The National Association of Realtors next month will consider revising rules governing multiple listing services in order to explicitly permit brokers or agents to display Internet Data Exchange (IDX) listings on social networking sites and mobile devices.
Some aspects of proposed changes to NAR’s IDX policy — particularly a recommendation to allow IDX listings to be distributed using Really Simple Syndication, or RSS — have raised concerns by The Realty Alliance, a network of 60 real estate companies whose members include HomeServices of America Inc.
Distribution of listings via RSS "allows anyone to obtain all data in an MLS area with no permission required and allows situations where another broker, who does not have a contract with the seller, (will) broadly publish another broker’s listing data with no limitations," The Realty Alliance said in a letter to the chairman of NAR’s Multiple Listing Issues and Policies Committee, Pat Callan.
"This creates a condition where the legally responsible broker is no longer in compliance with their contract with the seller and their MLS rules and regulations."
NAR’s Multiple Listing Issues and Policies Committee, which has been grappling with the issue for more than a year, is scheduled to debate the issue again next month at NAR’s midyear meeting in Washington, D.C.
Brokers and agents have wide leeway over how and where they distribute their own listings in order to market properties on behalf of clients.
But IDX listings — which include all the listings in a given market that brokers have agreed can be published on each other’s sanctioned IDX websites — are governed by more complex rules.
One intent of the rules is to encourage brokers to participate in the IDX system by providing assurances that listings they represent won’t be redistributed to other, nonsanctioned sites without their OK.
(In a separate debate involving NAR’s IDX policy, The Realty Alliance and Leading Real Estate Cos. of the World are protesting NAR’s decision to allow franchise companies to index and display their broker’s IDX listings.)
According to the latest report of a work group created to study the issue, NAR began receiving questions from MLS administrators early last year on whether the Internet display of IDX listings was limited to member agents’ or brokers’ sanctioned IDX websites, and whether delivery via RSS subscription was allowed.
The work group recommended revising the IDX policy to expressly authorize display of IDX information not only on MLS members’ sanctioned IDX websites, "but also using RSS subscription, social media, mobile devices, and other electronic means."
The work group’s proposal was presented to the Multiple Listing Issues and Policies Committee in November at NAR’s annual convention in New Orleans.
A number of MLS administrators voiced concerns about compliance, questioning how they would monitor social media sites and mobile devices to make sure IDX rules were being followed. Some wondered whether listings posted to social media sites would be kept up to date, and whether required IDX disclosures could fit into formats like text messages and "tweets."
The committee put off making a recommendation to NAR’s board of directors, and directed the work group to reconsider issues raised by MLSs.
After meeting again last month, the work group issued another report, acknowledging the issues raised by MLS administrators but concluding that such concerns were outweighed by the benefits of increased exposure of listings.
Increasing the ways MLS members can deliver IDX listings to consumers "might somewhat diminish the control MLSs exercise over that information, and might increase the administrative burden of MLSs," the work group concluded in its report. But "the value to sellers, potential purchasers, and to MLS participants and subscribers that will result from increased availability of those listings through enhanced IDX channels outweighs those concerns."
The Realty Alliance questioned that conclusion, saying the return on investment in distributing listings to multiple websites "drops dramatically after just a handful of websites," while problems and liabilities increase.
"There is no consumer outcry for more sources of listing data, as there exists today a bewildering amount of options, and they tend to concentrate their time on a small number of reliable sites," The Realty Alliance said. "Too often the obscure, third-party websites have old, expired and inaccurate data and do not produce meaningful leads for our firms anyway."
Concerns about RSS
Joe Horning, chairman of The Realty Alliance’s board of directors and the president of Wisconsin’s largest brokerage, Shorewest Realtors, said that the group is mostly concerned about RSS distribution of IDX listings.
A number of vendors offer "framed" solutions that allow agents to display IDX listings and provide IDX listings searches on their personal website, Facebook page, or blog that are actually driven by the brokers’ or agents’ sanctioned IDX websites.
"If I put my listings on my Facebook page (using an application) that frames my (sanctioned IDX) site, that’s not really putting listings on a social media site," Horning said. "That’s fine."
Similarly, "We don’t have issues with mobile devices, when they are pulling (listing) data off the (MLS or MLS vendor’s) server," because the information will be accurate and accessed with permission. "The RSS transmittal, we’re definitely concerned about."
As its name implies, Really Simple Syndication is easier for brokers and agents to implement than "framed" solutions or application programming interfaces (APIs) that typically require support from vendors.
It’s also easier for an agent’s clients to tap into an RSS feed — and, critics say, help themselves to listings data in unintended ways.
Michael Wurzer, president and CEO of Fargo, N.D.-based MLS vendor, FBS, said RSS is typically used by brokers and agents who want to provide buyers with updates on new listings in a particular neighborhood they’re interested in, rather than to provide a stream of every available listing.
Such uses go hand in hand with mobile devices, Wurzer said. "To be able to read an RSS (listings) feed with Flipboard (a feed reader app) — that’s cool. Who doesn’t want that?"
Wurzer said if the concern is that permitting brokers to provide RSS feeds of IDX listings would leave "the whole feed just sitting there, that it just lays it out for anybody," then the work group’s recommendations could probably be tightened while still permitting more limited use of RSS feeds.
Mobile "is an interesting twist," Wurzer said, because while brokers and agents can easily argue that a website that’s been optimized for mobile falls under the existing definition of an allowable IDX website, "when you enter the world of native applications, that’s a little more fuzzy."
MLS executives have said they aren’t sure how they will monitor mobile applications that provide IDX listings for compliance.
APIs and framed solutions
In a blog post on the topic, Wurzer said the work group "seems to have the right intent, which is to allow IDX to be a source of innovation and competition for brokers and agents."
But the work group’s recommendations could be further refined, perhaps by limiting the number of fields allowed in an RSS feed, or to allow listings to be accessed only through queries directly to MLS servers by purpose-built APIs.
Wurzer’s company, FBS, already makes a WordPress plug-in and API that work with the company’s flexmls IDX system.
Janet Choynowski, CEO of Immobel Group, said Immobel’s IDX-Buzz product serves IDX listings "with full IDX rules and disclaimers embedded" on social media sites such as an agent’s or broker’s Facebook business page.
"With the IDX-Buzz product, they go in a controlled, quality-assured way, disclaimers and all," Choynowski said in an email. "I think it gives a comfort level, rather than having members posting content to Facebook and tweeting it willy-nilly."