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Musings On Direct Feeds

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In the aftermath of the Listhub-Zillow divorce, which was my last post, I stumbled on a comment from the famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective) Kipp Cooper and the main man at his vendor, Turan Tekin. [Disclosure: I’m friends with both men, like them both, have shared adult beverages with them, and my bias may bleed through here.]

Kipp is the CEO of ValleyMLS (or North Alabama MLS), which was the first and possibly only MLS so far to cut off Listhub and Realtor.com last year for a while. Turan is the VP of Bridge Interactive, the vendor that Kipp used to put his MLS Direct Feed into place.

The relevant comments from a Facebook thread is as follows:

Kipp-Turan

Now, what struck me as I was reading those comments — especially Turan’s — is the presence of some unexamined assumptions. I think it’d be fun and worthwhile to lay them bare and look at them.

Creators, Owners, and Those Entrusted

The key phrase, I think, was this:

Direct feeds empower and benefit the creators and owners of listing data and those entrusted with protecting and managing that data by putting data access agreements under their control.

The underlying assumptions of this statement, I think, are unclear. But I think we can make sense of it as follows:

  • Creator = Listing Agent
  • Owner = Broker
  • Those Entrusted With Protecting and Managing that Data = MLS

We know that the Broker (except when acting personally as a listing agent himself/herself) does not create the advertisement; the listing agent does that. We also know that the Broker is the legal owner of the advertisement information. (Which isn’t the same thing as being the practical owner of said advertisement, but that’s a whole other subject.)

[Aside: We further know that the actual data component of any advertisement of a home for sale is neither created nor owned by anyone, being that it is not copyrightable under Feist v. Rural. Only the photographs or the property descriptions or some other item with the spark of creativity can be owned at all. The bare facts of beds, baths, square footage, price, etc. are all not copyrightable. But for the sake of simplifying discussion, we’ll continue to misuse the phrase “listing data” when referring to the whole bundle of photographs, descriptions, showing notes, etc. of an advertisement of a property for sale.]

None of the above are particularly enlightening; we all know those. So the important assumption is that there exists a group of people who are entrusted with protecting and managing “listing data”. The further assumption is that this group of people is the local MLS.

Now, I know folks can start posting subscriber agreements from the MLS and such showing that a legal assignment of copyright and license and so on and so forth exist, which makes the local MLS the “trustees” of the data. That’s fine; not arguing the present reality.

What I am wondering about is whether the MLS will continue to be the ones entrusted with protecting and managing that data.

Direct Feed

That wonderment stems from thinking about the “direct feed”. What exactly does that mean?

On the one hand, it clearly means something technological. A way for one party to send information to another party “directly” without mediation by a third party. There may have been a time in the past when “direct feeds” were difficult and expensive to setup and maintain. Maybe it took roomful of expensive servers to operate such a thing, or rows of printing presses. But if so, today is clearly not that time. I can hire Pakistani developers for $6/hr who could setup a “direct feed” of my blog to some other destination. In fact, there may be local high school nerds who can do the same.

On the other hand, especially within the real estate industry, there is a strong connotation of control around the term “direct feed”. We’re not talking so much about the actual technology of RETS or RSS or whatever, but the idea that the Trustee would control the usage and access to listing data as well as any data that usage throws off (e.g., views of a particular listing, etc.)

As Kipp Cooper has said on numerous occasions, the advantages of the MLS Direct Feed program as he has implemented it is that the MLS can negotiate and control the terms of use of the listing data, including benefits like link backs, free leads, etc. The MLS doesn’t have to leave such terms up to a third party, like Listhub.

Diffusion of Control

Thing is, all technology and in particular the Internet tends to devolve power and control down to as low a level as possible. What do I mean?

Prior to the invention of the PC, computing was centralized to massive machines that took up huge rooms. If you wanted a calculation done, you went to someone who knew how to program the computer so that it would do the task. Then, as technology advanced, people were more and more able to do things themselves. Before the automobile, you had to go to a train station, wait for a train operated by specialists, to get to your destination. Now, you hop in a car and go where you want. And so on and so forth.

Technology empowers people; this much is a truism. Advances in technology empowers lower and lower “levels” of people, if you will, further away from specialists and experts and closer and closer to the end-user. Digital cameras used to empower legions of professional photographers; now, every cell phone is a digital camera in the hands of teenagers snapping inappropriate photographs of each other to be found by a hiring manager in several years.

So with the MLS, advances in technology made MLS Direct Feed possible and control by the MLS possible. Perhaps they no longer need a specialist third-party like ListHub and Point2 to route data back and forth, and to control the usage and access to that data.

This is what Kipp advocates, and what Turan appears to be suggesting is possible.

And yet… the next step in the devolution and diffusion of control is entirely possible. In fact, if trends here follow trends everywhere else in our lives in the 21st century, the next step in devolution and diffusion are likely, perhaps even inevitable.

Let me spell it out.

The MLS assumes that it is the entity entrusted with protecting and managing listing data, and that it ought to wrest that control away from third party companies like ListHub. That assumption may be correct today.

But tomorrow, the Owners of the listing data — the Brokers — may view the MLS in exactly the same way that the MLS today views ListHub: as a third-party interloper who is an unnecessary barrier between the ones who are really entrusted with protecting and managing listing data: the Brokers themselves.

Isn’t oft-rumored Project Upstream exactly this effort? Brokers wishing to wrest control and “trust” away from the MLS, and wishing to protect and manage the data themselves?

The day after that, it may be the Listing Agent, the Creator of all this listing data, who could view the Broker as yet another unnecessary barrier between herself and those she would want to have the listing data. Legal ownership of “listing data” is a giant shrug of the shoulder in a world where any producing listing agent can jump ship from one brokerage to the next in the blink of an eye. What broker is going to tell his top producer No, I own your listing data?

The final step, I suppose may be the actual homeowner whose house it is who may view everyone above him as unnecessary third parties since technology has advanced enough that he can entrust himself with protecting and managing the data about his own house.

All of those, except for the Broker-control scenario, are in the indeterminate future. The Broker-control scenario, however, doesn’t look that far away to me.

Consider Bridge Interactive’s system. Granted, it may be a bit over the heads of the 3-person ma-n-pa boutique, but is there some reason why a Coldwell Banker or Long & Foster couldn’t implement that “Direct Feed” themselves? I can’t imagine what technology can be implemented at the MLS level that could not be implemented technically at a national franchise or large brokerage level.

Kipp may well be the person and his MLS the entity entrusted with implementing rules of access and usage today. Is it impossible to think that a large brokerage might want a different set of rules as applied to their listing data, that isn’t the same as that applied to the hundreds of other, smaller brokerages within North Alabama MLS? If so, what prevents that brokerage from setting up his own Direct Feed system so that it has the control over who, when, what, and under what terms its data may be used by end-users?

All Of Which Is To Suggest…

It may be a good idea to take nothing for granted in this brave new world of real estate + technology + unknown changes.

The value of the MLS cannot and should not be taken for granted, by anyone. I happen to believe there is much value in the MLS still, but it has to be proven again and again. If that value was once roomfuls of servers, that isn’t good enough. If that value was once the fact that the MLS had technology people while its member brokers did not, that may no longer be enough. If the value was “we do compliance”, that may or may not be enough, depending on how much value the industry and consumers attach to compliance work. Perhaps the value will change over time, or be forced to change, but I can’t help but feel that very little holds back the waters today.

And that lesson, I think, extends down the funnel too. The value of the brokerage cannot be taken for granted; smart broker-owners and managers I’ve met in recent years all seem to know, at least subconsciously, that they have to prove their value each and every day. And of course, the same holds even for the on-the-street agent. The ones who take the value of agency for granted and just keep on keepin’ on may be… surprised. The ones who know they have to re-establish that value every day are the ones to watch and learn from.

-rsh

 

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