Six weeks ago, I wrote about how the online agent ratings and review landscape is broken, to which Rob Hahn correctly pointed out that I did not provide any suggested solution.

  • Online agent ratings and reviews are taking off as agents find that they are great lead generators.
  • Being known as the 5-star agent is now becoming the goal and there are no ethical guidelines in place to help guide agents on acceptable practices.
  • NAR has the opportunity to clarify the Code of Ethics to serve both consumers and members better.

Six weeks ago, I wrote about how the online agent ratings and review landscape is broken, to which Rob Hahn correctly pointed out that I did not provide any suggested solution.

Since then, Zillow added some cool team review features to its Premier Agent toolkit, Placester gobbled up agent rating and testimonial firm RealSatisfied, and HomeLight, an agent-matching service that relies in part on agent ratings and reviews, announced a big raise of $11 million.

Then, Inman editor Amber Taufen penned a piece about the implications of agents who post only good reviews. And if that weren’t enough, I had a little knee surgery — or “tune-up,” as my doc called it.

So now it’s time for a solution, or at least some work toward a solution.

Reviews or honest feedback?

When I visited my doc, he did the old knee-bend thingy and said I needed surgery. By the time I got home, there was an email in my box asking for feedback about my visit.

I had an MRI and went back to the doc so he could rather smugly tell me that he was correct with the knee-bend thingy, and yes, I really did need surgery despite my skepticism.

Again, I got home and found another “were you satisfied?” survey in my box.

Finally, I had the surgery and survey number three arrived while I was on my happy meds. Three visits, three surveys.

I was a satisfied patient, but I would have received three surveys even if I had been the patient from hell.

My doc certainly wanted good marks, but more importantly, he (and his big, professionally run practice) wanted legitimate and honest feedback.

Does the same hold true in real estate? Hold that thought.

Why online ratings are kind of a big deal

The online ratings and reviews space is hot and is only going to get hotter. First, online ratings and reviews provide great original user-generated content, which does magical things for websites. More importantly, that content can be used to generate leads. And when you can generate leads with anything, heads turn.

And with that, it seems like attaining the five-star badge is now taking on a life of its own, but with what tactics?

In her piece, Taufen wrote: “As a consumer, I hate cherry-picking. I fully understand why you would want to filter your reviews — but when I see a business or service with all five-star reviews and no two-star or one-star reviews, I always assume that either the outfit is too new to have done much business or that there’s been some cherry-picking. (And I wonder what was excluded.)”

And as I mentioned in my first article, seeing scores of only five-star reviews leads one to think that either some reviews (the bad ones) are not being posted or the clients who might not give a glowing review do not get the chance to tell their tale of woe.

Keep in mind that most agent reviews today come because the agent has made the ask, not because the client has found a rating site on their own accord (such as, for example, Yelp).

What about ethics and professionalism?

We hear the cries from within the industry for greater professionalism, and it is here where the National Association of Realtors can make a difference. The Realtor Code of Ethics (COE) is what separates the mere real estate licensee from the Realtor.

And some would argue that as states have added stricter legal obligations under license law, the COE (as it relates to agent/consumer interactions) has lost some of its luster. It no longer provides a meaningful separation from what is required of any real estate licensee.

So does the COE address online ratings and reviews? Kinda.

Article 12 of the COE states, “Realtors shall be honest and truthful in their real estate communications and shall present a true picture in their advertising, marketing and other representations” (emphasis added).

Standard of practice 12-13 states, “The obligation to present a true picture in advertising, marketing and representations allows Realtor to use and display only professional designations, certifications and other credentials to which they are legitimately entitled” (emphasis added).

So, what the heck is a “true picture” when it comes to ratings and reviews?

If an agent solicits clients for ratings and reviews and chooses or enables only the ones with five stars and glowing comments to be posted on the web, have they presented a true picture of what their clients think of their services?

Is a five-star rating a new web credential, and if so, what (as SOP 12-13 states) legitimately entitles the Realtor to represent themselves in such a way?

What about an agent who chooses to only solicit ratings and reviews from clients that they know will provide them high marks? How do testimonials differ from ratings and reviews, both in terms of how they are obtained and represented online?

These are thorny questions, and Article 12 does not clearly answer them. But it should.

What’s the solution?

I am not aware of any state that has definitively dealt with this issue. The real question is whether a Realtor, not just an agent with a real estate licensee, should be held to a higher ethical standard than what the law might require when it comes to how they obtain and represent client ratings and reviews.

In November of 2014, the NAR board of directors adopted a resolution to develop an industry standard model to allow consumers to fairly and more accurately evaluate Realtors.

The objective of which was to determine criteria relevant to consumers — combining it with criteria that are relevant to the Realtor’s business practice to enhance more accurate, professional and fair evaluations of Realtor. The stated end desire was to benefit both consumers and Realtor.

This resolution was instrumental in realtor.com’s development and roll-out of its ratings and review platform. A good start, but there a is need for more.

Adding a new standard of practice under Article 12 that specifically addresses the duties related to online ratings and reviews could eliminate any ambiguity about what is expected of Realtors when they choose to use ratings and reviews for marketing purposes, regardless of platform or provider. It would also help both consumers and Realtors because nobody benefits from gamed ratings and reviews.

And it just might give NAR some additional ammo for its new #GetRealtor campaign that is aimed at the the largest segment of soon-to-be real estate review writers — millennials.

NAR meets in DC the week of May 9 for its Spring Confab. What a perfect time to begin the conversation.

Formerly Senior Vice President of Industry Relations at realtor.com, Russ Cofano is an industry consultant and speaker with 25 years of executive-level experience in technology, association, MLS, brokerage and law.  You can find him at Cofano Consulting or LinkedIn.

Email Russ Cofano

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