On Syndication: Is A MLS A Data Repository, or An Exchange?

This is an exchange, that happens to throw off data

A current discussion within the MLS and tech vendor industry is around the issue of listing syndication. This post by Brian Larson, and the discussions therein, is a pretty good summation of the thinking on the part of MLS executives, vendors, and consultants. As Victor Lund of the WAV Group, a leader in the world of MLS consulting, notes in the comments:

Syndication is absolutely a nightmare on many levels – the control of the data quality is gone – leaving behind dregs like duplicate data, false data, reproductized data, resold data, loss of ownership by brokers, loss of copyright by MLSs, reduction in the quality of curated listing content – yadda, yadda.

For what it’s worth, I agree with Victor 100%… if the MLS is a data collections company, like say NPD Group which collects retail data from thousands of point-of-sales systems. Then the practice of syndication is a nightmare, and a disaster.

I believe, however, that there is a real question as to whether the subscribers to the MLS, the brokers and agents who actually create the data that constitutes the valuable intellectual property at question, see things that way. Most working real estate brokers and agents I know think of the MLS as a way to advertise properties for sale (let’s stick strictly with listing brokers/agents for now). I don’t believe that they think of what they’re doing, when they’re at the MLS screen entering data, as anything other than putting in information to get a house sold.

The popular and oft-heard response to this line of reasoning is, “Well, it’s both, Rob”. (Shortly followed by or preceded by, “You’re so black-and-white; the world is shades of grey, son!”) It is true that I tend towards black-and-white thinking, even if I recognize that in the real world of implementation, sometimes you have to tolerate shades of gray. But it is because without such clarity in thought, effectiveness in action is impossible.

Another way to think about it is from a prioritization standpoint. Fine, a MLS is both a data repository and an exchange. Which is its primary identity, and which is the secondary? Consequences follow from the answer.

If the MLS Is A Data Repository

Let’s say that the answer is that a MLS is a data repository. It may have begun as a way for brokers to cooperate in getting a house sold, but in this day and age of the Internet and sophisticated data analytics, the primary purpose of a MLS is to provide clean, accurate, timely property data to real estate professionals, consumers, and other users of real estate data.

Certain consequences follow this definition of the MLS.

  1. Syndication must be eliminated, except in cases where the MLS can make a reasonable business decision to do syndication, under its licensing terms, with varying degrees of control dependent on compensation.
  2. In fact, if the MLS is primarily a data repository, its membership agreements probably should spell out that it will be the exclusive provider of listings data, and that the listing brokers and agents will surrender their rights to send the same intellectual property to a different source. If I contract to write columns for AOL, I cannot then send that same column to Yahoo, unless our agreement says I can. The same analysis must apply to listings entered into the system by brokers and agents.
  3. Intellectual property rights, sharing of those rights, and various mutual licensing arrangements must be clarified and agreed upon by all participants, including the real estate agent who is actually doing all of the data entry. At a minimum, if the MLS is a data repository, and its subscribers are paying to create the valuable intellectual property that is being deposited into the repository, then some accommodation has to be reached between the MLS and the subscribers as to if, when, and how those content creators ought to be compensated for their efforts.
  4. The data that is being entered, aggregated, and re-sold/licensed needs to be examined for more than what it is today. There are hundreds of data fields in a listing that go unfilled because they’re not particularly relevant for attracting buyers to the property. But maybe those fields — like soil type, distance to power lines, etc. — are very relevant for sophisticated users of the data.
  5. IDX must be put back on the table for discussion.
  6. There has to be a discussion about the equal treatment that listing brokers and buying brokers receive in the MLS. The former creates IP that will be leveraged and monetized; the latter does not.
  7. A real discussion has to be held as to the minimum useful geography if a MLS is to be thought of primarily as a data repository. Real estate may be local, but data is not particularly useful unless it’s at a certain size. It’s impossible to do trend analysis on four closed sales in one zip code.

Each or all of these things can be modified, tweaked, or changed based on how strongly the secondary purpose of advertising a home for sale is to the MLS and its subscribers. But if the MLS is widely understood by all stakeholders and participants to be a data repository, the relationship between the brokers, agents, Associations, and the MLS will likely need to be renegotiated.

If the MLS Is An Exchange

If, on the other hand, all of the stakeholders and participants understand the MLS to be an exchange, created for the primary purpose of selling a home, then other consequences follow.

  1. Whatever value the property data might hold, that value is subordinate to the primary value of advertising a home for sale. Syndication must not only continue, but be expanded, and the propriety of charging licensing fees and other revenues at the cost of wider advertising distribution must be examined.
  2. The whole concept of data accuracy and data integrity has to be understood in the context of advertising a property for sale, rather than the context of third party users such as government agencies, banks, and academics.
  3. MLS rules and practices should be re-examined in light of the clarified understanding of the MLS as an exchange facilitating the sale of a home.
  4. MLS products and services that do not advance the primary goal of advertising homes for sale need to be validated by the leadership and by the subscriber membership.
  5. There has to be a discussion not of minimum geography, but of maximum geography. It isn’t logical to believe that if the MLS is merely an exchange, and real estate is local, then a super-regional MLS could serve the advertising function as effectively as a hyperlocal one.

Again, these consequences can be modified, tweaked, altered, and so forth based on the particular MLS’s stakeholders deciding how much to be influenced by the secondary function of data services.

My Take On The Issue

My personal take, after laying out the issues, is that a MLS is first and foremost an exchange, created for the primary purpose of advertising homes for sale. The exchange activities happen to throw off extremely valuable intellectual property as byproduct: accurate, timely, and comprehensive data on real estate activities. To the extent that the activity generates valuable assets — much like how fertilizer is often a byproduct of raising cattle — the MLS should attempt to control and monetize those assets. However, like any other byproduct, one would not impinge on the primary purpose for the sake of the secondary.

The whole syndication debate is far more complex and far more detailed, of course. And as I’ve mentioned, in the real world of implementation, there are going to be some grey areas. But I believe much of the confusion in the industry today around the issue stems from the fact that the big assumption has not been adequately communicated, discussed, or accepted by some of the main stakeholders: brokers and agents. Debate and settle the big question, and the details can be resolved using the clear understanding of primary vs. secondary purposes.