There is a movement afoot among Multiple Listing Service (MLS) executives and brokers across the country to take measures to protect, control, and monetize the very valuable asset they guard – namely, the data surrounding listings. A key component of this strategy is the consumer-facing MLS website, also known as the MLS Public Portal.
The idea behind a MLS public website is not new. In a 2009 study of MLS public listings websites, Matt Cohen, well-regarded technology chief for Clareity Consulting, said: “I have been an advocate for MLS websites that provide real estate listings information to the public since 1996. Such websites have always made sense as a hedge against industry outsiders that want to intercept the consumer on their way to the real estate professional, selling expensive advertising, charging referral fees and/or reducing the broker’s capability to provide a one-stop-shop for services ancillary to the real estate transaction.”
In 2009, Clareity Consulting studied every MLS listing website in the United States and found most of them to be severely lacking in features and deficient in other criteria. Clareity updated their study in 2011 and again in 2013, evaluating the listing websites of the top 100 MLSs by size. Of these MLSs, 63 had listing websites, which collectively represent approximately half of the residential listing content in the United States. Links to each of the Clareity Consulting Studies are provided at the foot of this article – we’ll take a look at some of the highlights here but we encourage you to take the time to read them in full.
Historically, MLS vendors have not focused on the development of MLS public websites and some of their offerings were an afterthought and lacked the content and features found in the national portals. The websites and search components provided by vendors were often free and very basic so MLS operators that wanted a more robust public site retained a local or national website vendor or hired staff to develop it themselves.
Today’s consumers visit many sites and expect more than a basic system. They are not likely to return to a site just because it is provided by the MLS for the reason that the listings are in many places where additional content and advanced features provide a better search experience and superior analysis tools and reports.
Clareity’s 2013 Update stated that: “In order to field highly functional websites, most of these MLSs have moved away from the free websites provided by MLS vendors. A few have improved their websites’ capabilities by purchasing a premium website from their MLS vendor, while 29 % have either developed a custom website by themselves or with technology partners and 61% have leveraged the capabilities of IDX vendors.”
A good example of a Realtor-friendly consumer website was recently launched by the San Francisco Association of Realtors® at the mobile friendly www.sfrealtors.com that will soon add local videos to their Neighborhood tab.
Both the 2011 and the 2013 studies addressed the main features of a well-designed MLS public website. Here’s a quick look:
- Finding Properties (Search) – There is no good reason not to provide either ‘count on the fly’ or its visual equivalent, where listings are shown on a map as criteria are changed.
- Search Filters/Content – Only 16% of sites allow you to search for pending or sold listings, useful when you want to look at comparable properties. It seems likely that in the future, to remain competitive with national listing advertising sites, more MLSs will allow for local display of pending or sold listings and/or display that information via public records display.
- Open House – 70% of sites have some kind of open house search, either integrated directly into property search or available as a separate search from the site’s top-level menu.
- Details About Individual Properties – The simplest and least sophisticated implementations of property maps are simply links to Google Maps or another online mapping application, or popup windows in which such links are loaded. Better implementations use their own map data, overlaid with their own points of interest. The advantages of having many pictures of a property rather than one should be obvious. Nonetheless, 9% of top MLS listing websites still show only one picture per property. “Virtual tours” were a hot idea years ago, but the implementations mostly looked like slideshows with perhaps a little wiggle here and there to simulate motion. Most virtual tours still have that limitation, and are displayed by only 13% of sites.
- Personalizing Your Searches – 46% of sites allow the consumer to save searches, 24% allow the consumer to receive email updates on properties and 24% allow the consumer to compare listings side by side. Features allowing consumers to save searches and/or listings and receive email updates are crucial for the long-term usability of the website by consumers and should be implemented by more than a minority of websites.
- Sharing and Printing Properties – A supermajority of sites (73%) allow you to send an email with a listing to a friend, and a similar number (78%) give you a version of a property detail page that is formatted so that you can print it easily. 45% of sites let you post a link to a property detail page to social media sites, such as Facebook and Pinterest, so that you can share the specs on that dream house with your friends.
- Neighborhood Features – Although having a full range of visuals and data about a home’s immediate property is undeniably the central issue for homebuyers, most also would like to have a clear sense of the home’s neighborhood. In this respect, most MLS websites provide scant information, and would do well to beef up their offerings. Similarly, MLS websites provide prospective homebuyers with little information about the neighborhoods themselves. Providing information beyond the listings themselves – especially neighborhood and points-of-interest information – is absolutely critical for MLS websites that wish to be competitive.
- Visiting and Choosing a Property – Once a homebuyer has identified several properties of interest, he or she may want to compare their features. Currently 24% of MLS sites enable browsers to compare properties side by side.
- Costs of an Individual House – Information about comparable sales, a house’s sale history, and local market trends can help a buyer make an informed decision. Unfortunately, only 27% of sites offer historical and statistical information.
- Advertisement and Policies – Advertisements are a way for an MLS to monetize its site and connect consumers with services they may need during the home buying process. At the same time, they may detract from a site’s appearance of objectivity and authority. 16% of sites display advertisements.
- Appearance of Sites – Use white space and “normal” size fonts as appropriate. Don’t treat the listing page like a data dump. You are not paying by the pixel. Make it easy for people to read the listings.
- Accessibility – International buyers and non-English speakers represent a growing number of purchasers of U.S. homes, especially in multicultural markets such as New York, Texas, and Florida. Public MLS sites that present a user interface in a buyer’s language have an advantage. Only 8% of sites currently offer multiple languages, up from under 1% in 2009.
- Mobile – In 2009, the category of mobile real estate sites did not exist. Today, technology companies sell more mobile phones than computers. The real estate industry has simply not caught up; it is seriously lagging behind. Less than 50% of MLSs have mobile sites. This is a missed opportunity and a crucial area in which MLSs must rise to the challenge, given that, according to NAR, 61% of consumers on a tablet or phone who visit a website that isn’t mobile friendly leave the site immediately and may never come back.
- Search Engine Optimization – Only 36% of MLS sites received a PageRank of 4 or 5 and others were even lower. This is not particularly good, considering that PageRank tops out at a rating of “10.” Only 41% of sites studied had listings indexed by Google! The benefits afforded by having all of the listings indexed and the “long tail” search should not be underestimated. A prime example of the high rankings that can be achieved by a MLS public website is the Houston Association website at www.HAR.com
- MLS Data Security – While consumers are the main audience of your MLS listings site, there is another hidden audience, one that you don’t want. “Scrapers” are scanning your site, copying your data, and using it or reselling it for unlicensed purposes.
Realtor friendly MLS public websites are a big part of the movement to protect, control and monetize the data. Our hats off to Gregg Larson and Matt Cohen and the Clareity Consulting team for their monitoring of the evolution of MLS public websites.
TheDataAdvocate – MLS Public Websites