Top Ten Changes in Technology That Defined MLS This Decade

Dec 31, 2009 Michael Wurzer

Engadget posted a list of Ten Gadgets That Defined A Decade, which, in turn, has inspired me to post this list of Top Ten Changes in Technology That Defined MLS This Decade:

1. Conversion to Web Browser MLS Systems. For the majority of real estate agents at the turn of the century, connecting to the MLS still often meant using some Windows communication software (PC Access, Lightning, etc.) to access a legacy UNIX-based system like Compass, Stellar or FBS’s RE/list. Today, nearly every MLS system is accessed through a web browser. Evangelizing web browser MLS systems in the late 90s and early part of this decade were Marketlinx with Tempo, FBS with flexmls Web, and Rapattoni. Others came along in short order (though, sadly, many are still locked to a particular browser like Internet Explorer), but the rapid shift to browser based MLS systems had already begun and that also resulted in a sea change for the dominant MLS software vendors.

2. Broadband. In the early part of the last decade, people still knew what a 56k modem was and boasted about anything faster. Today, the only modems people care about are cable modems and we whine if video doesn’t stream instantly. Without this shift to nearly ubiquitous broadband, almost all the other advances in MLS systems would have been impossible.

3. Mapping. Envisioned for MLS during the 90s, mapping only became ubiquitous in this last decade, starting with systems like MapQuest, GeoJet and ESRI, most of which were soon replaced with more powerful offerings from Google and Microsoft. Today, parcel maps, aerial and bird’s eye imagery are standard fare, providing an entirely new and borderless interface to the MLS data.

4. Smart Phones. Along with the shift to web browser MLS systems, the ability to access MLS data on your phone became standard in the last decade as smart phones (which I define as a phone with a web browser) became ubiquitous. Side note: Folklore often has real estate agents pegged as technology laggards, but I’ve rarely seen a group of professionals more gadget obsessed than real estate agents, who always have the latest and greatest phones. Now they’re accessing the MLS, getting email and text messages, opening lock boxes, taking photos (though they shouldn’t, at least not of their listed properties), and checking their social networks from their phones.

5. Email. I debated about whether to put email in the list or not, because email really is a technology that took off in the 90s. In the end, though, I’m listing it because the ability to email content from the MLS system really didn’t take off until the MLS system migrated to web browsers, which did happen this decade. Before web browser MLS systems were dominant, you had to create a document (PDF, Word, etc.) to email content from the MLS. I can vividly recall early pitches about flexmls Web focusing on the live, dynamic nature of the email links to the MLS content. Now, most MLS systems boast the ablity to email highly interactive links to the MLS system that allow agents to engage their customers at a very high level and so I think email belongs on this list for the last decade.

6. IDX and VOWs. (Though this is more of a change in policy than technology, the result impacted the technology available to brokers and agents.) The ability for brokers and agents to display listings from the MLS on their own web sites became possible this decade with the creation of broker reciprocity (today, IDX). Of course, the decade also was plagued by the litigation between the NAR and DOJ over VOWs (virtual office web sites), which were created to get around the limitations on the data available through IDX because of opt-outs and MLS rules. Today, the VOW rules required by the NAR/DOJ settlement means that pretty much the entire MLS is available to consumers willing to identify themselves, and this change is only now working its way into the fabric of the MLS.

7. Zillow. Despite the initial fanfare, Zillow has had little impact on the MLS industry to date. However, there also is little doubt that their innovation of making zestimates publicly accessible for nearly every property in the country will have a big impact in the decade to come. Most notably, Zillow scares the pants off NAR, which has launched RPR in an attempt to create a better database. Because we all know it’s all about the data, right?

8. TZGY and Other Third Party Aggregators. Trulia, Zillow, Google and Yahoo! all became popular aggregators of real estate listing content. In fact, Zillow is now nipping on the heals of Mostly, the popularity of third party aggregators isn’t of much concern to the MLS, but the proliferation of so many different destinations has impacted the MLS this decade by requiring it figure out how to deliver data to all these destinations. Some standards work has been done in this regard and yet entirely new businesses such as ThreeWide and Point2 have formed to help solve the syndication problem. One of the big issues going into the new decade will continue to be improving the data quality on these third party aggregation sites.

9. Blogs and Social Networking. Hey, you’re reading this blog, so I guess blogging must make the list. Jokes aside, blogging may not have had a big impact on the MLS this last decade but it made a big enough impact on brokers and agents (and, in some cases, making brokers out of agents) that it’s worth mentioning here in the overall context of the social networking phenomenon, which has impacted the MLS. From ActiveRain to popular group blogs like Bloodhound and AgentGenius, blogging has become an important force in real estate. Beyond SEO, indexing of listings, and the ability to communicate your message, however, I think one of the most important impacts of blogging is in fostering the do-it-yourself or independence ethos advocated by brokers like Greg Swann. Blogging has become so easy and so powerful that more and more agents and brokers are using weblogs like WordPress to power their entire web presence. This puts them in control, instead of some technologist, and that’s an important change for the long term.

Social networking also has impacted Realtor Associations and MLSs, which are using blogs and social networks like Facebook to communicate more with their members. Brokers, agents and consumers also are using social networks to share and discuss listing information. MLSs are adjusting by making MLS content more easily shareable and adding more discussion tools in their customer portals. More generally, however, blogs and social networking likely will have an even greater impact on the MLS in the decade to come as they come to grips with user-generated content and the blurring of the lines among the private MLS, VOWs, customer portals and IDX.

10. RETS. Though I don’t have hard numbers on this, I’m pretty confident that, during the last decade, the real estate transaction standard (RETS) became the predominant method for delivering listing data from the MLS. Much remains to be done in terms of data standards but the impact of RETS in the MLS industry in the last decade cannot be underestimated, if for no other reason than fulfillment of Matt Cohen’s prediction of it being an unfunded mandate.

Those are my top 10, what are yours?

Honorable Mentions (or Corrections) (or I can’t just list 10)

Digital Cameras. After thinking about this a bit more, I think I should have added digital cameras somewhere up on the list. Photos are the most frequently accessed content on our MLS systems, and it’s now common to have 20, 30 or more photos per listing. That simply wasn’t practical before the proliferation of digital cameras and definitely changed the MLS over the last decade.

Virtual Tours. Am I missing perspective on virtual tours or should they have been in the list? I’m still not really seeing how they change the MLS industry too much, other than creating a small dustup over whether they could have branding in them or not.

Videos. Though video on the web took off this last decade with YouTube, property videos are rarely attached to property listings even today. I’m not sure if this is a testament to the efficacy of pictures, the complexity of video, or some other combination of factors, but I still haven’t seen video make a big impact in the MLS.