- Competition, even if unacknowledged, among real estate tech companies vying for a slice of the data management solution pie could mean improved outcomes, a more efficient industry and better solutions for brokers and MLSs, according to this year's Swanepoel Trends Report.
Listings, listings, listings. Debates about where they go online, when, and in what form — plus who controls all of that — have fired up the real estate industry since the advent of the internet.
As the ways for harnessing electronic listing and other real-estate related data multiply, the need to enter data into different systems becomes increasingly necessary and burdensome. Brokerages and multiple listing services (MLSs) are forced to spend more time and money developing technology resources to manage information.
But several tech companies have stepped up to solve this problem — some ready for prime time, and others still a promise on their founders’ lips.
Their products include UpstreamRE’s Upstream, Zillow Group’s Bridge Interactive, CoreLogic’s Trestle, Black Knight’s Paragon for Brokers, Instanet Solutions’ Instanet Forms, and Realtors Property Resource’s Advanced Multilist Platform (AMP).
“These firms are building technology to help reduce the duplication, inaccuracy and frustration that comes from entering the same data multiple times into separate sources including MLS, back-office platforms, vendor software and marketing platforms,” said this year’s Swanepoel Trends Report from real estate research and management consulting firm Swanepoel T3 Group, which compared the products.
“A solution will go a long way in helping solve the data-management headache introduced by the real estate web revolution.”
Shying away from the ‘competitor’ label
Some of these companies have been loath to admit it so far, but these firms are competitors, and the data management arms race is on, according to Swanepoel.
Two of the companies — Zillow Group and UpstreamRE — stand out in terms of the boxes they check — or hope to check — for brokers seeking relief from their data woes.
“[The three offerings] when combined with Zillow Group’s in-house tools, could satisfy a wide range of broker demands,” managing broker and Inman contributor Sam DeBord said in a column last month. (DeBord also helped create the Swanepoel Trends Report.) “The real estate behemoth is buying up a set of tools that cross paths in major ways with Upstream,” he added.
“Whether that’s the intention, the positioning, or the marketing angle doesn’t matter. The tools being purchased by Zillow Group are designed to solve some of the problems that Upstream solves — albeit perhaps in a way that’s less logistically elegant.”
Here Inman takes a look at the two companies’ offerings and an upcoming feature from Zillow Group.
What listing management should look like
At Inman Connect New York in January, two of the most prominent leaders in the industry — Errol Samuelson of Zillow Group and Alex Lange of UpstreamRE — participated in a panel and agreed on what listing management should look like:
- A listing is entered into a system just once and from there gets distributed to any other system the broker would like it to go, including any MLSs that broker belongs to.
- Agents should be able to enter data for in-house use if a brokerage needs to capture fields that aren’t part of the MLS.
- Brokers should be able to control where listing data is shared, by whom and how often.
- Listing data should be standardized to allow third-party programmers to use it without having to re-format it.
They may see eye-to-eye on the problem, but that doesn’t mean the two companies agree on how to solve it.
A day after this panel, real estate technology giant Zillow Group released an “end-to-end listing management” platform for brokerages and MLSs under the brand of its Bridge Interactive subsidiary.
And now Upstream is beginning beta testing.
What 10-year-old Bridge offers
Zillow Group’s end-to-end platform is actually a set of tools from Bridge combined with the application programming interface (API) of another Zillow Group subsidiary, Retsly. They include:
- Bridge’s Compose, a web application that allows brokers and agents to add and edit listings in a variety of systems, including multiple MLSs and brokerage back-office systems. “Bridge can accept any number of ultra-high-resolution photos and send all images to the brokerage, simultaneously sending a lower-resolution version and reduced number of images to the MLS” if needed, thus eliminating the need to enter the photo twice, Samuelson told Inman via email.
- Bridge’s Contact server, which allows MLS administrators to review real-time queries for listing content, number of listings accessed, and amounts of data requested. The server “provides complete control over who can access listing data and where the data can be used, as well as in-depth data usage reporting,” the company said.
- Bridge’s Cheque tool, which enables MLSs to manage syndication of listings and billing for MLS data recipients.
- The Retsly API, which “normalizes” MLS data (puts it into standard formats devised by the Real Estate Standards Organization) and makes it easier to transport into different systems. This makes it easier for MLSs, brokers and tech providers “to efficiently access listing data to build real estate apps and services,” the company said.
When asked how much the platform will cost, Samuelson said, “Cost will vary. We are providing the core Compose listing input and Retsly data distribution modules to MLSs at no charge.”
‘Their offering is a subset of what Upstream will do’
Broker data management company UpstreamRE aims to provide brokers with a single point of entry to manage their data.
Its platform will function as a go-between among real estate firms and the recipients of their data, including MLSs, making Upstream the starting point. Upstream’s intended scope extends beyond listing data to all types of broker data.
Lange maintains that Bridge is not a direct competitor to Upstream and that comparing the two isn’t “fair” because “their offering is a subset of what Upstream will do.”
“It’s never been about listings, but to create a single data entry point and standardized storage platform for real estate-related data,” he told Inman via email.
“Roster data, vendor management, transaction data are just the start as we create a secure platform for a broker to manage all their data assets. It will support the individual requirements of each participating brokerage.”
Still, the platform is starting out by tackling listing data management. According to Lange, Upstream will allow brokers to:
- Have granular control of where their data is distributed
- Determine which vendors get access and the specific fields that a vendor receives
- Manage the timing/frequency of the distribution
- Manage distribution at an individual listing level (allowing brokers to exclude a specific property, for instance)
In addition, Upstream will provide greater copyright protection and better track sources of unauthorized use, Lange said.
“This is critical for the brokerage community, as they are also trustees, with a fiduciary duty to their clients,” he said.
“Brokers are duty bound, by law, to steward that information in a manner subject to the highest standard of care. Upstream empowers brokerages to manage their client’s information responsibly today and tomorrow when consumer home information becomes more personal and more vulnerable.”
When asked how Upstream provides greater copyright protection and tracking of unauthorized use, Lange declined to elaborate, saying, “I’d be happy to provide you with specific details as we make progress, but since we are focused on securing the data, I am confident we can provide a higher level of legal and technical security.”
According to Lange, Bridge’s platform doesn’t do anything that Upstream won’t do.
“Upstream will do everything that the ZG [Zillow Group] offering will do and more. If anything, the new ZG offering validates both the need and the type of solution that Upstream is offering,” Lange said.
“It’s important to note that Upstream will do everything it does with a higher level of transparency as it is accountable to the real estate community[,] while ZG is accountable only to the public markets and the two individual founders (Rich Barton and Lloyd Frink) who control it.
“Finally, Upstream delivers this solution without a profit motive — this would ensure the industry will have certainty about its costs at any point and the ability to cost effectively evolve it to meet future needs.”
UpstreamRE has not yet announced its business model or how much it will charge brokers to use the platform.
‘Bridge isn’t competing with Upstream unless you think Upstream is competing with the MLS’
Zillow Group’s Samuelson also insists that Bridge and Upstream are not competitors.
“Bridge Interactive isn’t a new platform — the company, products, and the industry standards we use have been around for 10 years,” he said.
“The goal of Bridge is to streamline, update and improve upon the existing MLS technology. We know it works because it’s installed in some of the biggest MLS in the country.
“Upstream has different philosophical and technical approaches, and we don’t see that Bridge is competing with Upstream unless you think Upstream is competing with the MLS, which they’ve said they are not.”
Bridge is about enhancing existing MLS technology rather than creating a new listing database and distribution system, according to Samuelson.
One difference from Upstream is that data recipients, including MLSs, must “pull” the data from Upstream, while Bridge pushes listings to the MLS.
“Bridge ensures that the entered listing matches the business rules of the participating MLS(s) and then immediately inserts the listing into the MLS database,” Samuelson said.
“The broker doesn’t have to worry about the listing being delayed getting into the MLS and in front of other agents and their buyers.”
One thing that Upstream will offer that Bridge doesn’t — yet
Once Upstream launches, it will allow brokers to syndicate their listings to third parties without going through the MLS. Does Bridge offer brokers that same capability?
“Today, the brokerage would need to send the fields to the third party. Bridge would deliver the data to the brokerage and then the brokerage would send the data to the third party — using something other than the Bridge software,” Samuelson said.
“In future versions, the broker will be able to use the Bridge software to send the data to a third party — but that is not something available today.”
Samuelson emphasized that for any listing collection system to be accurate and reliable, the listing must always first be checked against the MLS business rules.
“Bridge does this — it gathers the fields from [the] agent, checks the data against the MLS business rules and then submits the listing to the MLS. Within seconds, Bridge can then pull the submitted listing and provide it back to the broker,” he said.
“So rather than creating problems or delays, submission to the MLS ensures data accuracy and the broker immediately has a ‘verified’ or ‘certified’ copy of that listing, which the broker can send to whomever he or she wishes.”
Moreover, most third parties, such as transaction management systems and comparative market analysis tools, need access to all listings in an MLS and not just a broker’s own listings, Samuelson said.
“That’s why we have focused on the most common use case: providing third parties with access to all listings (something only the MLS can do). We offer two ways to do this: Bridge’s Contact RETS server and Bridge’s Retsly service,” he said.
Pros and cons of Bridge and Upstream, according to Swanepoel
Why does Swanepoel consider Upstream and Bridge competitors? They’re going after the same potential customers and solve at least some of the same problems.
“Zillow Group’s scope and operational expertise — along with complementary technology such as Retsly and dotloop — and the fact that the technology is available now, may attract MLSs and brokers to use Zillow Group and Bridge Interactive, capturing important sectors of Upstream’s potential market,” the Swanepoel Trends report said.
“From a strategic perspective, with the combination of Retsly and Bridge, Zillow Group now has a comprehensive, if not complete, solution for entry, management, syndication, and third-party integration of data,” the report added.
However, the report’s authors noted that not many MLSs were using Retsly and Bridge yet and “it will take time and industry relations work on the part of Zillow Group” to boost MLS adoption.
In regards to Upstream, Swanepoel noted that the company offers brokerages and franchisors “a data dream scenario — one platform from which they can manage, store, distribute and track all their data.”
But, “[t]he dream might be too big, as Upstream faces significant development challenges related to MLS vendor cooperation amidst other competitors that will likely change its timeline, if not its vision,” the report added.
For his part, Lange said Zillow Group’s launch of its Bridge end-to-end listing management platform “doesn’t change [Upstream’s] mission or product roadmap. I’m certain everyone in the industry knew they would do this after the acquisition. It was a logical step for them.”
Regardless, the Swanepoel report asserted the entire industry will benefit from the efforts of these vendors.
“Each vendor … presents the future of the MLS data space in a slightly different way, as each tries to carve out its own niche. The good news for the residential real estate brokerage community is that significant brainpower and resources are being invested to find better ways for the industry to work with its data,” the report said.
“Regardless of market, pushing for better data tools and products will produce better outcomes and a more efficient industry, so let us all celebrate the competition.”