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May 11, 2007

MLS and the Future of Listing Distribution

The following is a high-level overview of a session from Clareity Consulting's 2007 MLS Executive Workshop. Every year the Clareity's Workshop provides fresh, in-depth updates on the most pressing issues facing MLS executives and leaders and creates an intimate environment for participants to share their knowledge and experience with each other. You can check the dates and/or register for next year's event on the Clareity Consulting web site.

Listings and other real estate content were at one time jealously guarded by brokers, and in turn by the MLS, especially when it came to putting that content on the Internet. Though MLS public websites are still controversial in some corners, the recent trend has been toward a wider distribution of such content and the question of the day is no longer "Should my listings be available on multiple Internet sites?" and is more commonly, "Where should I send the listings?" There have been two trends contributing to the current environment: the first trend is the market slow down which has increased pressure on brokers and agents to facilitate greater marketing exposure for properties and the second trend is a part of wider culture, the "Web 2.0" trend of "syndication." 

In the "Web 1.0" world, companies wanted all consumers to visit their sites and stay as long as possible. In the "Web 2.0" world, the trend is to make content available to other sites or have customized information delivered directly to individual site subscribers. The most common mechanism for this is called "RSS," which stands for Really Simple Syndication.

So, what we have traditionally referred to as listing distribution could also be referred to as content syndication. Such syndication may benefit all parties. Today, consumers must typically visit multiple sites to see all the listings for their area:, Yahoo!, Craigslist, Google, NewHome Source,, Trulia,, and numerous other sites. When listings are fully syndicated, consumers may not need to visit multiple sites. For the broker or agent, syndication drives listing exposure across numerous online platforms - generating new traffic and content exposure — making syndication a free and easy form of advertisement. 

Between the continued growth of listing content syndication and the evolution of data standards such as RETS (the Real Estate Transaction Standard), the MLS may have an evolving role to fill in the collection of data and its syndication. First, RETS 2.0 will make it more feasible for real estate professionals to manage their listings in a number of systems and have those changes syndicated. This may mean that an agent enters and manages a listing in the MLS and has it syndicated to the broker back-office system, other systems they use, and websites much as it is today but it could also mean that the agent can manage listings directly into the broker system and have syndicated to the MLS and other systems. Managing that syndication may become a core function of the MLS and other real estate software. This scenario is illustrated below:

While it is clearly up to brokers to determine where their listings are advertised, as an industry it is in our best interest to encourage balancing the benefits of content distribution with the interests of those that have worked to create the content as well as providing appropriate levels of information security and consumer privacy.

While some MLSs have started dealing with their information security responsibilities, regarding MLS system authentication and the hacking threat, less attention has been paid to listing distribution. Some say, "This is information already out there on the Internet it is 'public' information. We don't publish the consumer's name or phone number. So what's the big deal?" If a consumer provides information to an agent for the purpose of selling their home and, due to uncontrolled distribution or inadequate information security practices, the consumer is immediately overrun with telephone, mail or email marketing from real estate related services it could lead to backlash and damage the trust in the real estate professional. It's all too easy to scrape the content off of most MLS websites, and combining that information in a "mash-up" with even the most basic reverse telephone directory creates a consumer privacy issue. If industry critics like Dave Barry have their way and open up access to the MLS, we will surely have other attorneys attacking the industry for that breach of consumer privacy.

As the scope of content syndication continues to expand it will be important for MLSs, brokers and others that may distribute content to implement next-generation data distribution policies addressing the security of everything from data exports created directly from the MLS to RETS feeds and other content distribution mechanisms. Such policies must:
  • Establish common practices used to evaluate and establish third-party relationships.
  • Establish conditions on those relationships and responsibilities within them.
  • Determine the data that may be accessed.
  • Describe how that data may be securely transmitted and stored.
  • Detail numerous other detailed steps needed to provide appropriate information security for the content to which third parties are entrusted.
While providing information security assessments to MLSs and brokers, Clareity has found that such policies are rarely thoroughly defined or implemented. Clareity has worked with a number of clients to adopt and implement more robust listing distribution policies, integrate these policies into appropriate contracts, educate staff and members and third parties on those policies, and implement pro-active controls as well as means for monitoring and enforcement. There are hundreds of details to attend to in such a policy, and it is rare that Clareity finds a policy that is better than 'fair' during an assessment. Ask yourself, "Does my policy cover secure coding practices to ensure listings can't be scraped off a member or MLS/IDX vendor websites? For the secure transfer of information using encrypted protocols? For the encrypted storage of information, in databases and on backups? For security compliance monitoring mechanisms?" Again, there are scores of detailed questions to be asked, and which need be addressed in a comprehensive policy.

The current trend toward increasing listing content syndication is going to create new roles for the MLS and new challenges for our industry. Finding a balance of giving the consumers access to the information they desire and protecting broker rights, industry interests, and consumer privacy will be very important, and Clareity encourages its clients to take security of data distribution to the next level through policy, agreements, MLS rules, education, implementation, monitoring, and enforcement, so they are prepared for the future of listing content syndication.

(Matt Cohen is Clareity Consulting's Chief Technologist. Matt has spoken at many conferences, workshops and leadership retreats around the country on a wide variety of MLS-related topics, and is a well-regarded real estate industry expert on software design, product management, project management, data center reliability, scalability, and information security. Clareity Consulting was founded in 1996 to provide information technology consulting to the real estate industry and its related businesses.)

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