ListHub will quit sending listings to Zillow in April. And now Zillow is in full pursuit of MLSs and brokers to feed listings to them directly, as should be expected.

MLSs will undoubtedly feel pressure from some members to send a direct feed of all listings to Zillow and other portals that previously were supported by ListHub. Agents want their listings on the most popular consumer sites, and so do most brokers.

MLSs have an important role to play in this process, but directly distributing listings to consumer advertising outlets isn’t it — MLSs should be helping brokers safely provide their own feeds to portals. An MLS can develop consistent, protective, strategic data agreements for the use of its brokers who wish to feed listings to advertisers, and it can create real value while still adhering to the core mission of supporting, not overtaking, members’ roles.

Passing the buck on responsibility

Exposure on the most popular online outlets is a must for most agents. They prefer an automated system that syndicates their listings for them, and brokerages often take on that responsibility. ListHub had been the preferred choice for many brokers. It had its own set of data requirements that contained some protection for brokers’ listings and held portals to those standards. Alternatively, brokers can feed listings directly to the portals. The danger to these brokers is that without their own data agreement standards, the contract they sign will be one written purely for the protection of the advertising portal.

It’s not a surprise, then, that plenty of brokers would like to pass the responsibility for listing distribution up the chain to the MLS. It seems easier for them if the MLS writes the agreements and feeds members’ listings directly to portals.

The process of passing the buck upstream, though, ignores whose responsibility it is for making advertising decisions for agents and brokers.

Speed vs. vision

While we’re all caught up trying to find shortcuts and delegating advertising tasks, we risk diluting the mission of the MLS with scope creep. The National Association of Realtors’ guidelines, which most MLSs abide by, state that the MLS’s role is to share data between members, not with consumers: “The purpose of multiple listing is the orderly correlation and dissemination of listing information to participants so they may better serve the buying and selling public.”

If the MLS takes on the role of consumer advertising decision-maker, it’s not only negating its members’ advertising independence, it’s straying from its core mission.

Bill Lublin summed up our current MLS confusion via Internet advertising intoxication last week:

“Whatever your business model, if you are a real estate professional, the MLS is crucial to the facilitation of your business. Public-facing websites, whether operated by you or a third party, exist as advertising outlets — nothing more or less. If they all disappeared tomorrow, people would still want to gain housing information and we would want to supply. But without the cooperative sharing of data between professionals, the industry would grind to a shuddering and painful halt. The exchange of information between professionals is crucial — the exchange of information between the industry and the consumer, not as much. Housing is the ultimate shiny object for consumers, and they will seek that information any way that is available to them from driving around looking for signs to searching any site that promises the information they want.”

This is why it’s so important that our MLSs continue to be guided by their principles. The MLS is critical to the creation of data rules and standards, and it needs to be focused on its role as a support structure for brokers. Advertising is the business of its members, not the MLS itself.

MLS guidance as a resource to broker agreements

That doesn’t mean the MLS isn’t an integral part in the support of brokers’ consumer distribution decisions. What the MLS can provide is data strategy, as well as the strength in numbers of its members. As a support mechanism for its brokers who decide to feed their listings to advertising outlets, the MLS can negotiate standardized broker data agreements with portals that support its local market idiosyncrasies, protect its members’ data and provide the collective clout that its members can leverage. All of its members would have access to these preapproved protections if they choose to enter into their own agreement with a portal.

Most individual brokerages likely don’t have the data strategy to create a quality portal listing distribution agreement. Even if they have legal staff, their experience in creating data distribution agreements is likely nil. The MLS can provide this kind of knowledge for its members, saving them time and money while providing the kind of protection they couldn’t get on their own. When the bulk of the brokers in a given market approach advertising portals with the same set of demands in their data-sharing agreements, the MLS has provided those individuals with the knowledge and strength of the entire group.

The MLS doesn’t need to make advertising decisions for its members; it just needs to help them improve their choices. It can provide essential support to its members, and brokers can achieve the task of directly feeding their listings to portals without the MLS disfiguring itself to take on a task inconsistent with its mission.

MLSs are trying to define their roles in a quickly changing environment. That definition should continue to be focused on empowering members with valuable support and leadership — while avoiding the temptation to usurp members’ advertising positions with the public.

Sam DeBord is managing broker of Seattle Homes Group with Coldwell Banker Danforth and a director for Washington Realtors and Seattle King County Realtors.

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