Editor’s note: Long a crucial center of a healthy, functioning housing market, the MLS now finds itself having to adjust and reinvent to keep up with changing times. This three-part series examines new initiatives in data-sharing and consolidation, as well as debates over public-facing property search sites and the MLS’s role in broker cooperation and offers of compensation. (Read Part 1, "Consolidation, collaboration breaking down MLS walls," and Part 3, "Debate rises over MLS role in offer of compensation.")

Consumer-facing multiple listing service Web sites — once taboo and controversial in some markets — are gaining interest again as MLSs scramble to define their value and role in future real estate markets.

About 300 MLSs throughout the country currently have consumer-facing Web sites where buyers and sellers can search property listings information. These sites were widely debated a few years ago in markets including Cincinnati and Chicago where brokers said the MLS sites served as competition to their own sites and ordered them shut down.

MLS affiliates tend to support the notion of public-facing Web sites for listings more than their broker and agent members, but support from both groups has increased in the last year, according to surveys conducted by the National Association of Realtors’ Center for Realtor Technology.

The most recent survey found that 63 percent of MLS affiliates said they believe the MLS should provide a public Web site to display listings, up from 49 percent the previous year. Slightly fewer — though still a majority at 52 percent — of Realtor members also said MLSs should provide a public listings site, up from 34 percent who supported the idea a year ago.

While the increase suggests a renewed interest, many still believe that MLS-operated property search sites directly compete with local broker Web sites. Forty-four percent of brokers and agents in the 2007 survey answered yes to the question, "Do you believe an MLS public site competes with broker or agent Web sites?" while 28 percent said no, and the remaining 28 percent said "other."

A slimmer 33 percent of those affiliated with the MLS said they believe MLS public sites compete with broker and agent sites.

There are examples of how consumer-facing MLS sites have served to push traffic to broker sites, but the survey suggests that there is still uncertainty among members whether their MLS site sends them quality leads or site traffic.

Saul Klein, president and CEO of Internet Crusade, an Internet publishing company that offers services for real estate professionals, said he and his team uncovered a little more than 300 public-facing MLS Web sites throughout the country and about two years ago assembled them on a map at http://publicmls.realtown.com/.

"I think having a public side to the MLS is a good thing because you find all the information on all the broker sites anyway so it is in a number of different places already," Klein said. "I’ve got to think that it’s a traffic driver" to broker sites, he added.

Keith Garner, managing director of the Center for Realtor Technology, recently told Inman News that MLS-operated public sites that display property listings information are receiving a lot of attention in the industry. "We are starting to see MLSs putting sites back up now. The pendulum is swinging a little bit. I think the members are starting to figure out that to make a really good Web site may take more resources than they have at times," he said.

One of the most well-known public-facing MLS Web sites in the country is the Houston Association of Realtors’ site, HAR.com. The site launched 10 years ago and currently has about 55,000 property listings that are updated every 15 minutes, according to HAR’s CEO, Bob Hale.

HAR.com in March of this year received 1 billion hits and 920,000 unique visitors in a single month, Hale said. "Those visitors looked at Realtor listings 11.3 million times that month for a total of 35 million minutes."

Hale said the site works to connect consumers with real estate brokers by including the listing broker’s contact information and a link to the broker Web site for each listing. "We’re sort of like Google in that we get them in and pass them off to the member," he said.

HAR members don’t pay referral or lead-generation fees to the MLS because HAR considers the service as part of membership dues. The HAR.com site delivers a little over 500,000 leads and "millions of clicks" to Houston Realtors and their Web sites every year, Hale said.

HAR.com also includes open house listings, maps of open houses, school and neighborhood information, a find-a-Realtor service, a home-value finder, and listings that can be viewed in seven different languages, among other features.

Hale said the MLS employs seven full-time programmers who interact with a technology task force made up of Realtors who give them input about what site features would be helpful to agents and their clients.

"For the life of me I can’t understand why every MLS in the country isn’t doing this," Hale said.

In addition to maintaining the public-facing site, the Houston association also markets the site to consumers on billboards throughout the city in English, Spanish and Vietnamese. The association also has television and newspaper ads that promote Realtor value and the HAR.com site, Hale said.

HAR late last year began distributing its members’ listings to Google Base, a free classified listings service operated by Google. The association also sends property listings to Realtor.com, Homes.com and the Houston Chronicle for additional exposure, and executives are considering partnerships with additional listings sites, Hale said.

MLSs in other markets are interested in what HAR has done, and some are considering following suit.

The Connecticut Multiple Listing Service, a broker-run statewide MLS with about 13,000 subscribers, is working on a public-facing site and intends to launch later this year, Cameron Paine, CEO of the MLS, recently told Inman News. The public site would aim to compete with national property-search site Realtor.com as a destination for Connecticut property searches, Paine said. The site will be free for MLS subscribers.

As MLSs struggle to find their role in the industry going forward, many may consider public Web sites, and they also may be thinking about how they can serve members’ listings syndication needs. Klein, of Internet Crusade, said that one of the difficulties brokers face now is they want to display their listings in a number of places without having to enter data at several different sites in several different formats.

"I think MLSs ought to be looking at (data syndication) as part of the service they offer," he said. Klein is well versed in MLS issues as he spent a lot of time working with MLSs to get listings on the Internet in the ’90s.

He noted Point2 Technologies’ syndication service, which is not affiliated with MLSs and has gained traction among brokers. The service enables brokers to choose where they want their listings information to display by simply checking a box inside their Point2 accounts.

Point2’s chief operating officer, Brendan King, said that brokers ultimately should have choice in where they send their listings for display.

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