every listing, however, “often it’s the end user that is resyndicating without permission.”
Cooper says he’s seen pretty much universal buy-in from his MLS participants. Still, he admits that this first-of-its-kind restructuring was easier for his area than it would be elsewhere, because the MLS already has a robust web presence at ValleyMLS.com. The member-owned listings site is “the highest performing public-facing website for real estate websites” in the area, he says, which made it much easier to get buy-in from members.
“For us to pull out of ListHub, there was not as much fear on the broker side,” he says. “Your very small MLSs would have a degree of difficulty.”
And taking control of syndication may be more than some MLSs want to handle. In a statement last November, ListHub General Manager Luke Glass said the company had welcomed back some MLSs “who have experienced first- hand the complexity of managing listing distribution independently.” For example, the Corpus Christi (Texas) Association of REALTORS® returned to ListHub in 2013 after two years of managing syndication for its members independently. ListHub said in November that it was powering 450 data sources across the country.
With MLSs taking a variety of approaches to secure data, what’s the effect on REALTORS®’ own portal, realtor.com®?
“Because of our unique industry position and relationships, these decisions have had no impact on realtor.com®,” says Move’s Berkowitz. Of course, Move wasn’t happy to see ListHub lose a customer, but in the case of Austin’s expiring agreement, he notes that “instead of getting a single feed from ListHub, other portals will now have to sign over 1,000 individual brokers and manage that number of individual data feeds. Realtor.com® will continue to have one agreement and one feed from the Austin MLS.”
In the coming years, MLSs and brokers will continue to change the agreements they use to syndicate their listings online. And that might not be a bad thing. While the huge variety of listing agreement landscapes makes tackling this issue more difficult, some see the advantages of diversity.
In a recent commentary, Washington REALTORS® state director Sam DeBord, of Coldwell Banker Danforth in Seattle, wrote that this tumultuous situation is something “that most industries would kill for."
“Boards from across the country can simultaneously take widely divergent steps to attempt to improve the way listing data is displayed,” he wrote. “There are hundreds of MLS organizations, and just as many different ways to approach the marketing of their listings … If every major metro’s MLS adopted a different approach to marketing and syndication, we’d get the largest test case we could possibly imagine with real-world results.”