Weaving a tangled web

Aug 3, 2009 Michael Wurzer

Brian Larson posted a detailed conclusion to his IDX series the other day, concluding that he’d recommend the NAR modify the IDX policy to:

  • Define what we mean by ‘web search engine,’ identify the benign uses they make of listing data, and incorporate those descriptions into the rules.
  • Say that broker IDX sites may allow and even encourage indexing by web search engines.
  • If brokers are particularly miffed by the “Nancy Smith” example, MLSs can prohibit display of listing agent in IDX (as long as state law does not require it).
  • Educate all brokers about how site indexing works and about technology options to allow them to take advantage of it.
  • Allow MLSs to adopt a rule requiring IDX sites to display terms of use prominently on the site (but giving brokers a few months’ grace period to implement them).
  • Develop a good model TOU and invite the MLSs to promulgate it to brokers; two key terms would make MLS a third-party beneficiary and would allow ‘web search engine’ use but not any other commercial use of the listing data.

I basically agree with all of this, though I think defining “web search engine” and benign uses is very difficult if not impossible to do when it comes to the web and why I think the terms of use Brian mentions are most important.

Yesterday, Rob Hahn followed up on Brian’s post with “Great Expectations, or On the Purpose of IDX“, in which he makes at least two key points:

  • Purpose of IDX.  Rob agrees with Brian that defining the purpose of IDX is critical: “Without this purpose statement, one could reasonably claim that the purpose of IDX is to benefit sellers as much as possible, or that IDX is meant to empower agents to be more competitive, or whatever.”
  • The Game is Over for IDX.  Rob makes the case that big brokers no longer benefit from IDX in the world of Google dominance, and speculates that the next model might be for big brokers to pull out of IDX, build great VOWs for themselves, and then encourage their MLS to build a great public web site to drive traffic to their VOWs.

I have a couple of comments in response to these ideas from Rob and the IDX issue in general:

  • VOWs.  As I posted a few weeks ago, establishment of VOWs as required by the DOJ/NAR settlement raise questions about MLS IDX policies.  On the one hand, many brokers and MLSs filled the vacuum created by the NAR/DOJ litigation by expanding IDX to include lots of data, including sold information.  In other words, IDX data feeds in these MLSs look a lot like VOW feeds.  On the other hand, some MLSs, like MIBOR, continue to have a restricted view of IDX and want to keep it off the web at least in terms of indexing by search engines.  The distinction between these views seems to be squarely in front of the NAR MLS Policy Committee for investigation and possible decision this fall as a result of the IDX/scraping issue raised by MIBOR this last spring.
  • Purpose of IDX.  I’ve stated before that investment in IDX by many industry participants makes changing that policy of concern, and that the NAR should not combine the VOW and IDX policies.  This brings us back to the purpose of IDX.  Though I agree with both Rob and Brian that a stated purpose would be useful in interpreting the policy and for brokers in deciding whether to opt in or out, I also think that any “purpose” of IDX only matters to the extent it is codified in the terms of use.  After all, the end result of IDX is to put listings on the web.  The web is an evolving, changing flow of information and any purpose stated today likely will change tomorrow.  As Rob points out, Google now dominates and defines the web in, perhaps, too many ways, but tomorrow it may be different.  That’s the beauty and creativity of the web and all its participants.  Declaring a purpose for IDX is useful, but, in the end, the result is that IDX allows agents to put others’ listings on their world wide web site, which, by definition, is open to the world.  Controlling that is going to be difficult, at best, and quite probably impossible.
  • Re-thinking IDX.  The open nature of the web (IDX) and the closed nature of VOWs raises the question as to whether the current IDX policies of MLSs recognize these differences.  I’m hopeful that Rob’s idea about IDX going away in favor of VOWs is a stretch too far, because, as mentioned above, IDX is a vibrant part of so many franchise, broker and agent strategies today.  At the same time, the industry needs to recognize the reality of VOWs and how they interplay with IDX.
  • Syndication.  One example of the evolution of the web is syndication.  Today, many franchises, brokers, agents and MLSs are syndicating listings to sites like Zillow, Trulia, Yahoo!, Google and many others.  One of the more interesting twists on this phenomenon is RealBird’s “IDX” solution based on listings in Google Base.  Tying these altogether, let’s say that Rob’s vision of big brokers pulling out of IDX in favor of VOWs coupled with an MLS consumer portal comes true.  Unless some terms of use somehow prohibit it, RealBird will continue to offer agent and broker “IDX” solutions based on the listings many MLSs are syndicating to Google Base.  This is just one of many reasons (the possibilities of a platform like Google Wave are another) why crafting a terms of use for the open web is so important and difficult, and why the industry, intended or not, is weaving a tangled web.
  • Standards. (You didn’t think I’d get through a post without mentioning standards, did you?)  One possibility for tying some of these issues together is to focus on the syndication standard developed over the last year or so.  At a basic level, syndication is very similar to IDX in that both are focused on advertising listings.  If that’s true, wouldn’t focusing IDX policy on the same data fields identified in the syndication standard make sense?  If we could standardize IDX on the syndication data set, that also would solve many of the cost issues associated with processing so many disparate IDX feed formats.  Having a standard format for IDX also would make crafting a more standard terms of use easier.  Getting there will be challenging, of course, particularly given the wide adoption of IDX, but the long-term payoff could be significant for the entire industry.

I’m heading off to San Francisco tomorrow for the Inman Connect conference, where the issue of VOWs will be front and center for the panel called “From Listing Data to People Data: The Next Challenge in VOWs and MLS Consumer Sites.” Join me there for the continuing discussion or leave a comment below.