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Can MLS Companies Level The Playing Field?

Unbalanced by Steven Leary

Realtors hold all the cards (MLS data), but are aggregators squeaking out the win?
– photo credit

Recently, a Hawaii MLS company (who asked to remain anonymous) audited Hawaii Life Real Estate Brokers and informed me of a few RETS rules and regulations we were violating. The MLS technician assisting me (we’ll call him Kimo) was very helpful, clearly explaining the fixes needed.

Once in compliance, my competitive nature had me checking to see if other Hawaii real estate websites were also following RETS rules and regulations. Some of them were not. Kimo assured me he was working with these brokers and agents, and that they would be compliant soon. This made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. After all, if my competition was able to display data I could not—they would have a huge advantage.

What type of advantage you ask? There are several. As an SEO, I’ve picked out 2 examples that clearly help with search engine rankings:

1) More and better content = more backlinks
For the past couple years, one of my competitors was displaying sold and withdrawn listings without the required login or other RETS stipulations. During this time, he got natural editorial links because he had more data then everyone else. This led to his site becoming #1 in Google for the highly coveted term Oahu real estate. A great strategy that I love, but was it fair to other Realtors? No. The MLS company finally threatened to slap a $15,000 fine on him, so he stopped, but his ranking is already in place.

2) Displaying addresses (you’re not supposed to) = more traffic from long tail
This was one of Hawaii Life’s (unintentional) violations. We were displaying addresses that brokers had marked “not to show.” Of course, there are many reasons why a broker might not want to display an address, including this Craigslist rental scam. But how does this help with search engines? Well, if I’m displaying an address on a webpage that my competitors are not, then when somebody does a long tail search for that address, I’m going to come up in Google and they won’t. And, as you are probably aware, long tail searches are some of the most profitable keywords in real estate.

So, when it comes to Realtors competing against one another…the answer is, “yes.” MLS companies can level the playing field. But what about when it comes to national real estate aggregators? Let’s revisit the 2 examples above:

1) More and better content = more backlinks
Some MLS companies don’t allow us to mix outside content with MLS data (e.g. sold property info is public domain). So, as Realtors, we can’t always display public information—that’s useful to people researching real estate for sale—along side MLS data. But national aggregators are doing just this, gaining natural editorial backlinks (because of their great content) and beating out Realtor websites for local searches.

Fortunately for us here in Hawaii, the MLS that services my Maui real estate offices has allowed us to do just that. As Realtors, we can now pull in data from other sources and display them right along side MLS data. Yeah, baby!

2) Displaying addresses (you’re not supposed to) = more traffic from long tail
As I write this article, both Zillow and Trulia (who were previously in violation) are now conforming to the anonymous Hawaii MLS’ rules. My hat goes off to Kimo for getting this done. We should still consider that this is compliance for one MLS (who had lots of urging from yours truly) and that there may be violations occurring for other MLS companies who are not regulating aggregators as closely.

So, when it comes to Realtors competing against national aggregators…the answer is, “yes” once again. MLS companies can level the playing field—if they choose to. This is great if you’re working with one MLS who is willing to listen. But when you’re working with multiple MLS’ you can’t always get them aligned. And can we really expect 300+ MLS companies to regulate 81 aggregators?

One solution is a national MLS, which would make regulation much easier. Now it would be one company regulating 81 aggregators. Sounds like much better odds to me. But with a National MLS, Realtors lose their voice on a local level. And, as I’ve shown above, good MLS companies do listen.

For now, if you see another agent or aggregator site doing something you’re not allowed to…speak to your local MLS. Realtors, it’s up to you to get involved because your local MLS companies can level the playing field. Mine did.

About Justin Britt

Justin Britt (justin@hawaiilife.com) is Head of Innovation and Co-Founder of a little Hawaii Real Estate company. Britt oversees user interface design, SEO, programming, public relations and social media for Hawaii's 6th largest and fastest growing real estate brokerage.

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  • Great discussion, Justin, I’m on the same page. We’ve been audited a number of times for minor formatting issues. I always amuses when I have the auditors compare our “alleged violations” to other sites. Let’s just say that I’ve brought up the major regional brokerage’s sites with numerous blatant violations of our standards, and they never seem to get corrected.

    The biggest issue is correctly displaying the MLS source and listing brokerage source in a conspicuous way. It seems that the bigger the aggregator or brokerage, the less attention they pay to this.

    As for backlinks and more content–aggregators will, without fail, have more expired, cancelled, and sold listings showing as active on their sites. I get regular calls from consumers who’ve seen a home for sale on some non-brokerage site and I have to explain to them that it’s already sold. It’s unfortunate for the consumer, but leaves more content on the aggregator’s site and still allows them better SEO.

    The MLS companies should either give access to a live feed to aggregators or not allow them to use their data at all. Anything in between takes the integrity out of the listing database and doesn’t help the consumer or the real estate industry.

    • I think aggregators should have a feed directly from MLS companies. And they should pay for it just like Realtors. But that’s another blog post…coming soon.

      • Aggregators don’t want to — because then they are tied to different
        MLS rules for each dataset. That makes it really hard to build a
        website on a national scale if you’ve gotta put in if/then’s into
        every single market.

        • …which is the whole problem from our end. We strive to keep highly accurate data and follow a labyrinth of rules, and then give the data away to non-subscribers to do as they please. I’m not saying that aggregators don’t have rules also or that they have sloppy data per se, but the onus is on the industry to create and manage the listings from start to finish, and not allow any outside source to corrupt the integrity.

          • I hear you…but MLS data is far from pristine. It may be better than
            data from individual brokerage and tech aggregator feeds, but it’s not
            perfect.

          • True. It’s just that when users are subject to financial penalties when they make lazy input mistakes (as we are), it tends to keep things fairly clean. That being said, there are a lot of lazy folks out there anyway. Have you ever read driving directions written by an agent? Don’t. They’re wrong as often as not.

          • Our data from 2 MLS’ here in Hawaii is super clean. 1 is not. But again, this would ensure that aggregators had correct data. When I go on Zillow to see the home I’m buying, the info is so outdated. Don’t big aggregator sites want correct info?

          • Yes, aggregators want correct data because consumers want it. But not at the price it takes to adhere to MLS rules in every market. There are some pretty outrageous rules floating around there at some MLS’.

          • That’s why the two sides will always be at odds. We say we created the data, aggregators can’t reuse it unless they do it properly. They say it’s too much work. We agree only on that point.

            National MLS. It will never happen. It should, but it won’t.

          • Bottom line is that the portals help agents and brokers get their listings in front of buyers. So until someone can confidently say “syndicating my listings to Zillow/YRE (or any of the others) will NOT help sell my listings” — then this discussion is largely irrelevant.

            Until MLS’ or brokerages spend the vast amount of dollars it takes to build amazing websites that consumers want — then portals are always going to exist.

          • No argument there–the aggregators have far better sites than the MLS sites, and that’s why they’re “winning” in traffic numbers. The discussion is only irrelevant until the industry makes its own portal that actually works.

        • That’s the entire point Drew. How is it fair that Realtors have to play by a set of rules, but aggregators don’t? That is not a level playing field. And it hurts the agents the NAR and local Realtor boards are supposed to be serving.

          I do understand the difficulties an aggregator has, but Hawaii Life is having to write a bunch of if/else rules for our 3 MLS’. If our little company can do it for Hawaii, a large site can most definitely do it. I do think that we need a standard set of rules from NAR on a nationwide level. That would solve this problem. But continuing to give aggregators such a large advantage is out of the question moving forward.

  • Can you please clarify #2 for me – Are you saying that the MLS says you can’t advertise an address, or are you saying you can’t advertise it when the Seller asks you not to? Just want to make sure I am understanding you correctly.

    • You can’t advertise it if the seller says not to.

      • Got it, that’s what I thought but wanted to confirm. Wanted to point out one thing we can’t do when a property is sent to us as ‘don’t display address’ and that is market it on our mobile apps. Because they are GPS powered, putting in the apps would obviously then give up the address.

  • Joe

    Wow, this post is funny coming from someone who oversees a site that REGULARLY displays outdated listings. Expireds and Solds from 6 months ago? Give me a break.

  • Scott Pierce

    How is this for long tail and short tail ‘back links’ with a lot of SEO thrown in for good measure: http://activerain.com/blogsview/2220690/3318-point-pleasant-road-elk-grove-ca-elk-grove-country-property.

  • You’re not alone Justin! At Kukui.com, we build websites for brokers all around the country. It’s very easy to miss something when you have to interpret a 30 page IDX contract in the context of a database with as many as 300 fields in it. The problem gets even harder when you take that and multiply it by the large number of unique MLS’ out there!

    Some MLS’ filter out data that should be kept private as it goes out. I think that’s the best solution to the problem of big national websites inadvertently making private information public.

  •  Kimo, eh?  Would that be this guy? http://www.sherdog.com/fighter/Kimo-Leopoldo-43  Man, you have some tough MLS enforcement guys out there on the rock!  😉

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