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by CareyBot

North Alabama Multiple Listing Service is pioneering a first-of-its-kind distribution platform by taking control of syndicating its more than 14,300 listings to third-party portals.

Instead of outsourcing listing distribution to syndication platforms like ListHub and Point2 that hundreds of other MLSs use to publish their listings to dozens of real estate sites, North Alabama MLS has decided to take syndication management into its own hands by negotiating syndication agreements directly with third-party sites.

Many MLSs — including the Houston Association of Realtors, Connecticut Multiple Listing Service and Massachusetts-based MLS Property Information Network Inc. — have negotiated direct feed agreements with portals. But North Alabama MLS, which serves more than 3,000 agents belonging to seven North Alabama Realtor associations, is managing syndication itself, with user-interface software from MLS service provider Bridge Interactive Group (BIG).

In exchange for direct feeds from North Alabama MLS, Zillow, Trulia and Homes.com, in separate agreements, agreed to:

  • give prominent display to listing agents on their listings.
  • provide a linkback to the agent or broker’s listing on North Alabama MLS’s public-facing website ValleyMLS.com.
  • update listing data at least every 15 minutes.
  • provide listing-performance data to North Alabama MLS.
  • ensure that North Alabama MLS data trumps that from any other source, excluding Zillow, which negotiated to have the direct feeds it receives from member brokers trump MLS-sourced data.

Listings represented by North Alabama MLS member brokers show up on Trulia and Homes.com by default, unless brokers elect to “opt out” of providing listings to those portals. The arrangement with Zillow works the other way around — brokers will have to “opt in” to send their listings to Zillow.

Kipp Cooper, CEO of the Huntsville Area (Alabama) Association of Realtors and its wholly owned subsidiary North Alabama MLS, said that Zillow’s insistence on broker-trumping data was a factor in the “opt in” status of its feed.

More partner sites will be added soon, Cooper said. North Alabama MLS maintains a separate feed to realtor.com, which gets direct feeds from more than 800 MLSs in the U.S. thanks to its relationship with the National Association of Realtors.

"We pulled the cord out and rebooted." --Kipp Cooper, North Alabama MLS

Having control of its syndication means North Alabama MLS has the ability to customize data fields to reflect unique aspects of agreements it makes with different portals, Cooper said.

The MLS is also working on implementing a dashboard that will give brokers real-time insight into how their listings are performing on the syndicated sites from one location, he said.

Many MLSs outsource their syndication needs to third-party platforms like ListHub or Point2, which negotiate distribution agreements with real estate sites like Zillow, Trulia, Homes.com and dozens of others. ListHub and Point2 provide their distribution services for free to MLSs and brokers but charge brokers and agents for analytics on their listings’ performance.

North Alabama MLS stopped syndicating its listings through ListHub on Sept. 16, saying it found that some of its listings on third-party sites were out of date, used inappropriately or had been illegitimately redistributed.

“Members were frustrated with stale listings,” Cooper said.

That frustration — coupled with a concern that listings weren’t being handled in the manner the MLS wanted downstream from ListHub — led the firm to take its syndication fate into its own hands, he said. It established a syndication-focused subcommittee at the beginning of this year that included reps from more than a dozen of the MLS’s largest brokerages to help make the decision.

The move comes on the heels of two different approaches MLSs have taken to syndicating listings through ListHub.

In late September, the Austin (Texas) Board of Realtors (ABoR) stopped sending its data to ListHub, citing concerns about unethical business practices and inaccurate listing data on consumer websites not affiliated with a Realtor trade group.

The Houston Association of Realtors, which operates one of the most popular MLSs in the U.S., took a much different approach turning over its listing distribution to ListHub, citing the ease of use of the company’s centralized distribution service, and access to the firm’s analytics. HAR contracted with ListHub for its members to get marketing analytics from the platform.

Cooper said North Alabama MLS decided that syndicating to ListHub and its dozens of publishing partners contributed to listing inaccuracies and difficulty in accurately determining where the listings went and how they were handled.

The decision to cut from ListHub was made easier by the fact that ValleyMLS.com — North Alabama’s MLS’s public-facing consumer website — is the leading consumer real estate site in its market, Cooper said. With 3 million page views each month and 6,000 to 8,000 hits per day, it gets more traffic than Zillow and realtor.com, Cooper said.

“That gave us a safety net,” he said. The MLS knew that consumers would still be able to find its members’ listings on a prominent site.

North Alabama MLS’s listing distribution revamp allowed the MLS to pull back and start syndication from scratch to ensure that its data was being used in the way that it wanted.

“We pulled the cord out and rebooted,” Cooper said.

Cooper acknowledged that ListHub has a robust system that helps brokers opt in or out of sending their listings to different sites, but the syndication subcommittee found that most of the MLS’s member brokers didn’t carefully monitor this, so the MLS decided to wipe its syndication slate clean and start building it up from ground zero.

ListHub’s General Manager Luke Glass disputed whether the move would solve accuracy issues on the third-party portals or unauthorized use of listing data for North Alabama MLS, because the platform has a robust auditing system and prohibits publishers from re-syndicating data.

“ListHub has no downstream syndication issues,” Glass said.

ListHub conducts bimonthly audits of its 10 largest publishing partners, and quarterly audits for the others, to make sure they align with ListHub’s rules for publishers, which include a prohibition on resyndication.

Last year, ListHub increased brokers’ abilities to ascertain the quality of its partner publishers with a new dashboard with five-star ratings system and a search filter system that helps brokers find the publishers that had the qualities they felt were important for their data to be displayed.

ListHub also has search filters, Glass said, that allow brokers to determine, for example, what sites display for-sale-by-owner listings, which are unpopular with some in the industry because they don’t support agent-mediated transactions.

As for listing accuracy on third-party sites, Glass says it will not change with the new syndication platform. “Whatever accuracy issues North Alabama MLS had pre-ListHub, they will still be there,” he said.

Errol Samuelson, chief strategy officer at ListHub parent company Move Inc., called North Alabama MLS’s move “an anomaly in the overall trend within the real estate industry.”

In the past three years, Samuelson said, more than 150 MLSs have started using the ListHub platform, bringing the total number of MLSs and other content providers using the ListHub platform to more than 475.

Cooper says that by winnowing down the number of portals the MLS sends its listings to and explicitly requiring its feed to trump data from all other sources on the sites, it will be able to ensure a higher quality for its listings.

To ensure it knows where its listings have gone, North Alabama MLS has “watermarked” them both in public-facing form and also in their code. “We can identify the listing and have ways to find it,” Cooper said.

A new platform

The new syndication service, coined “MLS Direct Syndication” by BIG, is a full utilization of two services that North Alabama MLS already contracts with the 8-year-old Atlanta-based firm: “Contact,” software that controls an MLS’s IDX and virtual office website data feeds with a Real Estate Transaction Standard-based server and “Cheque,” software that helps MLSs manage their data feeds.

North Alabama MLS is the first group to use MLS Direct Syndication, which doesn’t cost anything more for the firm than the two services it already has, said Turan Tekin, BIG’s vice president of sales and marketing.

BIG currently provides services to 30 MLSs across the country, Tekin said. And BIG has been in talks with more than 100 others who are looking at BIG’s new syndication service, he said.

North Alabama MLS is the first to implement the new syndication platform, he said, but a handful other MLSs currently use both of the products needed to establish it. Those MLSs are watching how the pioneer fares before establishing their BIG syndication platforms, Tekin said.

“We put software tools into the MLS, so they can control, manage and distribute their own syndication,” Tekin said. “We believe that the vast majority of problems with syndication can be handled simply by changing the distribution point of the data.”

The platform is set up to allow MLSs to monetize their listings syndication, too, if they chose to, he said.

With the ability to negotiate and manage their own feeds, MLSs can offer their brokers analytics that ListHub and Point2 charge them for. “The MLS can now provide that reporting back to its membership as a member benefit,” Tekin said.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify that on Zillow North Alabama MLS data does not trump that of member brokers who send their listings directly to the portal. The story now notes, too, that Zillow’s insistence on broker-trumping data was a factor in the MLS requiring brokers to “opt in” to have their listings sent to Zillow in the MLS’s direct data feed.