The state of New York is reportedly even considering outlawing the practice. In the face of this legal threat, I’ve noticed better disclosures by portals about listings. But it’s still very confusing.

For me, ads from competing real estate agents on another agent’s home listing isn’t working very well. It can be a super bad consumer experience.

It’s like buying a book with a cover on Greek history and opening it and reading about the history of Kim Kardashian’s Rodeo Drive buying sprees. Yuck.

What’s gotten me so worked up? I got bamboozled twice, a sorry victim of this sloppy business model. The first time was in Palm Springs, California, when I thought I was contacting the listing agent but instead got a Zillow Premier Agent. Good agent, but a terrible online consumer experience. I was not looking for an agent, I was looking for houses, and I wanted to speak to the person who knew the most about the home, which is the listing agent.

The next time I felt duped was in Palm Beach, when I submitted an inquiry on a realtor.com listing. I mistakenly thought I was setting up an appointment with the listing agent, only to discover I was being hustled by a brand new agent who lived 40 miles away.  

Plus, in the days that followed, several other agents began bombarding my inbox. I felt like I was being attacked by a school of jellyfish just a few blocks away. None of them were qualified to work in quirky little Palm Beach, and none of them were the listing agent.

I think of these agent ads as real estate aliens, treading in planets where they do not belong.

People defend the practice, “every other industry does it.” That never worked when my kids wanted to see an inappropriate movie. And it should not work here. We can do better.

The Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY) has lobbied the Department of State of New York to look into the practice. Maybe this sunshine has prompted better disclosures by the portals about who’s listing it is. But it’s still very confusing.

When I search Google online, I can clearly see the difference between ads and search results. When you read Inman, you know the difference between an ad and a news story. Ads and content should never be blurred. Even cheesy late-night TV infomercials, like the cigarette lighter that works in a hurricane, fully disclose that they are advertorials.

My guess is that Zillow and realtor.com make too many hundreds of millions of dollars to change their business model too much  But they should reassess their business practices and at least do a better job of explaining who’s who. A little work on the UI would go a long way.

Good news: more competition could force their hand. Redfin is muscling its way into the listing business by offering a better consumer experience that offers pre-MLS listings that are not sullied by alien listing ads. Plus, they are publishing the listing broker’s name and contact information prominently, even when it is not a Redfin listing.

Redfin is actively recruiting brokers from other brands to put their listings on Redfin where they’re not confused by other agents ads. And they are being explicit about their strategy. In a recent announcement about hiring MLS guru Caitlin McCrory to help the company “strengthen [its] relationships with multiple listing services,” Redfin said she will be, “advocating for listing brokers to get proper credit for the listing data they share.”

Redfin has great distribution, just like Zillow and realtor.com, so their offer has credibility and could be a threat to Zillow and realtor.com, who, for now, have the lion’s share of real estate consumer distribution.

A new phase for the listing battle is unfolding — a scramble to get home listings early and with a cleaner proposition for the listing agent and a more truthful offer for the consumer.

The listing agents have power; they just need to use it the right way. Don’t fight Zillow by doing illegal things like constraint of trade.

Do what Zillow promises: create a better consumer deal.

Email Brad Inman

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