Remember those old rectangular headlamps nearly every car had?
For over forty years, US headlamp regulations were so strict that manufacturers had to resort to heavy, costly ‘pop-up’ headlamps if they wanted to improve a car’s aerodynamics. Since those restrictions were lifted in the early 80’s, headlamp technology has burst forth with jewel-like designs, adaptive beams, and far greater power and efficiency.
Today, real estate listings remain in a similar rectangular box. The key listing data collected by the various Multiple Listing Services (MLS) comes with severe restrictions on how it may be utilized online. As a result, web sites for real estate agents, brokers, franchisors, aggregators, specialists, etc. all display similar core data; a home listing is a home listing is a home listing.
Search engines do not like data duplication. Search engines strive to present the most relevant results to their users and, therefore, favor unique content that may provide the result a user seeks. When 123 Main Street, Anytown, USA 12345 goes on the market and a few thousand websites all display the exact same home description, the search engines are compelled to find other reasons to rank one web site higher than another although they all possess the same key information.
To break free of these restrictive MLS data feeds and rise to the top of organic real estate listings, web sites have resorted to the equivalent of ‘pop-up’ headlamps. School listings, crime rates, estimated home values, maps and more have been employed to surround the boxed-in MLS listing data and give the search engines unique and/or additional content that differentiates a web site from all others.
Further exacerbating the data duplication issues when it comes to MLS listing data is that the data is agent-generated. Currently, some real estate agents ‘game the system’ by listing their properties as single-residence homes AND townhomes AND commercial property, etc. in an effort to gain maximum exposure. So while it may be efficient from a data-entry perspective, agent-generated MLS listings suffer from the pitfalls of erroneous data (purposeful or otherwise) which, in turn, harms the organic traffic of the listing website that finds itself presenting the search engines multiple pages for the same address. Hopefully, the Real Estate Transaction Standards (RETS) compliancy testing tool released last week will help purge the MLS data feeds of this bad data.
Ultimately, the various MLS’ have to relax their restrictions on how listing data is utilized online or risk the fate of high beam switches located on the floorboards. Granting websites freedom to manipulate the MLS data will drive innovation and lead to more unique and helpful real estate results benefiting the industry as a whole. Agents and brokers may not like it, but the ability to gather and disseminate data online has inspired countless companies to revolutionize inefficient, restrictive markets and the would-be MLS killers have already begun to form – most notably, Google and Yahoo who both allow agents to list properties directly.
As Google says in its real estate FAQ: Is Google a broker? A national MLS?
"We're neither. Our role is to connect users as quickly as possible with the information they need."
The road ahead is clear; until the MLS data is set free to allow other websites to innovate and compete with Google in connecting users with the real estate information they need, Google will continue to gain market share and threaten the long-term viability of the MLS, brokers and agents.