MLS & AssociationsTechnology

MLS fails to disclose full intent of website tracking tool

My Florida Regional MLS is the latest to deploy ListTrac
  • My Florida Regional MLS is the latest of 35 MLSs to deploy listing performance tool ListTrac on behalf of its 40,000-plus members. The tool will allow listing agents and brokers to see where their marketing efforts are most effective online.
  • MFRMLS has chosen not to inform its members that ListTrac's business model is to harvest agent, broker and consumer data from members' websites with plans to sell it to third parties. MLSs also stand to receive a cut should ListTrac generate revenue from the data sales.
  • MFRMLS says it will work with ListTrac to allow its members to opt out of using the tool if they wish.

Real estate startup ListTrac is rapidly gaining traction: 35 multiple listing services representing about 800,000 listings nationwide have deployed the startup’s free tool to track listing performance across the Internet.

It is likely, however, that vast majority of the agents and brokers in those MLSs are unaware of how ListTrac plans to generate revenue: by selling agent and consumer behavior data it gathers from agents’ own websites.

My Florida Regional MLS, the largest MLS in Florida with more than 43,000 members, is the latest MLS to implement ListTrac on its public-facing site, myfloridahomesmls.com, and on its member IDX (Internet data exchange) sites. The tool went live in mid-September.

MFRMLS has not informed its members of ListTrac’s business model or their role in it. Other MLSs have also chosen to keep their members in the dark.

Merri Jo Cowen

Merri Jo Cowen

“When we began looking at the ListTrac program, we spent significant time with our technology committee doing research, involved our legal counsel in the agreement and specifics on what could and could not be done with the information gathered and received approval from our board of directors to move forward,” MFRMLS CEO Merri Jo Cowen told Inman in an email.

6 ways empowered agents embrace disruption to drive success
Using technology to generate leads and win listings READ MORE

“Since there is no direct consumer or agent/broker information being given to ListTrac, we did not feel it was necessary to go into detail regarding ListTrac’s business model.”

How ListTrac plans to make money

This is the business model: ListTrac parent company Vendigi intends to aggregate the anonymized behavior data it is currently culling from these sites to split consumers, agents and brokers off into “audiences” that can be sold to third-party advertisers such as Wells Fargo, Home Depot — and, yes, Zillow and realtor.com.

In exchange, agents and brokers get access to a free dashboard that shows them how many views and leads their online listings are generating, and MLSs get a tool they hope will show members the value of MLS-powered sites compared with third-party listing portals.

Inman revealed ListTrac’s business model in July, and the company simultaneously put out a press release emphasizing that its goal is to help real estate professionals monetize their listing data through revenue-share agreements with MLSs.

But neither the press release announcing the MFRMLS deal nor the FAQ about ListTrac that the MLS provided for its members mention ListTrac’s planned business model.

They also do not mention that MLSs stand to get a cut of the revenue once ListTrac starts making money.

MFRMLS did not enter into an agreement with ListTrac with an expectation of revenue, Cowen said.

We see value in ListTrac as a service to help our brokers and agents get a picture of the activity on their properties online,” she said.

“They already track this info and in many cases pay for it to help them with their online marketing strategies. If we can save them a bit of time and and maybe a bit of money, it’s worthwhile. As the ListTrac network grows to include more site analytics, so does the benefit to our subscribers.”

Privacy

ListTrac’s terms of use require all publishers implementing ListTrac to have a privacy policy in place notifying users of its data collection practices. Sites that do not could open up their agent and broker owners to legal liability.

“We currently do not have the privacy policy on all of the sites, but will before ListTrac can begin collecting the info for aggregated stats,” Cowen said.

“Right now we are focusing on getting our brokers aware, seeing which other IDX vendors and third parties may want to participate for use by the brokers for internal stats.”

ListTrac has previously said it plans to use the time it has before it expects to start generating revenue to make sure publishers have included that notification.

Agents and consumers are not asked for their affirmative consent to be tracked by ListTrac.

This is because their personal information is not captured, Cowen said.

“ListTrac is capturing analytics on searches performed by consumers. No specific personal data is gathered on consumers and sold to third parties,” she said.

“The data is aggregated and contains no specific information on a particular property or particular consumer.”

“We are all tracked in some way on almost every site we go to, this does not seem any different,” she added.

ListTrac-10ActionItems

Opt out

MFRMLS brokers and agents are automatically opted-in to the tool. When Inman first contacted Cowen about ListTrac, she said there would be no opt-out option.

Upon further inquiry from Inman, however, she said, “We will of course honor any opt-out that may be requested and be happy to have a conversation with any of our participants that have concerns. So far there have been none.”

How technically feasible that option is is unclear. Due to the templated nature of most IDX websites, if the code is added for one customer in a particular MLS, it is typically added for all customers in that MLS.

“I’m not the technical one so don’t know for sure how it might work,” Cowen said.

“I do know that if a broker is using one of the IDX sites, he can have the code removed from his site. As far as individual or brokerage opt-out, we will work with ListTrac on a solution if we get a request, but I truly do not know how it would be done at this point.”

Trent Gardner

Trent Gardner

When asked what members’ options would be if they wanted to opt out, Trent Gardner, CEO of ListTrac and Vendigi, said no agent or broker had requested an opt-out and he would prefer not to “speculate regarding hypothetical use cases.”

Agents want the listing metrics that ListTrac offers, he said: leads, unique users, total views, the number of properties shared with others, and the duration of visitors on each site.

“Real estate brokers are telling us that when they see the transparent and unbiased data ListTrac is providing, that’s exactly what they want,” Gardner said.

“They don’t want self-reported data.”

The latter remark likely referred to Zillow’s refusal to implement ListTrac’s tracking code on its site in favor of feeding stats to ListTrac instead.

Revenue share

Once ListTrac does start making money, most of its MLS customers stand to get a cut. ListTrac and MFRMLS declined to share the terms of their agreement, though ListTrac noted that it offers every MLS the same revenue-sharing opportunity.

It will be up to MLSs, not ListTrac, whether they choose to share any of that money with their agent or broker members.

“[S]hould that occasion arise, we would go to our board of directors to decide how the funds might be used,” Cowen said.

“With 14 shareholders, over 7,000 brokers and a total membership of over 43,000, and not knowing what the revenue if any might be, it’s impossible to say if a cut to brokers would even be realistic.

“That said, we would certainly consider the option if the revenue was significant — but it’s just speculation at this point. Our desire is to provide a valuable tool to our brokers and their agents.”

In July, Gardner estimated it would be three to six months before the company began selling data to third parties. He declined to provide an updated estimate, saying “This is a long-term process.”

Email Andrea V. Brambila.