Death By Thousands of Feeds

Mar 28, 2015 Michael Wurzer

As Zillow Group works feverishly to get direct agreements with MLS organizations, the challenge of negotiating license terms acceptable to the MLS has led some to suggest that the easy answer might be for the MLS just to give each broker RETS credentials for their listings (and only their listings), which they could then share (yes, you heard me right, share a single set of credentials) with whatever site the broker wants. To protect itself, the MLS would require the broker to sign a legal agreement saying the MLS was absolved of responsibility and all sorts of other well-crafted legalese.

In other words,  the MLS would be trying to wash its hands of the syndication mess by turning it over to each broker via their own personal RETS feed from the MLS, which would now be managing hundreds or thousands of these feeds, accessed by RETS credentials freely shared by brokers with whoever they want without any knowledge by the MLS of who has or is using those credentials. This approach is wrong-headed at nearly every turn and brings to mind the old saying, “death by a thousand cuts,” only now it’s death by thousands upon thousands of feeds.

This “thousands of feeds” idea is what I’d call form over substance in that it’s really just another way to allow the broker to opt-in to sending their listings somewhere. The MLS is still the source of the data (its coming from the MLS RETS server, after all) and so the MLS will still be pestered with support questions about the data, only worse because the MLS won’t have any way to know who the broker has authorized to access or use the data. Can’t you hear the calls now, “Why is my listing on site XXX not up to date?” Unfortunately, the MLS won’t be able to answer because it won’t have any idea.

As an MLS vendor providing support to MLSs, we know all too well that MLSs, as service organizations, are dragged into these problems whether they have legal responsibility for it or not. Pointing to some legal agreement absolving the MLS of their responsibility doesn’t go a long way toward solving the actual problem, which is the data being sent far and wide with no one really knowing where or who is using it or for what purpose.

No, the answer to the syndication challenge is not for the MLS to try to wash its hands of the situation but rather to use an MLS-directed and broker-controlled opt-in syndication platform, such as what FBS provides through its Flexmls system. Such a system allows each broker to control what sites get their listings while also allowing the MLS to manage the feed to each destination. Instead of thousands of individual feeds to each destination, the MLS provides one feed that only contains the listings of the brokers who opt-in (or don’t opt-out) to sending their listings to that site.

There’s no question this approach is better from a process, management, efficiency, and security perspective, but what about the legal or licensing perspective? After all, the reason this “thousands of feeds” approach is being floated is because some MLSs are not willing to agree to terms being required by Zillow Group or other portals. Given this, how can the MLS provide a syndication feed via opt-in? The answer is the same way the MLS can provide the broker the individual RETS feed. All the MLS would have to do is type into the “terms of use” box in the syndication platform the same legal disclaimers it has in the “thousands of feeds” agreement. The legal result is exactly the same — an agreement between the MLS and brokers where each broker is responsible for the terms on which they are licensing the data to the portal when they opt-in — yet the support nightmare of the thousands of feeds is avoided.

I don’t want to end this post simply by advising against this thousands of feeds idea, because I think there’s an opportunity for MLSs to improve the syndication experience for the brokers and for MLSs. For the last several years, MLSs have left syndication to companies like Listhub and Point2. Now, however, MLSs have an opportunity to seize control of this critical function, empower their brokers, create competition among the portals, and leverage the incredible value the MLS has created by getting competitive brokers to cooperate with each other. Instead of washing their hands, MLSs should seize this opportunity to create a win for the industry.