Christian Harris thought Zillow Group and his multiple listing service had put his brokerage in a tough spot last week. Zillow Group planned to prohibit agents from manually posting listings on May 1, a new policy it announced in late February. And because Harris’s MLS was not sending listings to Zillow Group, he thought his brokerage, Seattle-based Sea-Town Real Estate, might lose the ability to market properties on Zillow Group sites — a scary scenario for many agents and brokers.

  • A bevy of MLSs have made direct listing feed deals with Zillow Group since the firm decided to eliminate manual listing entry.
  • But brokers that belong to MLSs that have held out still have ways to market their listings on Zillow Group sites.
  • Many agents want their MLSs to provide direct feeds to Zillow Group, but critics accuse the firm of using strong-arm tactics.

Christian Harris thought Zillow Group and his multiple listing service (MLS) had put his brokerage in a tough spot last week.

Zillow Group planned to prohibit agents from manually posting listings on May 1, a new policy it announced in late February. And because Harris’s MLS was not sending listings to Zillow Group, he thought his brokerage, Seattle-based Sea-Town Real Estate, might lose the ability to market properties on Zillow Group sites — a scary scenario for many agents and brokers.

“Doesn’t appear that I have any options as a small indie brokerage,” he said at the time.

But now things are looking up for Harris, who belongs to the Northwest Multiple Listing Service (NWMLS). Zillow Group has granted a month-long extension of manual-listing entry in his area. And he’s learned about a “workaround” he can use to publish listings on Zillow Group sites after that deadline expires.

Applause and hesitation

Christian Harris

Zillow Group’s recent listing policy changes — which are designed to improve the quality of its listing data — have put pressure on some multiple listing services and brokerages to send listings directly to the company.

The ensuing drama shows how the real estate giant can use its leverage to wring concessions from the industry. On the flip side, MLSs can disappoint their members by failing to fully cooperate with Zillow Group.

Egged on by Zillow sales reps, “hundreds and hundreds” of agents have called NWMLS to ask that it send listings directly to Zillow Group, but just as many have urged NWMLS not to give in, said NWMLS CEO Tom Hurdelbrink.

NWMLS believes that member brokers are responsible for managing their own marketing — which is why the MLS does not syndicate to any listing portal, including Zillow Group, he said.

“It’s really Zillow’s problem, not the MLS’s problem,” he added. “Zillow is trying to make this an MLS problem.”

Many have applauded Zillow Group’s listing policy changes, which include cutting off at least one listing syndicator (in addition to ending manual-entry for agents). But others have balked at the firm’s strong-arm tactics.

“They’re intimating that the only route is to lean on the MLS and that’s not true,” said Sam Debord, a Seattle-based managing broker, who advertises with Zillow Group and is also a member of NWMLS. “They’re holding back important information to get a negotiating advantage and it’s misleading those brokers.”

A number of large MLSs have recently signed direct feed agreements, but a few are still holding out, including NWMLS. That’s left a handful of brokerages on edge, worried that they will have difficulty publicizing their listings on some of the largest property search sites.

Sam Debord

But the issue might be a tempest in a teapot. These firms will still have options, even though they may be inconvenient.

Cleaner data

Zillow Group claims to have coverage of 95 percent of U.S. properties through feeds from brokers, franchisors and MLSs. Nixing manual-listing entry for agents was a bid to achieve even better coverage and accuracy by spurring more MLSs to provide direct feeds.

“The vast majority of listing issues stem from agents manually entering listings,” said Jay Thompson, Zillow Group’s director of industry outreach, on the Facebook group Inman Coast to Coast. “The industry and consumers have been asking/demanding that we clean up our data for years — we are responding to those demands.”

Zillow Group email sent to NWMLS members on May 1.

New MLS partners

The company has exhorted agents to push their MLSs to provide a direct feed to Zillow Group.

And the strategy appears to have paid off. Days before Zillow Group nixed manual-listing entry, the company announced four new MLS partners, including San Diego County’s Sandicor and the Austin Board of Realtors (ABoR). Others, like Sacramento’s MetroList PRO, have inked deals since the new policy went into effect.

Zillow Group’s elimination of manual-listing entry “was a driver” (though not the only one) behind Sandicor’s recent decision to sign a direct feed agreement with Zillow Group, said Saul Klein, a member of Sandicor’s board of directors.

“We did the best we could negotiating the terms of the contract, but ultimately, who is the MLS to get in the way of what brokers were telling us they wanted?” he told Inman. “Large brokers had their deals and the smaller brokers were being disadvantaged, they believed.”

Saul Klein

Patty Laforte, a broker at Utah brokerage Realtypath, said she was glad to learn that her MLS — the Wasatch Front Multiple Listing Service (WFRMLS) — had recently agreed to funnel listings to Zillow Group for brokerages on request — even though the service costs money.

She thinks it will substantially improve Zillow Group’s local listing coverage, she said in Inman Coast to Coast.

While WFRMLS does not provide a direct feed to Zillow Group under a licensing agreement, it began setting up feeds to Zillow Group for brokers about a month ago — when Zillow Group first offered to accept listings that way, said WFRMLS CEO Brad Bjelke.

Some agents argue that if holdout MLSs want to serve the interests of their members and consumers, they should swallow their pride and provide a direct listing feed to Zillow Group, particularly given Zillow Group’s new listing policy.

“We have had problems with invalid listings being entered and have had major complaints from our members – this change is a big move in the right direction for our market to clean up the database for the professionals and the public,” said Teresa Kinney, CEO of the Miami Association of Realtors. (The trade group has provided a direct listing feed to Zillow Group for the last two years.)

But others have watched warily as Zillow Group has tried to bend a segment of the industry to its will.

Brian Copeland, chief engagement officer of Nashville, Tennessee-based Village Real Estate Services, said in Coast to Coast that dealing with Zillow Group’s listing policy change had been a “nightmare for a few weeks,” and that his brokerage had been “bullied into providing our listings with no other alternative.”

His brokerage set up a direct feed with Zillow Group last week, he said. Copeland, who is also president of the Tennessee Association of Realtors, lamented that some of terms of the direct feed contract “are complete liabilities for the broker, agent and (with the nature of lawsuits) sellers.”

“This feels like a strongarm with a smile,” added Debord, a managing broker at Coldwell Banker Danforth.

‘Let them know your listings need exposure’

Debord took issue with an email from Zillow Group to members of the NWMLS that he said suggested that there would be no way for agents to get their listings on Zillow Group sites if their MLS did not sign a direct listing feed agreement.

“If we are unable to receive Northwest MLS’s approval on forms to allow Zillow Group to receive listings by May 1, you will no longer be able to post new listings to our sites, preventing them from being seen by the millions of home shoppers who visit Zillow and Trulia each day,” the email read.

“Contact Northwest MLS today and let them know your listings need exposure to the millions of buyers on Zillow Group sites.”

Zillow Group did not stick to that deadline, and has agreed to allow Northwest MLS members to continue to manually post listings for another month.

Alternative listing publishing routes

Jay Thompson

But even if Zillow Group had not made this allowance, many agents would still have had ways to publish their listings on Zillow Group sites — even though some may not have been publicized. These options apply for agents that belong to holdout MLSs around the country.

Zillow will continue to accept listings through feeds from franchisors, such as Keller Williams Realty, and through direct listing feeds from brokerages.

It will also still accept listings from at least one syndicator, RealBird, until June 30. Zillow Group declined to disclose whether the same cut-off date would apply to other syndicators.

Zillow Group traditionally has only set up listing feeds for brokerages with 200 or more listings.

But in markets with MLSs that won’t send listings to Zillow Group, the company will waive that requirement for small brokers so long as they “can build a feed, and commit to having the resources to test, fix and validate the feed — and provide the data with at least four hour updates,” Zillow Group spokesman Dan Evans told Inman.

In addition, brokerages may be able get files of their listings from their MLS and send them to Zillow Group, “as the vast majority of MLSs will allow a broker to have a copy of their own listings to use at their discretion,” Evans said.

To pull this off, a broker typically requests a listing feed from their MLS, and then “gets RETS [Real Estate Listing Data] credentials from the MLS and provides those credentials to Zillow Group (as their vendor) and we then pull the listings for display on Zillow Group sites,” he said.

“The broker provides the license and the MLS provides the feed which is done under a broker license agreement with Zillow,” Evans added.

A final option for brokerages, Evans said, is to work with their IDX (Internet Data Exchange), virtual tour providers or other vendors to send their listings to Zillow Group, as many vendors provide direct feeds to Zillow Group.

“We are always exploring opportunities to engage as many brokers as possible,” he said. “If brokers have questions or want to discuss options, they can also call our Broker Engagement Team.”

A Zillow Group representative has advised Christian Harris, the Seattle broker, to activate a Zillow Group Premier Agent Website to “ensure” that his office’s listings stay current on Zillow Group sites, and added that a “secondary benefit” is the site can be used to send his office’s listings to Zillow Group.

Harris said he still wishes NWMLS would provide a direct listing feed to Zillow Group, “instead of every individual brokerage needing to pay for a feed and then supply that to Zillow.”

But he added, “I guess it’s nice there is at least one option for small indie brokerages like us to continue being able to get our listings exposure on Zillow.”

Email Teke Wiggin.

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