Home Real Estate Move, ListHub, and Syndication Quality Assurance

Move, ListHub, and Syndication Quality Assurance

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Back in September, when Move, Inc. (which operates Realtor.com, among other units) acquired ListHub, the leading syndicator of listings, there were a number of opinions and speculations on why Move would buy a syndicator of all things.  Given that Move gets a direct feed of all MLS listings under the NAR Operating Agreement, it didn’t make much sense to buy a supplier of listings.

I thought then that I knew the real strategic motivation behind Move’s acquisition, and how we’d eventually see it play out.  But I didn’t write anything about the acquisition at the time because I felt I was in possession of information I should treat as confidential, given how I acquired it.  Well, at NAR yesterday, I got a few minutes to speak with Steve Berkowitz, the new CEO of Move, as well as Errol Samuelson, President of Realtor.com, more “on the record” so to speak.  I confirmed most of my hypotheses, and learned a bit more about how Move intends to utilize its latest asset.

Short version: Move, with ListHub, will be creating and enforcing syndication standards across the industry that will both increase data protection for brokers and agents, and provide Move with a competitive advantage (or at least remove the competitive disadvantage) vis a vis other publishers, such as Trulia and Zillow.

The Realtor.com Conundrum

One of the bigger strategic issues for Move/Realtor.com is the NAR Operating Agreement.  It appears in every single annual report filed by Move, and the agreement with NAR alternatively made Realtor.com what it is today and hampers it from what it could be tomorrow.  Basically, in exchange for being the official public-facing website of NAR, and getting all of the listings from all 850+ MLS’s, Move signed up to a number of restrictions on how Move can acquire and use the listings data.  To use just one example, Realtor cannot syndicate its listings to another website to “power” it.  Therefore, yahoo.realtor.com is okay, but realtor.yahoo.com is not.  Guess who is powering realestate.yahoo.com now?

In contrast, all of Realtor.com’s competitors are not bound by any overarching agreement with anyone. They get their data on a case-by-case basis from agents, brokers, franchises, and MLS’s but their terms of use tend to be far more relaxed than those of Realtor.com.  For example, this is Trulia Pro’s Terms of Use (at least as found on Washington Post):

However, Trulia reserves the right in its discretion to (i) delete, disable access to, move or edit Submissions in its sole discretion for any reason or no reason, or (ii) take any other action that Trulia deems necessary relating to use or misuse of the Trulia Pro Service. You hereby grant to Trulia a non-exclusive, royalty-free license to use, publish, copy, modify, transmit, display and distribute your Submissions in connection with the Trulia Pro Service. In addition, you warrant that all moral rights in any Submissions and uploaded materials have been waived and do hereby waive any such moral rights.

The result is that Move and Realtor.com people have felt for years that they are competing against companies like Trulia and Zillow with… shall we say, restrictive rules of engagement.

Earlier this year, Move and NAR modified the Operating Agreement slightly to allow Move to do certain things with Realtor.com (such as UI redesign) without needing permission from NAR, but it does not appear at first (or second, or third) reading of the modifications that they approach anything close to leveling the playing field.

Enter ListHub.

Control the Source

One of the lasting frustrations of those in the real estate data business — from Move to ListHub to MLS executives to data vendors — is the incredible sensitivity that brokers and agents have to controlling the data in the MLS (note, for example, the debate over RPR) combined with the blissful lack of concern they have to sending the same data to a variety of websites whose terms of use grant them all manner of intellectual property rights that the same brokers and agents would never grant to the MLS or to Realtor.com.

As it happens, ListHub has already been on top of the issue, developing the Channel Scorecard in May of this year.  The goal, according to ListHub, as reported by Inman News, is “to allow real estate professionals to more easily compare and contrast ListHub’s many partners.”  More:

“The primary audience for our scorecard are the agents and brokers and practitioners, (to help them) be smarter about online media and make better decisions about where they send their listings,” said Celeste Starchild, ListHub’s vice president of sales and marketing.

“If a site only purges listings every 14 days, for example, some brokerages might not like that. If a homeowner buys a house and still sees it up and it has pictures of the interior, that might lead to some sticky situations,” she said.

ListHub also hopes the report will encourage transparency among the providers and help brokerages manage their clients’ expectations.

A Scorecard like this is a big step forward, of course.  But the reality of the situation is that most brokers and agents are not going to take the time to compare publishers on a point-by-point analysis to see if they want to send listings to a website or not.  For that matter, it isn’t clear to me that even if a broker were to try to do a compare-and-contrast, they would even understand what the implications of provisions governing license of archival materials really are, as one example.

What is really required is a much simpler system of tiers or classes of websites.  A Homeland Security Alert system, if you will, for web publishers so that brokers and agents can very easily and quickly decide whether to send it or not.

With an easy-to-understand, perhaps color-coded system, that identifies a particular website as “Cleared” or “Questionable” or “Dangerous”, or perhaps even allows for tier-based syndication (e.g., “Only syndicate to Excellent and Good websites”), brokers and agents protect their intellectual property, the MLS protects its data integrity, and Move/Realtor.com takes a step closer towards a more level playing field.

As far as I understand it, ListHub integrates pretty tightly with participating MLS systems.  It also provides fairly detailed reports to its broker and agent customers about listing syndication and performance of such syndicated leads.  Presumably, Realtor.com with its restrictions based on the NAR Operating Agreement overseen by NAR itself will become the gold standard for data protection in publishers.  And Realtor.com now owns ListHub, which controls the largest fount of listings syndication.

There was little doubt in my mind when the acquisition was announced that what Move was doing was a strategic maneuver to neutralize some of the advantages that its big competitors had — freedom to do whatever they wanted with the data, given the widespread ignorance of brokers and agents on intellectual property issues.  Having spoken to Mssrs. Berkowitz and Samuelson, as well as other players in the drama, I have confirmed that this is indeed the mutual vision of the Move and ListHub teams.

“Let’s see how Trulia and Zillow compete if they have to live up to our standards of data protection and data integrity” might be something Move executives never actually said, but I rather think they are thinking it.

The Next Step: Council on Syndication Standards

One thing to consider, however, is that in execution, it is highly unlikely that this will be driven solely by Move.  Even if there is widespread agreement that it would be a good idea for brokers and agents to know what they’re getting into when they send a listing to a website, there is not yet any sort of agreement as to what constitutes what level of trustworthiness.

And this is not the sort of thing that one company, no matter how well-meaning, could impose on the industry.  That goes doubly so for Move, who stands to benefit significantly from the establishment of such syndication standards.

What I expect to see, therefore (and may try to work on), is the creation of some sort of third party industry group that will collaborate on syndication standards and come up with those tiers and levels.  The major publishers will certainly be included, from Realtor.com to Yahoo, along with some sort of voice from smaller publishers (e.g., Estately.com), NAR representing the agent, likely some group of MLS’s representing the broker, and quite possibly LPS, CoreLogic, or both, representing data vendors.  Who knows what the ultimate composition might be, but these are the main stakeholder groups.

This should be an independent-as-possible organization whose standards are the result of negotiation and discussion between all of the stakeholders, whose ability to enforce those standards lies in the member organizations control over the source (MLS) and distribution (ListHub) of listings data.

The next 12 to 18 months should be interesting on this front, with the real impact of these initiatives being felt within three years.

But, without a doubt, we will see some sort of effort towards syndication standards.  Get ready.

-rsh

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Rob Hahn
Managing Partner of 7DS Associates, and the grand poobah of this here blog. Once called "a revolutionary in a really nice suit", people often wonder what I do for a living because I have the temerity to not talk about my clients and my work for clients. Suffice to say that I do strategy work for some of the largest organizations and companies in real estate, as well as some of the smallest startups and agent teams, but usually only on projects that interest me with big implications for reforming this wonderful, crazy, lovable yet frustrating real estate industry of ours.

30 COMMENTS

  1. “given the widespread ignorance of brokers and agents on intellectual property issues” –

    This is perhaps the most truthful, yet saddest statement. Agents and brokers, especially brokers should know what this means and how it affects their business.

  2. sorry im really out of it rob as far as your premise – what on earth is the downside to visible listings and why should anything but the widest possible audience be an an objective to an agent or any other advertiser?

    • The confusion lies in the fact that if listings data is simply advertising to an agent or broker, then they really shouldn’t care very much about what RPR is doing, what an MLS can and cannot do with “their data”, and so on. Then they really shouldn’t care very much about mixing FSBO’s and “their listings” or IDX rules or whatever.

      You can’t really have it both ways: when it’s convenient for you, the listing is just advertising that should be spread far and wide without any regard to intellectual property rights/license terms, and then when it’s inconvenient, the listing data is super-duper secret, must-be-protected-at-all-costs IP that requires NSA/CIA level encryption to access.

      What the coming syndication standards issue will bring to light is this contradiction in the way that the industry looks at property information data.

  3. “…the creation of some sort of third party industry group” – Just what we need, another group of time-wasting bureaucrats to put together another list of “standards” that no one cares about or follows. It would probably be as ridiculous as the commercials I hear with my supposed fellow Realtors talking about how they follow a strict Code of Ethics and that’s why it’s important to use a Real-“tore” (as it’s over-pronounced by the TV announcer). I’ve been involved in hundreds of transactions, and I guarantee that 99% of my fellow Real-tores have never read that code, and there’s an equal percentage of unethical practitioners as you’ll find in any other industry. Another set of guidelines is the last thing our industry needs.

    I’ll also say that again the same percentage applies, and 99% of the agents in any market have no idea what listing syndication is or means. Those of us who read your posts and others across the real estate blogosphere are deeply in the minority. These are the sad issues that need to change; those of agents’ awareness as to what’s going on in their own industry. The MLS systems don’t get what’s going on either. We just received an email from the president of our MLS, likely one of the largest in the nation, stating how excited they are to tell us that they are now directly feeding all their listing data to Trulia, Zillow, and Yahoo Real Estate. Aren’t they just digging their own grave and making it easier for someone to create a national MLS that puts all the redundant local MLS systems out of business? I still say that all a large player needs is to add a commission cooperation agreement to their system, and create a vastly less expensive product for agents and it will become the national MLS. It would save most agents about $800/year and could be a big money-maker if it’s leveraged properly with advertising. All of this will happen while the NAR and the local MLS systems are creating “industry groups” and standards panels, and as the MLS are blindly feeding their data to future competitors.

    Our industry needs less regulating panels, fewer standards and bylaws and ethics lists, and needs to focus what’s best for the consumer too if we expect to survive and not go the way of the travel agent. Home prices will not climb any time soon, and more and more agents will continue to leave the business. This is what the NAR and local MLS systems should be addressing; how they will survive since their entire system is based on milking as many dues-paying agents as it can con into joining, regardless of whether or not they’ve ever read the Code of Ethics. The industry needs to shrink, and needs a new structure, not an expanded and further bloated version of what we have now.

    I run the numbers every month for local competitors, including large franchises and established names, and I can’t figure out how any of them are making any money. You’d be amazed at the low levels of production that are occurring. Agents won’t continue to make $0 for long, and will eventually move on to some other job, no matter how much they are promised profit-sharing or down-lines, or much of the other crap now used to recruit agents. The brokers are following the same model used for the last 40 years of building big offices and bringing on as many agents as possible, but the difference is that now most aren’t selling and aren’t paying the monthly fees and dues charged by most brokers. This is what is going to choke our industry and cut off the fees needed by the NAR and the MLS systems to survive. Will they jack up the fees to the rest of us who do make it? If the numbers I study are correct, something big has to happen, as brokers can’t continue to survive with a monthly net of $5,000 to $10,000 before paying rent, salaries, and other overhead. Something big is coming, and most likely that “big” is going to be less agents and brokerages. What will happen to the NAR and MLS then?

    • John:
      Would you send me an email please.

      [email protected]

      My business partner (and VERY talented computer programmer) are frustrated by the way the Real Estate industry handles data. We’d like to ask you some questions.

      Thanks,
      Berry

  4. It’s going to be extremely hard to get these companies playing nice with each other; they are all going after being the #1 real estate site on the web. Data standards were already somewhat agreed upon a few years ago when Zillow, Yahoo, and Trulia announced they were working together on data standards – http://www.geekestateblog.com/yahoo-zillow-trulia-and-other-leading-companies-agree-to-adopt-a-common-data-standard-for-real-estate-listings/

    But that means nothing if each company doesn’t adopt and promote those standards heavily. At any organization — without someone significant fighting for something to succeed internally, that something is just going to languish and produce nothing for any of the parties involved.

    And what’s the incentive for Yahoo/Zillow/Trulia/Realtor.com to give any say to the small publishers? After all, that’s the competition for them.

    • I think the difference here is that only Move/Realtor.com has the incentive to get something like this going. The other large players will come along because they have to if they’re going to continue to have listing data fed to them. The small players will be included out of political reasons (I’d include them anyhow), and the others (NAR, MLS, brokers, agents) will all be included because of political reasons.

      Realtor.com, FWIW, has no issue with competition (if I believe what the execs are saying). They do have an issue with competing on unequal footing, where they are held to the highest standards possible, while everyone else is allowed to do whatever the hell they want.

      The flipside of this is, if the agents/brokers really don’t care about this, if protection of intellectual property (since that is what listings data is) is not important to them, then Move has a very strong argument for completely revising the Operating Agreement to let them off from under the current onerous burdens. At that point, their ownership of the largest syndication company will be a major asset, going in the other direction.

      • Sure, ListHub is the largest source of listings to most portals (Z/T/YRE
        included), but there are alternatives for Zillow/Trulia/YRE/etc to
        explore — ror instance, a company like Point2 just gained a bunch more
        importance. Z/T/YRE don’t need to play ball with whatever R.com decides,
        in fact, I’m guessing they are all trying desperately to figure out an
        alternative so as NOT to align themselves with data standards R.com
        advocates for. What if Zillow/YRE! buy a syndication company or just
        build the system themselves? After all, Zillow is already building a
        system to syndicate all listings from Z to YRE.

        As a side note, ListHub is no longer an unbiased company being owned by
        R.com, which is going to make it more difficult to do business — though
        I don’t think it’s going to hurt them too much in the very near term.
        Longer term, I think it will be more of an issue.

      • I’m sure that Z/T/YRE are trying to figure out an alternative. The issue is time. Yardi already bought Point2. Building another system from scratch and filling the pipeline is going to take some time.

        In the meantime, Z/T/YRE don’t have the kind of relationships with NAR, MLS, and large brokerages that Move/R.com/ListHub has. Especially ListHub. And the idea that corporate ownership is going to make people look at ListHub as a biased company seems a bit of a stretch to me — folks have no issues sending listings to Google, despite Google Places and Google Base. It’s about results, and ListHub delivers them.

        Plus, think about the optics of Z/T/YRE refusing to work with ListHub because “it’s biased”; meanwhile, their Terms of Use would make most brokers/agents who pay attention raise an eyebrow (to say the least).

        So the question really is whether Move/R.com can act swiftly to get syndication standards going and make it a vital issue in the industry, or whether they’ll sit on their hands and allow Z/T/YRE/others to come up with a counter plan.

      • I agree ListHub has strong relationships, but I also think that there
        are enough agents/brokers who despise R.com that it’s going to be an
        issue unless R.com can enhance their image in the industry.

  5. Brokers still should be able to opt out of the Move syndication machine. Should be a brokerage’s choice if they want to syndicate their own property, not NAR or Move.

    • Of course! The point of syndication standards is to let brokers decide who to send to, and under what terms. Right now, they’re just shipping off their data with zero regard to IP issues. Those issues only come up with their MLS, or NAR, or Realtor.com wants to do stuff with the data.

  6. Sotheby’s, the franchise I am with feeds to Listhub through it’s own database which I have been told is the same for the other Realogy brands. Not sure of the current number but I had read recently Realogy represents over a quarter of real estate agents. With that being said how can this discussion surround quality of MLS data?
    Just asking.

  7. The large brokers especially are getting quite upset with these national websites. Folks like Trulia, who once said they were aligned with brokers, are now underhandly using our data to send leads to competing companies/agents. It is not just that they are doing it, it is how they are doing it. We are part of a very large real estate organization, but can’t elicit a response out of Trulia on this issue. So now that you have our data you want to use it to further monetize for yourself at our expense. I know we let the cat out of the bag, and ultimately have control to stop it. But seriously, the frustration is mounting and the issue is coming to a head. The old balance in trade of value, listings for leads, is not balanced anymore.

  8. @Kevin – Why would anyone care of Trulia is sending their listing data to “competing companies/agents”? Isn’t that exactly what the MLS does? It takes your listing data, displays it in a way that other competing companies and agents can view it and hopefully show it to their client, and then they sell your listing. If Trulia does the same thing, and a “competing” agent sells your listing, didn’t you fulfill your ultimate responsibility to your listing client?

  9. @Berry – Received your email and thought it was best to comment here. My basic argument is that the MLS historically fulfilled two major functions. One was data. They had the data and controlled it, but now they are pimping it out to the Trulias and Zillows, often for a fee, in order to survive since there are less dues paying agents. The second function is to allow a system where agents are guaranteed payment for showing and selling each others listings. If you’re an MLS and NAR member, and you sell an MLS listed property, you are guaranteed payment at the rate listed in the MLS. If a big national player can create a national MLS that serves this function at a lower annual cost to (mostly) starving agents, they may have a shot at taking over the convoluted system comprised of hundreds of individual MLS systems redundantly serving the same function. If someone like Google did it and incorporated a public-facing search portion, and sold ads, it could also generate a lot money. The only stumbling block is that most agents and brokers are like sheep in the way they wait to see what everyone else is doing, so it may take a while to switch them over. On the other hand, some local MLS systems are struggling financially with less dues paying agents around, so they may disappear on their own accord and open the door for a new system.

  10. @John – don’t mean to hijack your comment-trend, but… assuming arguendo that brokers/agents don’t care about listings data except as advertising to fulfill their responsibility to the client…

    Do you have any issues with “scraper” sites that go and scrape all the listings off of your brokerage/agent website and syndicates it out as _their data_ via web, newspapers, print magazines, whatever? After all, such advertising would bring you (your client) buyers, no? Would it matter if such scrapers were getting paid a fee for “their data”? Would it matter if they were selling advertising on “their data” — including, potentially, direct competitors of yours?

    Curious.

  11. @Rob – I’m not familiar with who does this, or exactly what it’s about, but if the end result is that it attracts more buyers to come out to look at the listing, even with another agent (let’s be honest, ALL other agents are my competitors), and that results in a faster sale then why would I care? Isn’t my number one fiduciary responsibility to sell my client’s home for a price that’s acceptable to them, and as quickly as possible? My number one responsibility is not to generate other buyers or to advertise my company.

    • Most brokers and agents would not agree with you there. They do (whether agree or disagree) think of listings data which they have collected and entered into some system as belonging to them. They object to a third party coming in, scraping their website, then making money on that (if they knew, at least).

      Let me extend it a bit. Suppose you use a third party CRM software, like Basecamp or Top Producer. And their Terms of Use said that by entering data, like name, address, and phone number, you grant a perpetual license to Basecamp or Top Producer to that data. Those companies can now mail, email, or call your customers to pitch them properties — including, of course, your property. As long as your client’s home sells faster, for a price acceptable, would you be okay with using a service like that?

  12. This is for you, Mr. Hahn, my friend whom I admire dearly.

    The story of listings. Clients hope and their main reason for hiring a brokerage is to get their house sold in a timely fashion; for a great price and wonderful terms and conditions. Syndication of that listing is only a fraction of the scope of the brokerage’s duty. Unfortunately, most brokerages use listings as “cash cows” and so do their agents and their managers. They are looking at listings as advertisement NOT to benefit the client’s best interest, but their own. Ego? Absolutely! The more people that notice the listing, the more publications, the more websites, gives them the brokerage“clout” and “recognition” to build their brand. True Facts? Some. Many questionable. A layperson doesn’t know the reputation of some of these brokerages, their agents, or their managers. A consumer doesn’t know any better either. This is the downside of listings being massively distributed on many websites; whether it is via Broker Reciprocity, etc. Consumers assume that listing is the listing of the owner of the website. When in fact, not so much the case. If a listing is broadcast on reciprocity, you will only know this by looking at the bottom of that listing, usually small print stating “courtesy of.” Listings = LEAD$. When Brokerages, REALTORS start to understand who their client is and the scope of service is to do justice to their client not to themselves, then I agree with massive distributing listings on every site. It can become very messy though. If you parallel that with what Google does. Not all is accurate and most is outdated information, that hasn’t been updated. Many sites gather false information or keep outdated information on their site. Therefore, google DOES NOT recognize this unless they are advised of that fact. People randomly searching will not know either. And, it takes hurdles to get Google or the website to remove the meta tags or what ever is stored on their websites. As we all know, not everyone follows the rules. That is where I agree with the response made by John Kalinowski .

    If you recall, the case against a major brokerage by one of its’ top agents, who was terminated, and she sued and took them all the way to the Court of Appeals to have them decide who owns the listings, i.e., the brokerage or the agent. It is easy to put up a website and publish anything on that site. So, with all due respect to Rob’s theory regarding high and low screening of sites. I concur. Unfortunately, Rob, as you know, will that be enforced and will everyone abide by doing what is right? Reference John Kalinowski’s response. I reiterate what I said about Google and how it can become a big mess to make sure all that is published remains accurate and relevant.

    On a personal note, I adore you Rob, and your intelligence. You always write these thought provoking posts. I too like you, wish that the industry becomes a better place and regains its credibility. With the internet, and with all the social media, it is no longer a secret what happens behind closed doors. People have access to all sorts of information, and unfortunately, they have to be even more careful to do their own research before proceeding forward in order to make wise decisions which will be in their best interest.

    -toni

    • Thanks Toni — like I said, I wanted you to voice your opinions in public, rather than in DM’s to me — which is why I did what I did. Maybe I can follow you again if we keep this up! 🙂

  13. @drewmeyers – because we’re going to end up like 5 levels deep…

    The folks at R.com know about their reputation problems; they have some secret weapons they could deploy (e.g., Steve Berkowitz) to correct that if they chose to do so.

    But something like Syndication Standards, I think, is MORE likely because of their reputation problems. If they do this, and do it in partnership with NAR, brokers, agents, and MLS — rather than unilaterally — then they become the champions of the broker/agent in protection what many of them (despite what some have said) consider to be their intellectual property.

    Everyone else really has little choice but to at least participate in the Council, or something like it.

  14. The balance in the value exchange between content providers – brokers, MLSs, and franchises – and the publishers used to be simple: Content providers provide the listings, and publishers provide the eyeballs. But the landscape is now more complex, and many of our customers increasingly feel the negative repercussions that occur when Publisher sites take liberties with the handling of their listing information, or fail to uphold basic practices that make the online advertising manageable for brokers and agents.

    “Send My Listings Everywhere” sounds great until the problems arise.

    Content sources need to be empowered to make more educated decisions about where they choose to distribute their listings, and at ListHub, we believe it is our role to continue to continually provide more transparency, education and systems that will facilitate this.

    Ultimately ListHub will always support choice. So for those content sources who believe that maximum exposure is best under any circumstances, they will be able to take full advantage of the breadth of exposure available through ListHub. Content sources who wish to make syndication decisions based on a set of criteria will continue to have the tools in ListHub to exercise that discretion.

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