Methods of Real Estate Listing Syndication: Point – Counterpoint

October 29, 2013

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Matt CohenSome MLSs are re-evaluating their role in syndication: which sites they will provide syndication to, what technology companies, if any, they will partner with, and whether they will syndicate at all. For example, the Austin Board of REALTORS® announced that they will stop providing syndication services in April of next year, although brokers will be able to work with ListHub on an individual basis. North Alabama Multiple Listing Service (NALMLS) is going further. They are stopping the use of ListHub, choosing a home-grown system, and entering into direct syndication agreements with publishers – a plan they call MLS Direct Syndication™.  In contrast, the Houston Association of REALTORS® recently signed up with ListHub, joining 56 others that have made the same decision this year (426 MLSs total).  At the recent Council of MLS conference, there was a brief discussion of syndication. In order to better understand the differing viewpoints involved, I asked for the input of two of the principals in this debate: Luke Glass, Vice President and General Manager of ListHub, and Kipp Cooper, CEO at Huntsville Area Association of REALTORS and the North Alabama Multiple Listing Service.

The Appeal

In recent months, appeals by online publishers for MLSs to send “direct feeds” outside of ListHub have ramped up.  Some of the largest publisher websites have aggressively pursued MLSs and brokers, seeking to have MLSs and brokers send listing data to them via direct data feeds.  This is often billed by the publisher as a way to:

1)      Increase accuracy,

2)      Post listing updates more frequency,

3)      Expand breadth of data, and

4)      Provide specific contractual commitments between the MLS, broker, and publisher

Glass calls these the “four myths.” He says, “Not only are these claims misleading, but a direct feed would severely damage a whole host of critical benefits that are currently provided to brokers through ListHub.”

How Direct is Direct Enough?

Luke GlassGlass says, “The data feeds that publishers receive from ListHub are direct data feeds. They are simply direct data feeds supported by the MLS’s chosen technology provider, which also provides an array of additional tools and protections for members within a single convenient system.

Perhaps “direct feed” is just not a good term.  When Cooper feeds listings through the MLS Direct Syndication™ system (developed by Bridge Interactive Group), there are as many steps as if Cooper had fed the listings through ListHub. But that’s a technical distinction; what’s really direct in a direct feed is the direct legal relationship between the publisher and the MLS or broker. Can the MLSs and brokers negotiate a better deal with the publisher, one that better protects their interests, or not?  Glass notes that many of ListHub’s MLS/broker/franchise customers have done exactly that – they’ve put in place contractual agreements directly with the publisher regarding advantageous advertising/display terms, while continuing to use ListHub as their syndication platform.  As an example, the majority of Zillow’s Pro broker customers use ListHub to power their listing feeds while separately entering into a direct agreement with Zillow.  These direct agreements, however, typically focus on advertising or display terms because the ListHub agreement already covers the data protections, use, license, et cetera.  The protections secured by ListHub may or may not be superior to what brokers can negotiate on their own, although I am not aware of any entity claiming such.   I’ll come back to Cooper’s thoughts on that later, when we get to the fourth “myth.”

Dispelling the Four Myths

1. Accuracy. According to Glass, “Listings available through ListHub are accurate since they are sourced directly from the MLS.  Sending a direct feed outside of ListHub will not improve the accuracy of listing data in any way.  In reality, problems with data accuracy usually arise from listings that publishers receive through other sources outside of the MLS.  Many sites accept listings that are hand-entered by agents or provided by companies that offer to syndicate listings as an enhancement to other products, like virtual tours.  A better way to solve accuracy issues is for publishers to stop accepting listings from other sources that are proven to be inaccurate.”

Kipp CooperWill publishers stop taking direct feeds from inaccurate sources if MLSs and brokers syndicate directly? This seems doubtful, so Glass seems to have a point with regard to this being a dubious benefit of direct syndication. However, the inaccuracy stems not just from which sources the publishers take data from, but from how they actually use that data. Accurate and timely updated data from the MLS should always trump less accurate and timely sources. Glass says that “ListHub contractually requires that MLS-sourced/broker-authorized listings are at the top of the trumping order, so less reliable data will not overwrite the MLS sourced data.” However, Cooper has a rebuttal to this point: “ListHub allows broker-direct data to trump MLS-supplied data for that same broker. We believe this is not a beneficial practice for our participants because we have a member owned regional MLS that establishes rules that apply to all of our participants. Allowing an individual broker to trump their MLS creates the possibility for inaccuracy and non-compliance with fair housing, state laws and regulations, and MLS participant rules.”  Glass notes this and responds that the overwhelming majority of ListHub listings are MLS sourced, but in some instances, brokers want to use enhanced data from their own systems that include high resolution photos, expanded remarks, customized lead routing, and other data elements not supported by their MLS. Of course, the “enhanced data” advantage is a point that is artificially created as a way to get direct broker feeds – a point that I’ll return to later. Because the broker holds the ultimate legal and advertising responsibility for marketing the listing, ListHub defers to the broker on how they want to syndicate.  ListHub’s perspective is that the broker should be the final authority for how their listings are marketed, and therefore should be at the top of the trumping order.

As things are now, it seems as though both sides have good arguments regarding accuracy. The best solution will be if ListHub, brokers, and the MLS community can find a way to combine broker customizations with MLS accuracy. 

2. Frequency. ListHub retrieves listings four times per day for most MLSs, and creates a single feed to each publisher that is also updated as many as four times per day. Glass says that “In ListHub’s most recent broker survey, 88% of brokers indicated that daily updates were sufficient; however, ListHub is working towards more frequent updates as we believe it is in the best interests of brokers, agents, and their sellers to keep listing data current on publisher sites.” Cooper says that the publishers he syndicates to “are pulling data as often as every 10 minutes, far more frequently than ListHub’s four times per day.” Clearly Cooper’s direct syndication has an edge here – the question is, to what degree will consumers or his members notice the improvement? This could merit further study – it’s unclear at present how much benefit increased frequency provides those with more frequent direct syndication.

3. Breadth.   Some publishers say that a direct feed can increase the number of displayable fields on their site. ListHub already supports the RESO syndication standard including all fields defined as desirable by the publishers that participate in and use that standard. ListHub continues to drive the standard and its expansion of fields, recently adding multiple email address lead routing to allow brokers to send leads to more than one email address. Note that direct feeds that do not support the RESO syndication standard undercut the work of RESO to create a universally supported standard in the industry.  ListHub has long been a supporter of the RESO standard and is fully compliant with the specification. One would assume that if the publishers wanted more fields they would add them to the standard, entering into dialogue with MLSs toward adding the fields to the MLS database if needed, and the publishers could receive the fields from the MLS either directly or through ListHub. Again, it’s not clear that either syndication approach has a long-term advantage here. If it is an advantage at all,  it is one that the publishers are artificially creating.

4. Contractual Commitments. While Cooper feels he must move to a direct feed to get the contractual commitments he requires, Glass says he and others considering direct feeds could continue to “leverage ListHub to provide the technology and support for their syndication initiatives, while negotiating a direct agreement with each of the publishers who display their listings.” But why should the MLS have to create legal agreements outside of ListHub, instead of trying to get ListHub to provide what they want? After all, as Glass says, “Today, our partnership with over 425 MLSs creates strength in numbers … by leveraging our collective voice, we can require MLS data be respected and used in ways that best benefit brokers and consumers.” Glass responded that ListHub actively surveys and solicits feedback from MLSs, and this has directly shaped their current publisher agreement.  Glass notes that this agreement has been reviewed by many of the largest MLSs in the country, and MLS feedback has been that the agreements provide the data protections they are looking for.  Currently, ListHub’s agreements provide many significant benefits for customers, but couldn’t this be taken to the next level, with ListHub acting as a gateway for contractual requirements as well as listing content?  It seems ListHub is open to defining what the “next level” is in conjunction with the MLS community.

The Power of the Platform

ListHub’s value proposition, according to Glass, is the “power of the platform” – the technical legwork that ListHub does to process and transmit the data, combined with the instrumentation for brokers to be able to, in Glass’s words, “gauge the effectiveness of their online marketing… and make smart decisions about their advertising spends.” All the technical, analytic, and administrative functions are gathered in one place. Cooper counters that the ultimate issue is one of control: “Through our platform, the members remain at the center of their data,” not third parties, whether ListHub or those to whom it syndicates data. Glass responds, “The members are unequivocally in control of their listings via the ListHub platform.  In fact, ListHub has built more tools than any vendor in the industry to help MLSs and brokers make informed marketing choices and gauge the effectiveness of publishers through reporting. The view that broker members should remain at the center of their own data is one that ListHub also holds firmly with consistency, and I disagree with Kipp Cooper’s assertion that ListHub somehow doesn’t put members at the center of their data.”

In Cooper’s view, the only way for his MLS to “track and enforce compliance” – for example, in syndication – is if it does so on its own. While Glass has said that his platform provides contractual protections such that “data is to be used for consumer display only and cannot be used in productivity tools or other products not directed to consumers,” when Cooper’s syndication taskforce first met they “went through all of the advertised syndication sites of ListHub and found numerous sites that provide no listing data – and one that even opened with a video telling the viewer how to list and sell your property without using a real estate professional, something that didn’t go over very well with our members.”  Glass responds that he “hears comments like this from time to time, and is happy to review any publisher practices with an MLS.  In almost every case, there is just confusion on the model, and after reviewing the publisher business’s model, there is no issue – there is no site in our network that doesn’t display the listing data in some way.  ListHub goes to great lengths in ensuring that the data is being used for consumer display purposes, including [providing] a note on every publisher saying whether it displays FSBO properties or not. It is then a broker’s choice whether to work with them.”

Cooper says, “As for the Power of the Platform, ListHub makes a compelling case … but ours is better. Why let the middleman dictate your terms? Through MLS Direct Syndication™, our members are able to set the terms of display, specify how often their information is updated, and limit re-syndication to the subscriber-controlled network.  Through our platform, our members remain at the center of their data, not passing that responsibility off to a distant third-party website making money selling their leads back to them.”

Despite the disagreements Cooper has with ListHub, he is not anti-ListHub or anti-syndication, and if syndication partners like ListHub offers him what he needs in the future, it’s not inconceivable that he would reconsider his direct syndication approach. As Cooper says, “It is interesting to us that the Houston association of REALTORS has recently entered into an agreement with ListHub to leverage technology and support. It may be something we entertain in the future but we have decided to move forward with the development of our own analytics dashboard for our brokers that they can see traffic and data on all their listings across our network of syndication partners and opt in or out at any time.”

Glass believes North Alabama MLS could have achieved all its goals without taking on the additional expense of recreating the infrastructure that was already in place with ListHub, infrastructure that is provided to the MLS at no cost.  Significant infrastructure will be required to recreate the platform NAMLS already had:  customized lead routing per agent; redirection traffic sent to broker sites instead of MLS site; aggregated metrics dashboard; listing tracking to know if a listing was accepted/rejected by the publisher to provide support to their members; custom listing destinations (Fannie Mae, Aol, KWLS, etc..); auditing/compliance; broker/agent branding on reports; and a host of other customizations.  Glass goes on to say, “We will continue adding customizations and flexibility to ListHub and hope to work with Kipp and North Alabama in the future.”

But for now, Cooper says that, “The future may or may not be for MLSs to partner with ListHub. That will depend upon the security, protection, and control of data at all levels. We believe that our member-owned and -centered model is one that provides the highest level of security and protection for our members and their clients.” 

Final Words

Glass and Cooper plainly disagree on a range of issues, but agree on many points as well. The main move that could bring them closer together is if more control over what’s in publisher contracts were put in the hands of the MLS.  An agreement with each publisher setting out more stringent rights and responsibilities as set out by the MLS via ListHub, including processes for ListHub to monitor and enforce the agreements in a manner transparent to ListHub’s MLS partners, might go some distance towards improving the relationship between ListHub and its customers. ListHub says it is supportive of content sources (MLS, broker, franchise) negotiating specific agreements with the publishers while still using ListHub as its partner, and it is happy to accept feedback on its standard publisher agreements.  If it can be agreed that the most timely and accurate source of data, including updates, is the MLS ,then, as a part of the MLS / ListHub agreement, there must be a way to combine the broker’s customizations with the base level MLS data to create the best possible listing record for display to the consumer or even better, as suggested, focus on ensuring the MLS includes all the marketing fields a broker might want for syndication.  The power of the ListHub platform is considerable and it’s a shame that Cooper feels that to gain a modicum of control he needs to duplicate the ListHub technical, legal, and service infrastructure.

 

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Author: Matt Cohen

Matt Cohen has been Clareity's Chief Technologist for more than 20 years. He has consulted for many of the top Associations, regional MLSs, large brokerages and franchises, and a wide variety of information and technology companies that service the real estate industry. MLSs, Associations and Franchises look to Matt for help with system selection and negotiation. Real estate software and technology providers look to Matt for assistance with product planning, software design, quality assurance, usability. All seek his expertise in information security assessment. Matt has spoken at many industry events, has been published as an author in Stefan Swanepoel’s “Trends” report and in a variety of MLS and Association magazines and newsletters, and he has been honored by Inman News by being listed as one of the 100 Most Influential Real Estate Leaders in 2013.