The Data Distribution Dilemma, Part II

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Part II: A 360° Approach

Onboard Informatics has been smack-dab in the middle of Real Estate’s Internet revolution for nearly a decade.  Our clients and business partners run the gamut: from the nation’s largest brokers and franchisors to major MLSs (multiple listings services) to multinational media companies.  In general, we’ve seen wide-scale access to real estate information have an enormously positive impact in the lives of consumers.  Let’s face it: buying, selling and moving are daunting tasks. And despite the fact that these decisions are among the most significant in life, the deck was stacked against the consumer for many years.  In parallel, the accuracy and freshness of data on the web has become crucial.  Bottom line? In today’s hyper-speed information cycle, yesterday’s news happened only an hour ago.

So where exactly are the problems?

While consumers have become increasingly reliant on the vast sea of real estate information found on the web, the overall quality of that information has not kept pace. Rather, as time has elapsed, data accuracy has become more suspect because of the wide capability disparity of the many websites vying for attention and as sad as it is, the underlying business models of some. (Turnkey cash machines vs. consumer property information portals).  Four of the key problems that have emerged from this landscape are:

  1. Decline of Data Quality:  There are countless websites attempting to serve real estate consumers with property listings, but very few of them actually present highly accurate and up-to-date data (The WAV Group did an excellent analysis on this in their “The Property Search Delta” whitepaper).  We cannot understate the significance of this problem and its negative impact on our industry.  Almost everyone loses: (i) the consumer – wastes valuable time dealing with incorrect listings data; (ii) the seller – loses critical exposure by inaccurate presentation; and (iii) agents and brokers have to spend too much time dealing with consumer frustration resulting from inaccurate information.  The only conceivable “winners” are websites operators generating revenue via indiscriminately promoting inaccurate property information in exchange for advertising and/or lead generation fees.
  2. Listing Agent Irrelevance: Many of the website publishers consuming “syndicated” data (as opposed to IDX/VOW licensed from an MLS) attempt to maximize their revenue by surrounding each listing with advertising & lead generation capabilities that inevitably siphon leads away from the Listing Agent of that property.  Clareity’s recent paper extensively documents numerous examples of this on major web portals and I agree with their assessment that this practice is only going to get worse (from the Listing Agent & Broker perspective).  These practices have an obvious negative impact on the listing agents, but also place unneeded obstacles in front of the consumer.
  3. Lack of Visibility:  As data becomes more widely distributed, consumers and real estate professionals face the daunting challenge of understanding which of the many websites out there actually provide a meaningful benefit.  Which websites are driving the most traffic? Where should I double-down my advertising dollars? Which sites never update my data and cause all these damn headaches? We hear these questions all day long, and haven’t seen any real mechanisms put in place to answer these questions.
  4. Improper Use:  Widespread (some might say unchecked) data distribution makes data control by the owners of the information (typically agent/broker or possibly MLS, more in Elizabeth Sobotka’s post on copyrights here nearly impossible.  The result?  Many parties not directly vested in the transaction benefit from the listings information in ways not intended by the seller and broker.  In some instances responsibility for this sits squarely on the shoulders of the broker, by not reading or understanding the terms of use when distributing listings information.  In other cases parties are accessing the data surreptitiously or using it in ways not permitted by any license or usage terms.

These problems have been simmering for some time, but today have reached a rolling boil; stakeholders on all sides are struggling to find answers.  Some within the industry advocate a wide-scale pull back of the data by MLS’s, essentially creating a face-off with many of today’s largest real estate destinations.  Others see the “horses having left the barn” and believe it’s too late to close the barn door.  Whether you’re on either side of the fence OR you are somewhere in the middle of the field, I think we can agree: the time has come to figure this out.

MLSs & Brokers On The Same Side

In my last post I talked about the need to explore the common ground MLSs and Brokers have in creating a foundation to solve the Data Distribution Dilemma.  Honestly I don’t think we’ll have to dig too deep.

Brokers want their MLSs to provide better capabilities and service in this area.  In the Clareity / REAL Trends 2010 MLS Initiatives Survey for Brokers, fewer than half of participating brokers rated their MLS listings syndication capabilities as “Excellent” or “Good”.  The brokers highlighted four primary areas for improvement:

  1. Provide brokers more insight and control;
  2. Enhance MLS security and control over where the listings were syndicated;
  3. Enforce syndication integrity and accuracy;
  4. Ensure the information wasn’t used to sell leads back to brokers.

MLSs want to meet these broker needs but don’t know how.  In CMLS’s 2011 MLS Operations Benchmarking Survey, nearly 80% of participating MLSs were “Extremely Concerned” or “Very Concerned” about their organization’s ability to control the distribution and unauthorized use of the listings data.

Clearly Brokers and MLSs share a common set of concerns, and both see the potential for MLSs to play an important and useful role in addressing them.  What is missing right now is a data distribution platform – a bridge – that connects the two, leveraging their common ground and building a reality based on shared benefits.

Onboard’s 360° Approach – The Bridge

There are five principle beliefs that have guided the development of our solution to the Data Distribution Dilemma.

  1. Shared Benefits: You’ve seen me use this term previously in this blog series.  This concept requires a full 360° view across all key stakeholders with the goal of delivering tangible benefits directly resulting from the adoption of our solution.
  2. MLSs have the best data:  It’s clear that the closer one gets to the source, the better the quality, accuracy and currency of the data.  In most markets MLSs are the single best source for listings information.
  3. Brokers want destination control:  Many brokers have taken control of their listings syndication efforts and want to retain the ability to direct where their listings are sent.
  4. Trusted publishing partners bring value:  There are publishers and syndication networks that provide value to consumers and real estate professionals, and have engaged the industry to address some issues with syndication.  We need to build on these trusted relationships.
  5. Consumers must win: Consumers are the great equalizers in this equation and will vote with their clicks, calls and dollars on anything we as an industry attempt as a solution.

So there it is....the cliffhanger!! There is a lot to absorb in this post that will lead us into the unveiling of Onboard's Listings 360°Insight platform on Thursday April 28 - stay tuned!

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