The acceptable use of "MLS" in Realtor Web sites is still an open question, though members of a National Association of Realtors committee have amended language in a case study to avoid potentially "overbroad" guidance.
Use of "multiple listing service" and "MLS" in Realtor Web site and company names has been a contentious issue in some markets, and the issue escalated to a lawsuit against a Minnesota MLS that had adopted restrictions on the use of the terms. That case was settled.
Members of the NAR Professional Standards Committee last year approved a case interpretation relating to Realtor standards in presenting a true picture in their advertising and representations to the public.
That case study provided an example in which a Realtor using the NorthwoodsandLakesMLS.com Web site was in violation of the Code of Ethics and Standard of Practice because the Realtor was not the operator of a multiple listing service.
"While Realtor ‘Z’s’ Web site included information about other participants’ listings that the MLS had provided — and that Realtor ‘Z’ was authorized to display — the fact remained that a real estate-related URL that included the letters MLS would lead reasonable consumers to conclude that the Web site would be an MLS’s, and not a broker’s Web site," according to the language adopted last year.
But controversy surrounded the language, which left it up to the complaint process and arbitration hearings at the local Realtor association level to determine whether or not a particular URL was in violation of NAR’s "true picture" standard.
The agenda for the Professional Standards Committee meeting, held last week in Washington, D.C., stated that the language in the case study approved last year "might be overbroad, and there could be circumstances where the letters MLS in a Realtor’s URL might not be misleading."
The case study relates to Standard of Practice 12-10 in NAR’s Code of Ethics and Standard of Practice, adopted last year, which provides that Realtors’ "obligation to present a true picture in their advertising and representations to the public includes the URLs and domain names they use." Another Standard of Practice, adopted this year, provides that 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."
William Lublin, chairman for the NAR Professional Standards Committee and CEO for Philadelphia-based Century 21 Advantage Gold, said the changes to the language in the case study have the effect of "softening the wording."
Lublin said that, in his personal opinion, there has been an inappropriate focus on the use of the letters "MLS" in a Web site address in that case study. The focus, he said, should really be on whether a URL is misleading, regardless of whether the letters "MLS" are present.
"It’s a guide," he said of the case study. "It’s not a hard and fast rule. If you have a URL that says, ‘IAmNotTheMLS.com’ — that is not misleading. I have seen examples of URLs in my practice … where the URL is just misleading."
He added, "This is about people using names that are not right." Also in his opinion and not speaking as a representative for the Professional Standards Committee, Lublin said, "I believe that if a URL is misleading and the consumer is not landing on the type of site they think they’re going to land on, that’s inappropriate."
And he noted that the decision is ultimately up to local Realtor association hearing panels.
"We agree as an industry that it’s not right to do something that might confuse or mislead the consumer, and that’s really what this is about. We believe that our members need to be careful not to mislead the public in their creative use of technology."
The Professional Standards Committee changed the language in the case study, Case Interpretation 12-20, to provide that "a real estate-related URL that includes the letters MLS will, in many cases, lead reasonable consumers to conclude that the Web site is an MLS’s, and not a broker’s Web site," while scrapping the language stating that it "would lead reasonable consumers to conclude that the Web site would be an MLS’s."
Gary Ashton, a Realtor and team leader at RE/MAX Elite in Nashville, Tenn., who had owned NashvillesMLS.com, said he is pleased that the committee revisited and revised the language.
"The changing of the wording helps to clarify that it’s open to interpretation a little bit more than it was before," he said. "To me, it’s an example that the committee’s actually listening to its membership." The case study, he said, "was always a guideline. It was never a blanket prohibition."
While NAR’s Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice applies to all Realtors, NAR’s board of directors in November 2007 approved an optional policy that Realtor-operated MLSs can choose to adopt that restricts subscribers’ use of "MLS" and related terms.
That optional policy allows — but does not require — MLSs to block the use of "MLS" and "Multiple Listing Service" in subscribers’ Web site addresses, company names, e-mail addresses and other marketing efforts. Several MLSs already had similar policies in place.
Ryan Ward, a Realtor for Keller Williams Realty Consultants in Roswell, Ga., launched an online petition that questioned NAR changes to the Code of Ethics that could be used to restrict use of the terms "MLS" and "multiple listing service" at member Web sites.
Ward said that the committee’s changes to the case study language don’t go far enough. "I don’t necessarily know that that’s going to stop somebody from filing (a complaint)," he said.
"It’s not solution-oriented. I would prefer they come out with something that was a little more solution-oriented than creating even more ambiguity," Ward said.
Several Realtors have named Art Hammond, a Nashville Realtor, as the source of several complaints against Realtors who maintain Web sites that use the term "MLS" in the URL. Hammond, reached today, said he had no public comment on the matter.
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