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An announcement by HomeServices of America subsidiary Edina Realty Inc. that it plans to pull listings from Trulia and Realtor.com has renewed a long-running industry debate over the pros and cons of syndicating listings to third-party sites.

With 2,100 Realtors working out of 60 offices in Minnesota, North Dakota and western Wisconsin, Edina Realty is one of the nation’s largest brokerages, handling 25,000 transactions and $5.3 billion in sales in 2010.

If other brokerages follow Edina Realty’s lead, national listing portals could find themselves with gaps in their listing coverage that would make the websites less attractive to consumers.

But brokerages that turn their backs on third-party sites also run the risk that leads and website traffic the websites might generate for them will go to their competitors instead.

By aggregating listings from around the country and providing consumers with additional neighborhood, market and demographic information and statistics, third-party sites like Yahoo Real Estate, Zillow and Realtor.com have become household names. At the national level, websites operated by brokerages and even national franchisors can’t compete. Even at the local market level, the leading third-party websites typically attract more consumers than individual brokerage websites.

"We’ve had several customers go through this same existential question Edina is going through, and they have in the vast majority of cases come back — in many cases in a couple of weeks — either because their clients or their own agents are pushing back in a big way," said Georg Gerstenfeld, Trulia’s vice president of business services.

Realtor.com President Errol Samuelson struck a similarly confident tone, saying that in the last 12 months, listings represented by Edina Realty have been viewed 38 million times on Realtor.com.

"We have very good traffic in Minneapolis, and I don’t think that’s going to change," Samuelson said of Edina Realty’s biggest market.

"That’s a decision the broker has a right to make," Samuelson said of Edina’s right to withhold listings from Realtor.com. But it’s "premature" to assume that the brokerage will follow through on its threat to do so by the end of the year, Samuelson said.

But Edina Realty may be in a stronger position than some other brokerages to renounce third-party listing sites, because it already operates the leading real estate website in the Minneapolis-St. Paul market, according to online metrics firm Experian Hitwise.

Real estate website market share in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn.

Website

Category market share

1. Edina Realty

7.62%

2. Yahoo Real Estate

6.16%

3. MLSonline.com

5.74%

4. Trulia.com

4.95%

5. Realtor.com

4.59%

6. Zillow

4.57%

7. MSN Real Estate

4.06%

8. Rent.com

3.28%

9. AOL Real Estate

2.44%

10. Homes.com

2.06%

 

Source:  Experian Hitwise. Not to be used without the written permission of WAV Group and Experian Hitwise.

Bob Peltier, president and CEO of Edina Realty Home Services, says he expects the brokerage’s website will pick up additional market share when it stops sending listings to third-party sites.

"A little bit of this is SEO," Peltier said, referring to the "search engine optimization" boost that listing data provides to websites when consumers begin their house-hunting process using Google or another search engine.

Once Edina Realty stops sending listings to third-party websites, "we are going to move up in SEO, because we have more listings than they do."

Thanks to Internet data exchange (IDX) agreements with other brokers, the Edina Realty website can display all of the local listings represented by participating IDX brokers, not just those its own agents represent. IDX agreements employed by most multiple listing services around the nation include strict rules about the display of listing data — such as prohibitions on advertising and identifcation of listing brokers — that third-party websites aren’t subject to.

Joe Horning, owner of Wisconsin-based Shorewest Realtors, said his firm’s website boosted its local market share when it stopped sending listings to Trulia in 2010.

"In my case, my traffic has gone up in the last year, and their traffic has gone down," in Shorewest’s market, Horning said. "The consumer is intelligent; they know where they are going to find the listings. We generate more traffic than Trulia, Zillow and Realtor.com."

Realtor.com’s Samuelson said there’s more to the equation than SEO.

"The question is, does that (boost in website market share) really offset the traffic you are losing?" Samuelson said. "From a home seller’s perspective, does it really make sense to say, ‘I’m going to turn off an audience of 17 million consumers?’ It’s not clear to me that achieves the goal of selling a home as quickly as possible, at the highest possible price."

Advertisements next to listings

Search engine rankings are important to brokerages seeking to boost traffic. But it’s the growing need of third-party sites to generate revenue by selling advertising and leads that’s increasingly a sore point with many.

While some brokers say they are happy to syndicate listings to third-party sites because of the additional exposure they provide for their clients’ listings, others object that those listings are used to generate traffic that can be monetized by selling leads and advertising back to them — or worse yet, their competition.

"If we give (third-party websites) our listings, they come up higher in search results," Peltier said. "Then they turn around and want to sell ads to our agents."

Brian Boero of 1000 Watt Consulting said Edina Realty’s move reflects a wider, and rising, sense in the brokerage community "that the bargain struck with online companies years ago has gone sideways."

"If I’m a broker who began sending my listings to Trulia in 2006, what I get for free in exchange for handing over my listings has steadily diminished over time," Boero said. "From the brokerage perspective, that changes the calculations around syndication."

Some companies, like Edina Realty, will conclude that it’s time to pull the plug, Boero said. Others will stay the course.

"But overall, what we see here is the beginning of the end of a listings detente that has prevailed for the last five to six years," Boero said.

(Boero’s firm recently helped Edina redesign its website, but he said 1000 Watt Consulting was not involved in the decision to pull its listings from third-party sites.)

Peltier said he served for five years on Trulia’s advisory board, resigning after Trulia stepped up its advertising offerings on the site.

Trulia’s "Quick Connect" ads allow consumers viewing listing detail pages on Trulia.com to fill out a lead form in order to "contact local agents" near the property.

The Quick Connect lead forms are sometimes derided by critics as a "three-headed monster" because they feature head shots of up to three buyer’s agents who have purchased ad space.

But Gerstenfeld pointed out the ads also generate leads for the listing agent, if the listing agent has "claimed" their listing at Trulia.com, which they can do at no charge. The Quick Connect lead forms are disabled altogether when listing agents pay for a "premium listing."

Trulia co-founder Sami Inkinen defended the lead forms in a January post on the company blog.

"Perhaps the loudest negative feedback we hear is about sites, including Trulia, that allow agents to receive leads on or near another broker’s or agent’s listing," Inkinen acknowledged.

He said Trulia introduced the Quick Connect lead forms because agents don’t respond to nearly 70 percent of leads, and the company wanted "to make sure end users are getting a response from an agent."

Trulia also offers "hyperlocal" display ads, which the company rolled out in January 2010 by offering to help agents "lock out your competition" when they purchased a percentage share of the available ad space in a ZIP code or city.

While Trulia has increased its lineup of advertising products, Gerstenfeld said it hasn’t taken away any of its "freemium" options, including the ability to claim listings or participate in the "Trulia Voices" forums on the sites at no charge.

"The free options have remained the same," Gerstenfeld said. "We’ve laid paid products on top of that, but haven’t curtailed our free solutions in any way."

Zillow sells lead forms to buyer’s agents who subscribe to its "Premier Agent" program, which launched in October 2008. Revenue from the program has been a key driver in the company’s revenue growth and transition to a publicly traded company following an initial public offering in July.

At the end of September, Zillow had 14,876 Premier Agent subscribers — more than double the number at the same time a year ago. Revenue from the program and pay-per-click advertising purchased by mortgage lenders was up 226 percent, to $11.8 million, the company said in its most recent quarterly report to investors.

Trulia is in the process of preparing for its own planned IPO, and Inkinen has switched roles, moving from chief operating officer to become the company’s president.

Realtor.com operator Move Inc. — which has had its ups and downs as a publicly traded company that’s dependent on ad revenue — recently began running unbranded lead forms for buyer’s agents on listing detail pages.

Last month, the company said it planned to complete the expansion of the "Connection for Co-Brokerage" pilot program, launched in seven markets in July, to include the entire country by the start of the spring buying season.

Listing brokers who don’t want the unbranded advertisements to appear next to their listings can opt out. Those who agree to allow Realtor.com’s "Connection for Co-Brokerage" lead forms to appear next to their listings get free enhancements to their listings, such as the ability to display additional photos.

When third-party sites were getting off the ground, they were more willing to provide leads and traffic for brokerages without charging them for it, Peltier said. Now, as companies move beyond the startup phase, the pressure for them to generate revenue has grown.

"I believe these companies sucked us in with all the free stuff — I’ll be the first to say we were supportive. We gave our listings to Trulia and Realtor.com," Peltier said. "Now they say you have to buy enhanced listings or ad space or you are not going to get leads back. That’s a poor business model I’m not willing to support."

Brokers also sometimes complain that third-party sites are also plagued by accuracy issues, such as out-of-date prices or expired listings. Peltier said accuracy issues can expose agents and their brokers to legal liability.

Because Realtor.com gets its listing data directly from multiple listing services, it’s largely viewed as immune to such problems — although MLS data itself can be inaccurate.

Gerstenfeld said accuracy should not be an issue for Edina Realty listings published on Trulia.com because they are supplied by the brokerage itself. Peltier said problems arise when Trulia and other third-party sites obtain Edina Realty listing from other sources, such as data aggregators or syndicators.

Edina justifies policy to agents

In an internal notice reposted by one of its agents, Edina Realty said it plans to discontinue the listing feed the company provides to Trulia by the end of the month. The company said it will also stop sending listings to Realtor.com — the official site of the National Association of Realtors — by the end of the year. Peltier confirmed that the repost of the notice was accurate.

"Third-party aggregators are not brokers," Edina explained to its agents in the notice. "They get listings for free from brokers around the country and then display them online, collecting and distributing leads for profit."

Ads that third-party sites sell to other brokers’ agents appear on listing detail pages for properties represented by Edina Realty, allowing competing agents "to present themselves as the contact for your listing," the company said.

Many third-party sites will hold off from running ads for competing brokerages on listing detail pages if the broker or agent representing the property claims a listing, or has paid for listing "enhancements" or other advertising for their own listings.

Edina Realty told its agents that the company wants to control its own listings so that its agents "don’t have to pay — directly or indirectly — for leads on their own listings."

The debate about syndication of listings to third-party websites tends to split along broker-agent lines. Many agents like the ability to access consumers directly through third-party sites, reducing their reliance on their broker for leads.

"Third-party sites are sort of working agents against the broker," said Marilyn Wilson, a real estate marketing and technology consultant with WAV Group. "Edina Realty has become a third-party site, in effect, in their own market."

Peltier said he’s been talking to agents about such a move for three or four months, and that "the vast, vast majority" he’s heard from since the announcement support the move.

Horning said he believes many agents don’t realize the extent to which third-party sites are selling ads around listings.

He said Shorewest has opted out of Realtor.com’s Connection for Co-Brokerage lead forms, and that "we are going to monitor Realtor.com. Everything is on the table. If they go down a road that’s detrimental to brokers and agents, we’d consider removing our listings" from Realtor.com.

As NAR’s official site, Realtor.com "used to be the true blue, that was your friend," Horning said. "Now they’ve taken a new direction."

The Realtor.com website URL and trademark are owned by NAR, but the site is operated by Move Inc. under the terms of an agreement with the 1 million-member Realtor association.

After lengthy negotiations between Move and NAR, the agreement was amended last year to permit the Connection for Co-Brokerage lead forms to appear next to listings on Realtor.com. During negotiations, Move CEO Steve Berkowitz Realtor.com needed more flexibility to compete with other property search sites.

"I have to say it, but (paying for advertising on third-party websites) is no different than buying ads in the newspaper," Peltier said. "People did it because it was expected, and it was mostly fulfilling the seller’s wishes. But at the end of the day, you’re really got minimal return on that investment."

Other brokers considering such a move "need to talk to their agents, and they need to buy and understand the (website) analytics from an outside source to really know how many leads and how many hits they are getting" from third-party sites, Peltier said.

Horning said that any brokerage with an IDX feed has the listing content to build a website that will attract consumers. "If they put together a marketing strategy, it can be done," he said.

WAV Group’s Wilson said brokers syndicating listings through companies like ListHub and Point2 get analytics reports that can help them make such decisions.

"Ideally, they look at all their media communications, all of their marketing spend, and evaluate the return on investment of all of those," Wilson said. The decision should be made objectively and thoughtfully, she said, and not emotionally.

"You don’t have to pull out of them, but I would look carefully at all of them," Wilson said. "Don’t make any rash decisions, but at least understand what they are and aren’t doing for you. If it’s costing $500 a lead, is that a good investment?"

When the National Association of Realtors decided last year that franchisors like Century 21 would be allowed to publish IDX listings in any markets where they had affiliated brokers, Horning and other brokers protested the move.

Robert Moline, president and chief operating officer of HomeServices of America, warned NAR board members in May that if the rule was not repealed, HomeServices might break away from NAR, saying the company is "approached frequently about forming a national, private MLS." NAR eventually rescinded the policy.

Horning said that while there’s rising discontent among brokers about third-party websites, there’s no movement afoot among brokers to scuttle IDX or the MLS system. Peltier said Edina Realty will continue to share listings with IDX brokers in its markets.

"We fully support" IDX, he said, because brokers all "play by the same rules" and are subject to state laws and the Realtor code of ethics.

"When I’m dealing with the people that (aren’t subject to) those rules and laws, they don’t care about the listing or the property, they only want to sell ads to the agents, the brokerage, or Home Depot, or Kmart, or whoever," he said. "They don’t help us."

"For us at Edina, I’ve kind of had enough," Peltier said. "I don’t really care what others do. I’m not promoting or pushing other brokers or agents to do this. This is right  for our company, based on a lot of data (including) our size and our website."


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