A Realtor-operated multiple listing service in Wisconsin has banned the use of the term “MLS” and “multiple listing service” in its participants’ company names and Web site addresses, without exception, and also restricts participants from using terms such as “Search the MLS” and “Access the MLS” at their Web sites.

A Realtor-operated multiple listing service in Wisconsin has banned the use of the term “MLS” and “multiple listing service” in its participants’ company names and Web site addresses, without exception, and also restricts participants from using terms such as “Search the MLS” and “Access the MLS” at their Web sites.

The Northwestern Wisconsin Multiple Listing Service, operated by the Realtors Association of Northwestern Wisconsin, is one of several MLSs that are cracking down on use of “MLS” and related terms and phrases, though Realtor groups and MLSs do not own the trademark for the term “MLS.”

A similar policy passed by the Regional MLS of Minnesota drew an antitrust lawsuit filed by several MLS members that was settled last year, and other policies have been adopted by the Multiple Listing Service of Northern Illinois and Northwest MLS in Washington.

Also, the National Association of Realtors Board of Directors in November approved a provision that allows Realtor-affiliated MLSs to ban members’ use of the terms “MLS” and “Multiple Listing Service” in Web site addresses, company names, e-mail addresses and other marketing materials. It is up to individual Realtor-affiliated MLSs whether to adopt and enforce the language as MLS policy.

The lawsuit and subsequent settlement agreement brought changes in the policy adopted by RMLS in Minnesota, and protest by a member of Chicago-area MLSNI led to revisions in that policy as well.

“Participants shall not use the term ‘multiple listing service,’ the acronym ‘MLS’ or derivatives … in participant’s firm name” or in domain names, Web addresses or URLs, the policy states, and “No participant or user shall indicate or imply in any manner that (they are) a multiple listing service or that they public has access to or may search the (MLS) on the participant’s or user’s Web site.”

Joan Englert, executive vice president for Realtors Association of Northwestern Wisconsin, which has about 1,000 members, said she had no comment about the MLS policy restricting use of “MLS” and “Multiple Listing Service” terms.

And David Dresel, president of the association, said he could not recall how long the policy has been in effect or the penalties for violating the policy. Dresel said it’s OK for MLS participants to use terminology such as “search local listings, but you don’t want to use the term ‘MLS.’ MLS implies you have access to all of the MLS.” Consumers only have access to some listings information but not the complete MLS, he said.

Michael Paul, an Eau Claire, Wis., Realtor who owns a flat-fee real estate service called Eau Claire By Owner and also operates under the Discount Realty Works LLC brand, said the policy may confuse consumers.

“I’d like to have wording on (my site) that says, ‘Search the MLS,’ but I can’t,” Paul said. “If people see on somebody else’s site — ‘Search MLS’ — they might think mine doesn’t have the MLS. There is an issue of non-Realtors using that language.”

He also said that there is a “rational argument that says there’s no possible control (of the ‘MLS’ term) because it’s already a generic term.”

Paul wrote in a blog post at the www.realestatewebmasters.com Web site that he believes the restrictions on use of “MLS” and related terms “is hurting the general public immediately and will harm real estate agents and brokers in the long term.” He also stated in the post that he believes consumers’ access to some MLS data does constitute MLS access. “Saying that people ‘do not have access’ to the MLS just because they don’t have access to 100 percent of the data contained in it is ridiculous,” he stated.

The blog post, he said, was intended to “make people aware that this is going on and this is an issue here, just like in a lot of other areas.” While at least one MLS has taken steps to re-brand its MLS to another name, Paul said he believes it would be a big hurdle to overcome for consumers. “We can’t even get people to pronounce Realtor correctly.”

Ryan Ward, a Realtor for Keller Williams Realty Consultants in Roswell, Ga., has launched an online petition that questions whether new language in the National Association of Realtors’ Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice, which became effective on Jan. 1, would prevent all Realtors nationwide from using terms such as “search the MLS” in their marketing.

Ward said he has submitted questions to the national group on the topic but has not yet received a response.

NAR officials did not respond today to Inman News questions about the code and standards and how it applies to usage of ‘MLS’ and related terms by members.

The standards provide: Realtors shall not “use URLs or domain names that present less than a true picture, or register URLs or domain names which, if used, would present less than a true picture.”

And “Realtors’ obligation to present a true picture in their advertising and representations to the public includes the URLs and domain names they use, and prohibits Realtors from: engaging in deceptive or unauthorized framing of real estate brokerage Web sites; manipulating (e.g., presenting content developed by others) listing content in any way that produces a deceptive or misleading result; or deceptively using metatags, keywords or other devices/methods to direct, drive, or divert Internet traffic, or to otherwise mislead consumers.”

Ward said that more clarification is needed on the language in the standards, adding that he would like the language to be rescinded. “I would like to be able to compete with non-NAR members on a level playing field,” he said, as non-members are not bound by the code and standards.

There is also the question of whether Realtors can continue to use “MLS” and related terms in devising online advertising campaigns and optimizing their Web sites to get a high ranking in search engines, Ward said. “People are finding me (online) through organic searches with the term ‘MLS.’ I closed a sale from somebody who searched the term ‘Atlanta MLS’ “and landed at his Web site, he said.

Ward said he believes an easy solution to any perceived problems with the use of the MLS terms would be to place a disclaimer on Web sites to specify that the MLS member is not actually the MLS.

***

Send tips or a Letter to the Editor to glenn@inman.com, or call (510) 658-9252, ext. 137.

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