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For the past couple years, one of my competitors was displaying sold and withdrawn listings without the required login or other RETS stipulations.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.