It bears repeating: MLS is more than technology

Jun 8, 2009 Michael Wurzer

Inman News recently issued a call for essays on on a “new look for MLS”, asking:

  • What changes do you believe are necessary and imminent for MLSs, and what types of changes do you believe will require the toughest battles?
  • Will VOWs (Virtual Office Web sites) catch on? Will they ever replace IDX (Internet Data Exchange) as the dominant model for sharing property information with consumers?
  • What MLS rules and policies, if any, need tweaking? Are any new rules needed?
  • How will the debate over MLS-operated public-facing property-search sites be settled?
  • Should MLSs send property listings information on their participants’ behalf to third-party Web sites?
  • Is the regionalization and nationalization of MLS data a given? What is the perfect number of MLSs required to serve real estate professionals?
  • Are we inevitably heading toward a single, national MLS? Would that be a good thing or a bad thing for agents, brokers and consumers?

I’m going to respond to all these questions in one fell swoop by using MLS regionalization as an example.  There are two distinct approaches to the regionalization challenge that have been advocated: (1) a standards based approach (sort of like CARETS and WIREX); and (2) a proprietary approach like calREDD.  (Side note: A big question for me right now is where NAR’s Real Property Resource intends to go, standards or proprietary?)

A good analogy to explain the differences between these two approaches is the web itself.  Let’s pretend the web didn’t exist but you wanted to create it.  Two distinct approaches would be: (1) start by creating an open platform on which others can create; or (2) build one system and try to get everyone else to buy/use it. The web’s ridiculous success is because it’s built on open standards and not a proprietary solution.

This basic distinction — between the open web and proprietary solutions — goes to the heart of what I believe is the purpose of MLSs and REALTOR Associations (local, state and national), namely: creating a cooperative platform on which competitors can compete.  I wrote some time ago that MLS is more than technology. This isn’t new or radical, it’s what MLSs and Associations have been doing since inception.

What is new and radical, however, is that the web is creating new opportunities for competing and cooperating and that presents many opportunities for MLSs and Associations to help their members.  Here are just some of the opportunities:

Listing Data Standards — This is the beginning of nearly everything; data standards are the base of the platform.  Without standardized data, the web as a platform for MLS is very messy, as we’re seeing right now.  Data sharing among MLSs, between brokers, with franchises, search engines, and others is all hampered by data disparities.  More positively, standardizing data opens many opportunities that are not possible or practical today, such as reliable cross-MLS statistical analysis.  One of the most important pieces of data to be standardized is a universal property ID, which I’m hopeful will be a core focus for NAR’s Real Property Resource.  A universal property ID could form a basis for linking listing data together, which is what the web is all about.

Who is a member of the MLS? Or it’s time to develop some terms of use.  I’ve mentioned this before but, today, I think consumers are, for all practical purposes, members of the MLS.  Ridiculous, you say?  Not really.  If access to the listing data is the definition of membership, then consumers are “members” in many respects.  One of the primary features of every MLS system today is the ability to email information to consumers.  Many MLS systems also offer customer portals through which agents can share listing data and interact with their customers.  Also, many agents today are really consumers who have gone through the steps to become a member.  They aren’t producing or active in the MLS but they have access.  As MLSs and Associations consider changes to the IDX, VOW and related policies, thinking of the conumer as a member of the MLS and then working to define the terms of use for that membership may lead to a new way of thinking about how agents and consumers can interact on the web.

Identity.  The web used to be all about anonymity but today it is about identity.  MLSs and Associations could be helping their members by developing standards for identifying and authorizing members across systems and the web, and sharing that information with other sites.  This is a hot topic for the web as a whole today, not just real estate, as sites like Google, Facebook, Twitter, and others require us to maintain information about ourselves multiple times with multiple usernames and passwords.  Couldn’t the MLS help members by participating in these standards efforts on the web?  This is just another example of how real estate is participating in the web evolution, and so needs to think in web terms.

Syndication.  Some good work has been started on standardizing the data format for syndication, but an equally (or more) important issue for consumers is keeping that data up to date on all the various sites.  This is a classic case where technology filled the gap from a lack of standards and created a mess.  Sites like Trulia, Zillow, Yahoo!, Google, etc., are receiving the same listings from many sources, having to de-duplicate them, and keep them up to date somehow.  The MLS remains the most accurate source of listing data and so should provide a standard for how data should be sent (transported) to other aggregators and then kept up to date. This doesn’t need to be hard and could follow some basic standards like Atom or RSS, but the discussion needs to be started to get there.  This same discussion leads back to the terms of use mentioned above — if the data is offered in an open format, who can do what with it and under what terms?

IDX and VOWsThe recent dustup over whether Google’s indexing of an IDX site is misappropriation of the IDX data is a good example of how MLSs and Associations need to re-envision their operations in terms of the web as a whole.  By focusing on high-level standards, issues like this may be avoided or minimized in the future.

The above are just some of the key issues facing MLSs and Associations today.  The web is reinventing everything, including the way we collaborate, cooperate and make decisions.  The NAR and local Assocaitions could reinvent themselves for member benefit by putting these issues front and center on a web site somewhere and publicly debating and deciding on them.