A Small Step, Fraught With Significance: ListHub Introduces “MLS Preferred” Concept

 

Oh my...

Back in November of 2010, I wrote about Move’s acquisition of ListHub and what it might mean for “Syndication Quality”. I thought then that the reason why Move acquired ListHub was strategic — to control the source of listing data, in order to impose on its main competitors the same restrictions that Move had on operating REALTOR.com:

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 Messrs. 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.

Well, it only took a year and a half, but I believe we’re starting to see the strategy be implemented:

ListHub, the largest syndicator of real estate listings and website analytics, today announced the launch of the ListHub Preferred Publisher Program. Real estate brokers syndicating listings through ListHub’s Preferred Publisher Program can now quickly identify preferred publishers and publisher rules, rate publisher websites and access reports through the control panel. The new features bring greater transparency, control and protection to real estate brokers as they syndicate listings to multiple publishers. ListHub is operated by Move, Inc., (Nasdaq: MOVE), the leader in online real estate.

Earlier this week, prior to the press release, I had the rare opportunity to get a demo from Luke Glass, General Manager, and Mark Wise, VP Operations and Technology, of ListHub of these new features, and to ask them some questions about what they were doing. Well, what they’re doing is a small step, but it is one fraught with real significance for real estate data policy.

There are two things in the new ListHub that work together to create the significance. Let’s dive in, shall we?

More Broker Control

Since I’m not a ListHub user, and not a MLS executive, it’s been quite some time since I’ve seen the ListHub control panel. I also gather that some of this ability has been in place for a while, but hey, it was kind of new to me, okay? :D So here’s a screenshot:

From Move/ListHub. Highlights are mine.

 

The new things on this screen (from what I’m told) are highlighted in red.

Filter Skelter

First, I believe brokers have always had the ability with ListHub to pick and choose which websites (“publishers”) got their listing data via syndication. What’s been added is the ability to filter publishers with a function called, oddly enough, “Filter Publishers”. The screenshot shows seven filters:

  • No Re-Syndication
  • Posts Redirect Link
  • Provides Error Reports
  • Provides Metrics
  • Shows Broker Contact Info
  • Timely Listing Removal
  • Timely Support

Clicking on any of those changes the search results below to allow brokers to more easily choose who gets the listing data. Presumably, many of the brokers upset with syndication would choose to select all seven. I did not get to see how many of the 55 publishers meet all seven criteria.

The little blue question marks provides hover-over text explaining what each term means, and I assume ListHub customer support would gladly answer whatever detailed question your IT person might have.

Luke and Mark mentioned that ListHub decides what the criteria here mean, based on their years of working with publishers. For example, what is meant by “Timely Listing Removal”? ListHub defines it; it is not user-definable… yet. Perhaps we’ll see a feature in the future that allows brokers to decide what is and is not timely for them.

Imperfect as it may be, this Filtering system still represents a step forward and an improvement in the ability of brokers to control where their listings end up.

Real Estate <3 Ratings!

Another new feature is the star rating system on the right. Each broker would be able to rate a publisher on a five-star scale, and provide a brief comment as well. So if you had a particularly horrible experience with RealEstateBukkake.com or something, you can go and trash them on ListHub… and every other broker would see your 1 star rating and your comments about the horrid publisher.

I believe Mark/Luke (I’m going to just write it that way, since I can’t recall who was speaking at what time… although Matthew and John were most definitely absent, as was Acts, Corinthians, and Galatians) mentioned that they would look at incorporating a filter based on ratings. That would allow a broker to say, “Show me only 4+ star publishers” for example.

I asked whether there were plans to make this rating data public, since I think consumers might find how real estate professionals rate a website fascinating… and the short answer is, No, but that’s an interesting idea that we’ll think about.

Auto-Subscribe, Using Filters

Finally, in this section, I found this interesting:

The idea here is that a broker can “auto-subscribe” (which really should be “auto-distribute”) to a new publisher in the ListHub network who meets one or more of the filter criteria.

So if you hate Re-Syndication, then you’d click on that box, and any new website that comes on who does in fact re-syndicate (according to ListHub’s criteria) would be left languishing without your data… unless you manually add them later on.

All of these things — as well as numerous other refinements that I’m sure I’m failing to remember now — adds up to more fine-grained control by the brokers as to what happens with their listing data and where it goes.

Mark/Luke made clear that ListHub can easily add/change the filter criteria to meet the needs of the fast-evolving technology space. I imagine that we would see some sort of filter on mobile apps sooner rather than later, to allow brokers to syndicate (or not) to publishers that have a mobile app, for example.

The Other Shoe: MLS Preferred

The thing that really intrigued me, however, was contained in two sentences in the press release:

ListHub’s Preferred Publisher Program gives MLSs the opportunity to designate publisher sites as preferred based on criteria important to the MLS and their members. Brokers can then use the MLS preferred list as a guide when making their listing syndication choices based on which publisher site will best fit their marketing needs

As I understand it, basically, a MLS can go into ListHub and designate one or more publishers as a “Preferred Publisher”. This is similar in concept to what CMLS and Point2 propose with “MLS Certified” program. The idea is that brokers would trust those “Preferred Publishers” because their MLS has examined them and found them not wanting. Mene, mene, tekel, NOT Upharshin, as it were.

If a MLS decides to get into the publisher preferring game, its brokers would have another Filter added to its menu of choices: “MLS Preferred”.

What the criteria are for being Preferred is not something ListHub wants to get into (although, more on this below). Each MLS is free to make up its own list of criteria for Preferring one publisher over another. And if money should change hands, I don’t believe ListHub would make that any of its business, although the brokers in said MLS might decide to make that their business.

Even where the MLS has Preferred some set of publishers over others, the brokers can ignore the preference and choose to send data to whomever they wish, since… well, they own their own listings, and if they want to send property information to SecretServiceHookerCondos.com… that’s their prerogative.

Also, a MLS doesn’t have to prefer anybody. It can just leave that whole feature alone, and let their brokers make up their own mind without any guidance from the MLS via ListHub.

Where Things Start To Get Interesting

So far, so good, and so easy to understand. I think it’s a smart move for ListHub to make this capability available to MLS but not make it mandatory.

Where it got interesting is when I learned that ListHub has “bare minimum standards” for a website to be considered for inclusion in the roster of Publishers at all. For example, Mark/Luke mentioned that ListHub recently dropped Oodle.com as a publisher, because the team at ListHub felt that Oodle simply did not meet the minimum standards for data security and integrity. I do not know what these minimum standards are, although I did ask. Perhaps Mark/Luke would send me their written guidelines on these bare minimums after reading this post. (Right guys? Yeah! Send it my way!)

The reason why I think it’s interesting is that those “bare minimum standards” might be of extreme interest to MLS organizations, Associations, and brokers around the country. Indeed, a broker who is hostile to syndication because of the loss of control might well ask how Re-Syndication does not violate “bare minimum standards”.

Furthermore, Mark/Luke mentioned that ListHub works with over 48,000 brokers (I think that’s the right number). Well, in my considered opinion, less than 1% of those brokers (that’s 480 brokerages) would take the time to do any filtering and selecting of publisher websites. And I’m not certain that many of those 480 brokerages would even understand the filters adequately to know how to fine-tune their control over listing distribution. Certainly the larger companies with an IT geek on payroll would pay attention to it. Would the average broker really think about Error Reports and what that might mean?

In my post from a year and a half ago, I thought we might see the development of something like the Homeland Security Advisory System. Publishers would be ranked from Green to Red based on standards developed and defined by somebody (more on this below), and enforced by companies who deal in data: ListHub, Point2, MLS, etc. So the “pure and holy” publishers who jump through all the hoops and keep brokers (and their representatives) happy would earn the Green rating, while the evil pirate websites out to ruin realtors would earn the Red Alert rating. And the broker can simply choose what level of terror he’s willing to put up with: “Give me only Green websites” or “Yellow and Below Only” or some such thing.

What ListHub has done with the MLS Preferred program is a step forward, and a significant one. But it cannot and will not stop there. It will have to evolve into something like the Terror Alert system: something simple for brokers to choose, with an administrative apparatus to define, classify and enforce those levels.

And it is my considered belief that ListHub cannot be that administrative apparatus. As I wrote previously:

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.

ListHub’s effort simply cannot have the legitimacy it requires as long as it is something done by a single company owned by Move, Inc.

Take the Next Step

What ListHub has shown, however, is that the technology infrastructure for doing this is in place… because they’ve put it into place. The combination of Filters and MLS Preferred Publisher goes a long way to making the Red Alert System possible.

They now need to put the political infrastructure into place. It is the only path to legitimacy and true collaboration amongst the data tribe of the real estate industry. These stakeholders have to be brought together into a single organization that sets “bare minimum standards” as well as the varying levels of compliance/holiness to earn the Green rating vs. the Fire Burning Red rating:

  • Publishers/Users: obviously, the portals like Realtor.com, Zillow, and Trulia, but also the mainstream portals like Yahoo, and data-users such as LPS, CoreLogic, RPR, and others.
  • Brokers: One real problem is that there is no organization that actually represents brokers, since the Association represents individual agents as REALTORS.
  • MLS: I believe that either CMLS or the Cove Group could be said to represent MLS interests in an organization like this.
  • Agents (?): NAR would be the obvious choice here, except that I don’t know if individual real estate agents are a stakeholder at all, since they aren’t publishers and don’t have a copyright interest in the data.

I think this can be done rather easier and faster than was possible 18 months ago, because syndication has become front-and-center on the minds of the industry. How?

Move should just fund the damn organization, and invite everyone to participate. It wouldn’t cost that much — a single Executive Director to organize the meetings, rent hotel conference rooms, and publish the minutes. Maybe an administrative assistant to help out. An office somewhere in Move’s HQ, with a telephone and a laptop. Travel budget. And Move can just dare Zillow and Trulia to not contribute similarly to such an effort. How much? $250K from each of the three should do it. And I suspect the other major companies (LPS? RPR? Corelogic?) are going to want to show their community spirit by making some contributions as well, not to mention that they have a vested interest in making sure that the Executive Director of this Independent Council on Syndication Quality isn’t entirely in the pockets of Move, Inc.

Mid-Year is coming up in a couple of weeks. Get it going, guys. You can make a big splash by announcing something like this there. And within the year, you’ll have the industry thinking you’re on the side of angels. Make it happen.

ListHub has done some yeoman’s work here. These new features really do add to the ability of the broker to control where his data goes and what is done with it. It isn’t perfect, but… the world is an imperfect place where screws fall out all the time. The Preferred Publisher program will evolve into something far, far stronger; it’s just a matter of time and will. And I do hope they’d take the next step and organize this thing already.

One Last Thing…

I’ve decided to bury the most important takeaway since most of you will not have made it through the dense forest of 2500 words above. In fact, I suspect most people clicked the Back button half an hour ago, right around “mene, mene, tekel, NOT upharshin”.

I asked ListHub just how difficult it would be to implement this Filtering system inside a MLS. The answer was that it wouldn’t be difficult at all. It would actually be very easy, since ListHub already has most of the data, and the filters can be easily added/changed/edited.

So I asked how difficult it would be to subject the IDX feed to this Filter system. Mark/Luke sort of hemmed and hawed, since that question, I’m certain, was not one they had prepared for… but they did admit that technically, IDX could be subjected to the Filter system easily. And they did concede that subjecting IDX to the ListHub system would provide brokers with the kind of detailed traffic report that ListHub provides when it comes to publishers.

Oh, is that so? Well, yet another step towards the End of IDX…. As I wrote there:

If the technology to pick-and-choose which site gets my listings already exists… why would it be so difficult for me, the broker, to pick and choose which of my competitors gets to use my listings on their website, in exchange for my using their listings on mine? Hey, tell you what, I promise not to put listings of the participants who I do not grant IDX to on my site. We good then?

Once you cross the line into “partial syndication”, and make it plain that not only do you the broker have the right to send your listings only to the sites you select, but also that the technology to make this easy and simple to do already exists… well, good luck trying to hold on to IDX-As-We-Know-It.

And ya know what? The technology to pick-and-choose which site gets my listing already exists. In fact, the technology to pick-and-choose based on FILTERS like, “Only within same zip code” or “Only to agents/brokers who have sold in this area” exists. ListHub just deployed it.

A small step by ListHub, but fraught with significance.

-rsh