UPDATE: Since this blog was posted, Clareity has published a more thorough paper on this subject: Syndication To Real Estate Portals
I’ve had some great conversations since my presentations at the Clareity MLS Executive Workshop and AEI on the subject of listing syndication and I thought I would share…
First, let’s talk terms. There are a lot of problems with listing distribution today, including for IDX and VOWs and some data license uses, but to help us explore syndication better, use Brian Larson’s definition: “Listing syndication is the distribution in bulk of active real estate listings (listings currently available for sale), by or on behalf of the listing agent or listing broker, to sites that will advertise them on the web to consumers, excluding IDX sites and VOWs operated by MLS participants/subscribers.” At AEI a few weeks ago I talked about listing distribution more widely, but let’s stick to syndication for this post.
My presentation at the Clareity workshop was focused on the need for MLSs to help provide tools and education to their subscribers about the actual benefits of syndicating to specific websites. My belief is that if brokers understand that a specific portal (I won’t call out any one of them specifically) only provides a single digit percentage of listing exposure (in relation to online exposure) and likely under 2% of overall exposure (counting both online and offline), they will make better decisions about where to send that listing, being able to compare the benefits of that exposure to the value of portal sales calls and up-sells as well as the effort needed to keep the listings up to date, and even more strategic issues such as how well the portal addresses accuracy issues, and even more obscure issues such as intellectual property. They also won’t panic because their listing isn’t on a site or isn’t accurate – because they won’t have the misunderstanding that any one portal is providing a significant percentage of their online listing exposure.
Most of the problems with listing syndication accuracy today don’t come from MLS-based syndication. While there may still be an issue of “too many websites reaching into broker and agent pockets” when listings are sent “everywhere”, MLSs and their syndication partners (i.e. Point2) are good at working with sites to keep listings up to date. I should also point out that Point2 doesn’t really send the listings everywhere (that’s just hyperbole on one of their slides) – they help vet the portals asking for the data. At any rate, the main issue with syndication happens when brokers either syndicate on their own but haven’t established a process for updating listings when they change price, status, etc. – or worse, when the MLS syndicates and the broker does as well, and so do “postlet” type tools, virtual tour companies, agents submitting single listings – and then there are duplicate listings, often with small differences in the listing or parts of the listing that have become out of date in the non-MLS sourced listing.
I respect Trulia’s desire to get a reference feed from MLSs to deal with data inaccuracies – they’re trying to do right by the consumer and broker and give the MLS visibility into where inaccurate data originates. According to Trulia, it was their MLS Advisory Board that came up with the idea – a board made up of well-respected MLS CEOs including Jim Harrison, Russ Bergeron, Carl DeMusz, Art Carter, David Charron, and Kathy Condon. So far, in a beta with MRED, NORMLS, and MLSListings, Trulia has found that approximately 9% of listing data sent to real estate websites from 3rd parties have inaccurate price or status information. This shows that sites that accept non-MLS data are definitely going to have an accuracy issue that they need to address. Whether there’s a reference feed from the MLS like Trulia is trying to get or some other method, like constantly re-checking accuracy with the data submitter (with non-regular-validation leading to the listing being taken down), something needs to be done to improve data accuracy.
So, beyond providing tools like Point2 and helping educate brokers so they syndicate more strategically, what can be done? There are some people talking about swinging the syndication pendulum way back in the other direction – not giving the portals and other web sites all of the data they need to provide the consistent user experience consumers expect, or trying to make them use what we used to refer to as “transient download”. There’s a part of me that’s very attracted to the simplicity of those plans. But I’m not sure that MLSs are going to be able to do that without a lot of push-back – especially once brokers see the potential negative impact on user experience that some of these plans might have. Don’t forget that direct and often manual listing postings on popular sites was started by agents and brokers. The MLS followed, adding both a very valuable service that relieved its members from the tedious and risky practice, and tackling data timeliness and accuracy online at the same time. There have been several brokers and franchises putting out press releases lately about their agreements to provide listings directly to portals, and I’m not sure anyone is going to be able to interfere in those relationships. I could see the issue used as a wedge between brokers and between MLSs themselves. The reaction among brokers I’ve spoken with has been very mixed to these plans, trending negative. But, we’ll see if some of those ideas gain traction anyway – I certainly understand their merits.
Right now, I’m leaning more toward having certified listings on web sites – call it “MLS Fresh” or some more clever phrase. Trulia is exploring some type of optional MLS-attribution. We’ve also seen Homes.com’s effort to create “MLS Trusted”. It would be similar to how car sites work that take listings both from dealers and private citizens today – everyone knows the dealer listings more accurate and up to date. Maybe we could establish standards for display, such as more prominent display of source and last update. Maybe even beyond the “MLS Fresh” listings, we could persuade portals to ask brokers and agents to affirm the accuracy of manually posted data more often. I think there are a lot of interesting solutions we could try to fix what we have now, with MLSs, syndication partners (Point2, Threewide, etc.), MLS vendors, and IDX/VOW vendors and portal providers working together to establish better processes and standards with which we all win – MLSs, portals, brokers, agents, and consumers. But I don’t think this is something that portals, website providers, or MLSs can fix on their own properly – it’s going to take cooperation on an improved process.
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