Real estate listings syndication has gone too far

Commentary: It's hurting consumers

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Editor’s note: The following is a guest perspective by a Seattle-area managing broker.

By SAM DeBORD

Real estate listings syndication to third-party websites began with the intention of giving consumers better access to more information. Even as the glaring problems with syndication became apparent in recent years, syndication continued to grow as brokers reacted to a fast-changing marketplace.

Each time we syndicated a listing to these third-party sites, we told consumers that they should trust syndicated listings and continue to use syndication sites in their home search.

As an industry, we thought we were allowing consumers to see all of the data about every listing on every website. Instead, we have encouraged them to visit sites whose listings databases are inaccurate, outdated, incomplete, and even intentionally altered to promote and obscure certain listings based on advertising revenue.

Consumers always come first

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Real estate brokers must, first and foremost, respond to the needs of our customers if we are to be successful. So, then, what do consumers want, and what do consumers really need when it comes to real estate listings?

Consumers want to see all homes for sale — every listing from every brokerage

Syndication sites do not provide this. Syndicators pull listings from as many available sources as they can, but they simply do not represent the full database of the multiple listing service in the vast majority of markets, nor are the listings timely.

Consumers want choices

In my market of Seattle, there are literally thousands of brokerage MLS Internet Data Exchange (IDX) sites, which have an accurate, comprehensive database of listings from every brokerage on the MLS. There is no shortage of easily accessible data. IDX sites are formatted with dozens of choices from dozens of providers, but all have the most important factor: the MLS database.

It takes five seconds for a consumer to Google "Seattle homes" and find the real MLS database on thousands of brokers’ sites. When we direct them to a syndication site with a partial database and less accurate information, we are leading them to an inferior database, and frankly, wasting their time.

Consumers want accurate data on listings

Syndication sites provide far less accurate data than brokers’ IDX MLS feeds. Yes, there are some errors in the MLS, but syndication sites are widely known for displaying outdated and incorrect data, as well as erroneous "foreclosure listings" to increase buyer inquiries and sell leads. This, again, is directly in conflict with what our consumers are asking for.

Consumers want all homes to be shown in a consistent, transparent fashion

Syndicators are forging paid agreements with certain brokerages to highlight those companies’ listings and supersede other listings. This is perfectly acceptable for a large business to do on its own. However, it is irresponsible for the real estate industry, as a whole, to feed listings directly into a platform that we know does not display all listings equally. We’re putting our "seal of approval" on a practice that is not consumer-focused.

This particular tactic is more egregious than most, as it intentionally changes homebuyers’ search results based on advertising revenue, not on the consumer’s requirements. Its very design is based upon income, not consumer need, and it presents a skewed picture of the market to a consumer. It’s the beginning of a very slippery slope for brokers.

Consumers want as much advertising/marketing as possible when they sell a home

This is where syndicators put most brokers over a barrel, and brokers do the same to one another. We’ve convinced ourselves that if broker A is syndicating to 1,000 different websites, broker B must do the same, or he/she won’t be able to sell the home. There are two problems with this argument.

Problem No. 1: Quality of syndication outlets

We’ve all seen the listing presentation with a mish-mash of scattered logos and trademarks of the hundreds of websites the broker is syndicating listings to. Take a closer look, and it’s actually somewhat embarrassing from a professional perspective.

If a brokerage is using one of the large syndication services, there are a wide variety of sites with a wide range of reputations that are receiving the listings. Imagine telling your home sellers that you are scatter-shooting your listings out to hundreds of questionable websites, and you’re implicitly encouraging your homebuyer clients to use (those sites) for their home search. This is exactly what you’re doing with syndication.

Problem No. 2: The self-fulfilling prophecy of "Everyone else is doing it"

Many brokers are reacting to the changing marketplace out of fear or uncertainty. The market has been down for years, the landscape is changing dramatically with distressed properties, and our marketing has been shifting quickly toward the Internet.

When one broker syndicates to a third-party site, the next broker feels that it can’t be left out. Fairly quickly, fear gets everyone on board. We’ve allowed ourselves to be handcuffed by our own associates to inferior platforms.

Consumers who follow our lead are searching an incomplete database, but they believe they’re doing the right thing because their brokers have told them so through their actions.

Any one individual agent or broker can opt out of the syndication, as the principled folks at Edina Realty and ARG Abbott Realty Group have done.

However, without a tidal wave of industry following, we continue as an industry to tell our consumers that syndication is their best source of information even when we know it is not.

As an industry, we need to make principled, strategic decisions instead of reactively scrambling to keep up with outside forces.

What about all of the traffic on the big syndication sites?

In today’s marketplace, we can’t just ignore the amount of traffic these sites have. They’re constantly forging new agreements with other corporations to share data and Web traffic. There are millions of consumers searching for real estate information on these sites today.

In reality, though, these companies had very high traffic numbers before we started syndicating listings to them. Without actual listings, plenty of consumers would still visit them for their other tools.

Agents and brokerages continue to advertise their services using these sites, and to generate revenue for these sites, because the sites provide consumer eyeballs. These companies, without syndicated listings, will survive as what they are: large, well-funded real estate research sites with lots of features and ad revenue.

The future of real estate online

If you are familiar with Web marketing, search engines, and the way Internet traffic is directed to real estate websites, you’ll understand that we are at a crossroads for real estate. The way we direct consumers online to find homes for sale will have a lasting effect.

If we continue training consumers today to visit third-party sites to find our listings, the effect will snowball. Patterns of traffic build larger recognition and audiences, and as the traffic continues to grow, the trend becomes more and more difficult to reverse.

Real estate brokers serve consumers over investors

If our industry allows third-party syndication to become the de facto landing point for our listings, we allow the corporations and investors that own those companies to dominate the direction the industry goes in the future.

When real estate brokers lead the conversation, we lead it in terms of what is best for our homebuyers and sellers.

Consumers already have thousands of choices. We have the most accurate MLS data available to them in virtually every real estate market. It is called IDX: the transparent, up-to-date, comprehensive database of the MLS on brokers’ websites.

The consumer is asking us for this information every day. Every time we syndicate our listings elsewhere, we send them the wrong answer.

Sam DeBord is managing broker for Coldwell Banker Danforth in Seattle.

                                         

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