Market Leader Inc. is back in the real estate lead generation business with a vengeance.
Known as HouseValues before rebranding in 2008, Market Leader spent several years transitioning from a seller of leads generated by sites like HouseValues.com into a provider of "software as a service" marketing tools and customized websites for agents and brokers.
Now — nearly one year after acquiring listing portal RealEstate.com from Tree.com for $8.25 million — Market Leader says it has agreements with multiple listing services in more than 150 markets that are providing Internet Data Exchange (IDX) feeds containing information on about 1.6 million listings to the site.
Market Leader in turn provides leads on an exclusive basis to more than 1,000 brokerage companies and agents that have joined the site’s referral network.
With the addition of RealEstate.com to its lineup, Market Leader joins a growing number of companies that not only operate listing portals but offer agents and brokers the tools to manage their customer relationships.
While brokerages can choose whether to syndicate their listings to other third-party sites like Zillow and Trulia, they don’t have that option with RealEstate.com. Wherever Market Leader has an agreement with an MLS, all of the IDX listings in that market appear on the site, regardless of whether the brokerage representing the listing has granted its consent.
Unlike third-party sites like Zillow and Trulia, RealEstate.com displays only for-sale listings from MLSs, and must follow MLS rules that govern the display of IDX listings, Market Leader CEO Ian Morris noted. Those rules typically prohibit the display of advertising or lead forms on listing detail pages. A number of brokerages have pulled listings from some third-party sites in recent months because of their objections to such ads.
Although it is not providing brokerage services, Market Leader is a licensed brokerage and MLS member in each of the markets where it’s getting an IDX feed, Morris said.
Matt Cohen, a partner at the real estate information technology consulting firm Clareity Consulting, thinks obtaining access to IDX feeds by partnering with an MLS without providing brokerage services conflicts with rules laid out by the National Association of Realtors.
"I’m not sure this case is even a little gray," Cohen said. "An IDX site has a specific purpose, to allow brokers to show each other’s listings to the consumer."
NAR declined to comment specifically on RealEstate.com’s arrangements to obtain IDX feeds from MLSs.
In general, "NAR policy prohibits MLSs from sending participants’ listings to third parties without the participants’ consent," said Cliff Niersbach, the NAR staff member who serves as liaison to the association’s Multiple Listings Issues and Policies Committee.
Real estate franchisors won approval from NAR in 2010 to display the IDX listings of affiliated brokerages. But NAR rescinded the change to IDX policy soon after it went into effect last year when some brokerages — including HomeServices of America Inc. — protested.
Cohen says the main issue with RealEstate.com is who controls it. NAR’s IDX policy states that an IDX site "must be marketed and branded as a brokerage site and must be controlled by a participant."
When Mark Holt, a Realtor with Braemoore Realty in Massachusetts saw one of his listings on RealEstate.com, he wondered how it got there. When he found out RealEstate.com had obtained an IDX feed from his MLS, Multiple Listing Service Property Information Network Inc. (MLSPIN), he realized that he wouldn’t be able to "opt out," or prevent listings he represents from appearing on the site.
Brokers who participate in their MLS’ IDX program must display the listings of all other participating brokers, and listings they represent must be displayed on other participating sites.
"If you’re going to be a broker, be a broker," Holt said of RealEstate.com. "If you’re going to be something else, be something else."
Other MLSs providing IDX feeds to RealEstate.com include the Houston Association of Realtors, Northwest Multiple Listing Service (Washington), Sandicor Inc. (San Diego), and Georgia Multiple Listing Service.
Morris said the new model for RealEstate.com, rolled out in March, is not that different from other sites that display IDX listings and provide referrals to brokers.
ZipRealty Inc., for example, partners with brokerages in 10 markets where it doesn’t provide brokerage services itself. "Powered by Zip" partner brokerages provide IDX feeds to ZipRealty.com, and ZipRealty provides leads and customer relationship management (CRM) tools in return for a referral fee on every closed transaction.
"The biggest distinction I see is we are not a media company (that sells advertising around listings), but a provider of services to real estate professionals," Morris said of Market Leader.
Instead of running ads next to listings, RealEstate.com provides all of the leads for each town or city to a broker or agent who has signed up to receive them on an exclusive basis for six or 12 months.
Bill Griffin of Bill Griffin Real Estate in Dallas, pays a monthly fee to have his photo and contact info prominently displayed in a column that hovers on the right of RealEstate.com for all listings in the city. Featured agents and brokerages can also choose the listings that show up on their city’s RealEstate.com homepage.
In Dallas, RealEstate.com listings come from the North Texas Real Estate Information Systems Inc. MLS.
"We liked that it was exclusive for us in Dallas," said Griffin, who says he pays about $600 a month to be the featured agent for RealEstate.com in Dallas. This fee varies on the market and its size, according to RealEstate.com. Right now, the cities and towns represent the geographical limit of branding and is expected to stay that way, Morris said.
Morris said Market Leader plans to provide full integration in coming months of the RealEstate.com referral network into the company’s new integrated Marketing Center.
The lead vendor behind Keller Williams’ eEdge integrated lead management, marketing and transaction management platform, Market Leader acquired Sharper Agent for $1.75 million last year in order to provide similar services to agents with other franchisors and independent brokerages.
Inman News reporter Paul Hagey contributed to this story.