The National Association of Realtors’ board of directors has postponed until at least this fall a decision on whether brokers who participate in data-sharing agreements are violating NAR policy if they allow search engines to index other brokers’ for-sale listings.
Convening at NAR’s midyear convention in Washington, D.C., the Realtor association’s Multiple Listing Issues and Policies Committee last week recommended that a 2005 policy be amended to clarify that brokers may allow search engines to index listings shared through Internet Data Exchange (IDX) reciprocity agreements (see story).
But the full board voted Saturday to send the matter back to a work group studying other changes to the IDX policy. Since the committee and board won’t meet again until November, an existing policy remains in place that allows Realtor boards to require that their members block search engines from indexing IDX listings.
NAR found itself embroiled in controversy after association staff members backed a decision by an Indianapolis, Ind.-based Realtor board to require one of its members to block search engines from indexing other brokers’ for-sale listings.
At issue is whether NAR’s IDX policy — aimed at protecting information in listings from data "scraping" by third-party Web sites — also applies to search engines like Google, which collect information and store it in internal databases in the process of indexing Web sites.
NAR’s IDX policy requires that brokers participating in reciprocity agreements "protect (listings) information from misappropriation by employing reasonable efforts to monitor and to prevent ‘scraping’ or other unauthorized accessing, reproduction, or use of the MLS (multiple listing service) database."
Acting on a complaint from a member broker, the Metropolitan Indianapolis Board of Realtors (MIBOR) on March 27 sent real estate agent Paula Henry and her broker, Mike Taylor, a cease-and-desist letter claiming their Web sites allowed search engines "to copy and reproduce certain fields of another participating broker’s listing."
The letter, signed by MIBOR Information Services Director Tom Renkert, demanded that Taylor’s Red Door Real Estate employ "mechanisms or techniques," such as robot.txt files, to prevent other Web sites or search engines "from scraping or reproducing the MIBOR IDX database."
Alternatively, MIBOR said, Taylor could remove other brokers’ listings. Failure to comply, MIBOR said, "will result in the inactivation of the IDX database feed for your brokerage."
MIBOR’s interpretation of NAR’s IDX policy was backed by staff members at NAR’s Center for Realtor Technology, who ruled that indexing is a form of scraping.
Taylor and Henry complied with MIBOR’s request. But when Henry blogged about the issue at the Web site Agent Genius, other agents and brokers unleashed a flood of criticism directed at MIBOR and NAR.
Critics said allowing search engines to index listings can improve a site’s search-engine rankings and increase site traffic, helping brokers compete with large listing aggregators like Realtor.com, Trulia and Zillow. In equating search engines like Google with "scraper sites," MIBOR and NAR were acting against the best interests of real estate brokers, agents and consumers, they said.
Cliff Niersbach, NAR’s vice president of board policy and programs, quickly acknowledged in a statement that the ruling "hasn’t sat well with some IDX site operators and some IDX vendors." He said NAR members could petition the Multiple Listing Issues and Policies Committee to reword the policy so that it explicitly allowed indexing while continuing to prohibit scraping.
NAR then flew Henry and Jay Thompson, a Phoenix-based broker-owner and blogger who supported Henry’s cause, to the group’s midyear conference in Washington, D.C. After hearing from Henry, Thompson and other members, the committee recommended that the board revise the 2005 IDX policy statement, which applies to Section 18.2.2 of the NAR Model MLS Rules and Regulations.
The committee recommended deleting references to preventing "scraping" or "reproduction" of listings, while continuing to require that IDX participants protect listings from "unauthorized use." The committee also recommended adding one sentence to the policy: "This requirement does not prohibit indexing of IDX sites by search engines."
But on Saturday, the board — responding to a motion by a director who is a MIBOR member — agreed to refer the recommendation to a work group that will consider other proposed changes to the IDX policy. …CONTINUED
With no formal change to the interpretation of the IDX Policy, "MIBOR will continue to enforce the policy as written," a spokeswoman for the Realtor board said in an e-mail.
Henry said she was "kind of frustrated, and kind of disappointed" at the board’s decision.
"Their policy is going to be hurtful to both the agent and the consumer as well," Henry said.
After Thursday’s committee vote, Henry said, MIBOR’s Renkert had assured her she would again be permitted to allow search engines to index her IDX listings.
"I will have to pay to have (my Web site configured) to comply with (MIBOR’s) restriction, and if they lose, I will have to change it back," Henry said.
No matter what happens, Henry said she’s confident her site will continue to attract traffic, because she is active in social networking, has had a blog for 2 1/2 years, and puts "a lot of time and energy into the site."
But Henry said she believes it’s "really important that agents take a stand for the data. They say Google is scraping, but we can’t compete with our own data on Trulia, Zillow and Realtor.com — they can do the exact same thing they are telling us we can’t."
Henry’s broker, Taylor, said he believes thousands of brokers nationwide who participate in IDX data-sharing agreements could ultimately be affected by NAR’s stance on the issue. He estimated 10 to 15 other MIBOR member brokers who allow search engines to index their IDX listings could be affected.
"I have, at least in theory, allied with a couple of these brokerages to fight this ruling at the local level," Taylor said. "I was hoping it wasn’t going to be necessary after last Thursday’s (committee recommendation), but based on Saturday’s non-vote, it looks like we’ll have to re-up those efforts at the local level."
Asked whether MIBOR will enforce its interpretation of NAR’s IDX policy on other brokers who allow search engines to index their IDX listings, MIBOR spokeswoman Claire Belby said the board will continue to rely on a "self-policing process."
"If we receive notice of other brokers indexing others’ listings, we will verify the information and request compliance," Belby said.
MIBOR plans to issue a statement to member brokers Friday on the issue that Belby said would "clear up much of the misinformation being shared."
The MIBOR member who filed the complaint about Henry and Taylor, broker-owner Michael Woods of msWoods Real Estate LLC, said he hoped NAR’s board would approve the changes to the IDX policy recommended by the Multiple Listing Issues and Policies Committee.
"Are you kidding? That would be great for my business," Woods said.
Woods would not discuss the reason he filed the complaint about Taylor and Henry, but said he would have "no problem at all" with Google indexing MIBOR IDX listings, "as long as it’s not in violation of the policy."
What’s your opinion? Leave your comments below or send a letter to the editor.