The Propsmart.com Web site carries the slogan, “real estate search + community”; Trulia.com‘s logo includes the phrase “real estate search”; and Oodle.com is “the search engine for local classifieds.”
All three sites conduct automated searches for online real estate listings hosted at other Web sites, a technique known as crawling or “spidering,” and then collect, reformat and republish parts of that gathered information at their own sites. In every case, these real estate search sites offer links back to the Web sites where the information originated.
The sites are part of a growing effort to give consumers easier access to more real estate listings online while driving more consumer traffic to broker Web sites. The real estate industry, though, historically has been very guarded of its property listings and issues with ownership and control of real estate information remain unresolved.
The National Association of Realtors is embroiled in an antitrust lawsuit with U.S. Justice Department over the trade group’s rules for the display and sharing of property listings on the Internet. The Justice Department alleges NAR’s policies restrict competition, while the association has said that the rules provide for sufficient openness of property listings information.
These new listings search companies have brought some industry participants to a crossroads as they weigh copyright and data control issues with the inherent openness of the Internet.
Propsmart, a national site, allows users to view detailed information and photos at its site, while providing links for consumers to view the source of the listing information. There are links to “source” and “cache” information for each listing, for example, and other links for property details and a property map.
Trulia, which is beta testing in California and aims to go national this year, lists the general Web site link that hosted the listing information, and allows consumers to click through to the specific listing hosted at that Web site. Users can view basic property information, as well as excerpts from property descriptions and small thumbnail photos at the Trulia site, and must click through to the source site for more information.
Oodle provides basic property information and thumbnail photos, and users can click on a link to go to the source Web site and view more detailed listing information and images.
Ron Hornbaker, co-founder of Propsmart.com, said he was awakened to the industry’s internal conflict when he launched the site in December. “It’s really been an eye-opener, as industry outsiders, to see this kind of polarized thing going on,” he said. Hornbaker is a software specialist who formerly built BookCrossing.com, an international book-sharing site that has a community of about 430,000 users.
While he said the response to Propsmart has been mostly positive from agents and brokers, he has received a bit of pushback from a few people in the multiple listing service community. “First of all, they’re using the word ‘illegal’ and … ‘copyright infringement.’ I’ve just been polite and talked to them. We don’t want to do anything people don’t want us to do.” Hornbaker said he has complied with the wishes of industry professionals who wish to remove their listings from being included at the site.
“My concern is they are speaking for way more interest than they should be. I do not believe we are a Napster-like model, and that’s what we’re being equated to,” he said, referring to Napster’s past problems in offering up a service that allowed users to illegallydownload music. “I would ask the people who say we’re doing illegal things to point out where the harm is — who are we damaging?”
The property listings displayed at Propsmart, he said, “are being used simply for display to consumers to point them to a home for sale. I would think that the opposite side of this could be argued more effectively: By restricting consumer access to the listings, that has more (potential) for being illegal.
“I believe it’s the seller who’s being forgotten in this situation. It is the seller we’re trying to stand up for and do the right thing for,” Hornbaker said, adding that sellers may not be aware — and may not approve — of efforts by brokers to block the listing from being viewed on some Web sites.
“I don’t buy the ‘copyright infringement’ for a second. They see their old model slipping away and they’re grasping at what they can,” he added. “We’re not trying to make money from the brokers. We’re not a middleman. We’re just trying to be a useful tool for consumers. I think this is going to backfire on the (opponents) in time.”
MLSs have rules about where property listings can be displayed and how they can be displayed, and MLS of Northern Illinois, one of the largest MLSs in the nation, took issue with Propsmart’s use of its members’ listings.
“Our brokers have to get approval to display data,” said Richard Torp, manager of information systems for MLSNI. “I don’t think (Propsmart) followed through on learning the rules of the marketplace. They’re advertising listings without permission, which does not follow license law and does not follow the rules. They seem to be unaware of the rules. They should have done their homework.”
The MLS received a complaint about Propsmart from one of its broker members, Torp said. There are ways that Propsmart could legitimately display MLSNI member property listings, he said, by applying for a site license. “We’re not against people having an open business plan like that,” though the site must seek out proper licensing agreements in order to display listings, he said.
Brokers can individually choose to submit their listings to Propsmart, he said. “The broker owns the listings. The broker can have his listings displayed on the site of his choice. If the broker wants to send them on his own, he can.”
MLSNI has looked at a couple of other companies that appear to have a similar business model as Propsmart, he said, though they haven’t yet been active in the Northern Illinois area.
While there are search engines that gather information from other Web sites and post them at the search engine site, such as Google and Yahoo!, Torp said those sites differ from a site like Propsmart, which displays more content relating to property listings. “It’s not the same thing as just trying to point somebody in the direction of a Web site,” he said.
For some Propsmart-displayed property information that is pulled from Web sites serviced by Delta Media Group, a real estate technology company, users see a message that states, “The referring site … is in violation of the terms and use for this site. Your IP address and user agent name have been logged and our legal department has also been notified for further investigation of Propsmart.com and their unauthorized use of copyrighted information.”
Jim C. Homolka, president of Portland, Ore.-based RE/MAX Equity Group, which contracts with Delta Media Group for Web services, said today that RE/MAX offices follow all of the policies set forth by franchiser RE/MAX International. “We want to get maximum exposure to our clients but we’re concerned with the security of information,” he said, adding that he is not specifically familiar with the Propsmart.com site.
A spokesman for Delta Media Group was not immediately available for comment.
Ha Nguyen, director of the real estate search category at Oodle, said the site has been careful to provide information while balancing the wishes of brokers. The site gathers information from about 102 metro areas, with plans to go fully national by the middle of this year, Nguyen said. Oodle is now beta-testing a Web-crawling technology in a few California markets to automatically gather some property listings information from other Web sites, and the site has earlier built relationships with property listings sites that willingly share information with Oodle.
“We follow more general search engine protocols” than some other real estate search sites, she said. Oodle, for example, does not have a “middle page” with property listings content hosted at its site. “The primary link from our page takes the user to the agent and broker Web page directly. I think we are proactively trying to work with agents and brokers.”
As with Propsmart and Trulia, Oodle doesn’t’ charge for sending Web traffic to agents and brokers. “Overall, we’ve had a really positive response, especially from agents and brokers,” she said, adding that the concept of specialty search engines is gaining maturity.
All three of the sites enable agents and brokers to either include or exclude their property listings from reaching the sites.
Sami Inkinen, COO and co-founder at Trulia, said the site’s development team made a concerted effort to bring brokers to the table. “Most importantly, even before we launched we talked to all of the key brokers in advance to make sure the product was acceptable to what they want.” Inkinen said that Trulia is also careful not to access IDX, or Internet Data Exchange property listings information that is protected through broker agreements with MLSs.
While brokers seem to get it, Trulia CEO and co-founder Pete Flint said MLS’s are “frankly a mixed bag. Some of them have yet to understand … that this is in the best interest of their members. Some of them are not friends of innovation. Really what we’re focused on for now … (is) communicating how search is really positive to the real estate industry.”
Inkinen said, “We understand who we’re serving and we’re serving the brokers. We don’t want to own content. Our motto has always been the search-engine approach, the search-engine model — help brokers to place the digital yard sign on the Internet and then point to the actual source.”
Flint added, “We’re very aware that listings are a very delicate matter. We’re not looking to reinvent the industry in any way. We’re trying to improve things a little bit for consumers, and … a little bit for brokers.”
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