Google Defines MLS for its users - Market Study of MLS search phrase

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One of the most popular threads recently at the Real Estate Webmasters forum iss titled "MLS Committee moves to ban "MLS" from Realtor sites". It's about the MLS boards now having the authority to restrict their members' use of the acronym "MLS" (Multiple Listings Service).

Why would the MLS boards want to restrict use?

Great question, and each MLS board will likely have a different answer for you – but the general defense of this action is that the MLS board does not want consumers to get confused between THE "MLS" for a particular area, and a Realtor's website.

Their argument is that if Realtors are allowed to publish phrases like "Search the Minneapolis MLS", they are misleading consumers and web surfers, because on a Realtor website, one typically cannot search all data that's available on the full MLS, since Realtor websites are restricted to showing a limited subset of the data (typically, the active listings).

Why would Realtors want to use the acronym MLS in their web copy?

Over time, the use of "MLS" has become part of the vernacular, synonymous with "home search" due in large part to its common use in speech during interactions between agents and their clients. So now, when an Internet user (a buyer) wants to peruse available inventory in a particular area, they go to their favourite search engine (Google by far dominates this sphere) and type in the area + MLS as a search term (such as "Minneapolis MLS").

Now, are these consumers actually looking for the MLS Board's website? Of course not – most of them likely do not even know that an MLS Board exists (that is something that Realtors and MLS boards need to know). What the consumer is looking for, is a list of homes for sale in their area.

What they may not know they need, or should likely have, is a "buyers agent" to assist them with their home search, thus Realtors include the acronym "MLS" on their websites so that the search engine will position them highly in the search results and put their professional services (as a Realtor and buyers agent) in front of the web surfer along with access to available inventory. (Which gives the customer exactly what they were looking for.)

This position in the search engines is very valuable to a Realtor because they are able to make contact (generate a lead) and market themselves to their target audience ( buyers in this case) via the inclusion of this acronym in combination with popular modifiers (area MLS, area MLS listings) etc.

Ok so there is a small history lesson, but isn't this post titled "Google defines MLS for its users"?

Yes it is – I was about to get to that. If you notice in the last section I bolded my statement that most Internet users searching for MLS related terms "do not even know that an MLS Board exists". Pardon the pun, but some might think that I've made a pretty bold statement here :)

Now the argument can be made that both my opinions and the MLS boards' / NAR's opinions are biased – in fact I concede this fact completely – but for Google, this is a different story.

Google is the most dominant search engine on the planet because their search results are "relevant", meaning that when a user types something into Google they find what they are looking for. One might say Google's an expert in defining what a word or phrase means to the majority of users of the term – so when I started thinking of how to argue that search engine users are actually looking for homes for sale (which Realtor websites provide via their own listings and display of active listings in the MLS) I decided to ask Google what they thought.

Did I actually ask Google? No, of course not. My method was actually quite simple – I chose 5 popular major metropolitan areas in the United States based on where our community seemed to have a lot of members.

These areas were:

  • San Diego (CA)
  • Nashville (TN)
  • Austin (TX)
  • Orange County (CA)
  • Minneapolis (MN)

For each area I typed in "[area] MLS" and inspected the top 10 results. In each instance, Google returned far more Realtor websites than anything else. In fact in all cases at least 8 of the top 10 results returned were websites owned by and promoting Realtors.

Here are my results:

  • San Diego MLS
    Google - Realtor websites in top 10 search results:  8
  • Nashville MLS
    Google - Realtor websites in top 10 search results:  8
  • Austin MLS
    Google - Realtor websites in top 10 search results:  8
  • Orange County MLS
    Google - Realtor websites in top 10 search results:  8
  • Denver MLS
    Google - Realtor websites in top 10 search results:  9
  • Minneapolis MLS
    Google - Realtor websites in top 10 search results:  9

So what does this tell me?

Google, an expert in defining what search terms mean to their users, clearly favors Realtor websites as the appropriate results to return when geo-specific MLS keywords are used in their search engine.

Now if MLS boards choose to ban the use of the acronym MLS on their Realtor sites, it stands to reason that searchers will be disappointed the next time they do a search, because they won't find these sites that Google has already defined (on a level playing field) as the most appropriate results for their users.

Here is where it gets bad for everyone!

The acronym MLS is not trademarked by the NAR or any MLS board, in fact it is currently held by Major League Soccer. But I digress – what is really bad about this whole situation is that IF an MLS board bans the use of the acronym MLS on Realtor websites, they effectively limit ONLY the quality Realtor websites that appear in the search – however these boards have absolutely no control over non member websites such as lead resellers, FSBO websites, and other such competition for their own members.

At best, this will mean that Realtors will now have to pay high prices (per lead) to lead resellers who now have an unfair advantage in competing for buyers. And the customer is forced to jump through at least one more hoop to get where they eventually wanted to be in the first place, and that place is in the quality care of a buyers agent and Realtor.

At worst, a large segment of the market is completely diverted into FSBO websites or other alternative and less favorable avenues for home purchase. The customer no longer enjoys the protection that a professional organization such as the NAR offers; they have a less positive buying experience; and this adds yet another negative aspect to a US real estate market that has had its fair share of challenges in converting customers this year.

NAR – you need to rethink your position here and LISTEN TO YOUR REALTORS! This is no good for either of us – not my customers nor your members (and believe it or not we are on the same side, or at least should be, because my customers ARE your members).

I would encourage anyone who agrees with this article to publish responses in your own blog – share your thoughts and feelings regarding this issue. Participate in our various community and forum threads, comment on this post and LINK TO THIS post, with any phrase you feel will get the attention of media, or influential members of NAR, your local boards, and anyone else who will listen.

If you would like to link to this post, simply cut and paste the following html into your website's source code and save it:

Attention NAR - Important MLS phrase use discussion

If "Attention NAR - Important MLS phrase use discussion" as anchor text is too long, feel free to change it to anything you feel is appropriate.

Comments

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arenetwork

I agree with your analogy of what the term MLS has come to mean and why Realtors should not be hampered from using it on their websites. But, I disagree with your inference of "good" or bad" for the industry based on where the shift of advantage focus is placed ...Realtor vs. Reseller. We as webmasters have a function to perform, as well. That is to create and promote web sites on the Internet for profit. Realtors are supposed to sell Real Estate. Who is crossing who?

Jason Painter

This is a terrific article Morgan. Thank you for putting into words what many of us Realtors are thinking. I'm hoping the individual boards reject this new addition to the Realtor Code of Ethics as it is only harming Realtors and Consumers, and helping non-Realtors compete for this business.

Morgan Carey

Arenetwork - I certainly anticipated a response from the webmasters / resellers on this issue as well. Of course it is great for them (I am not sure if you are one of them) - they just received a gift from the MLS boards and the NAR in the form of the complete elimination of competition for a vast amount of search engine terms and clicks. I am a webmaster as well - and believe it or not I DO stand to benefit from the passing of this judgement. I mean realestatewebmasters.com receives hundreds of thousands of visitors every year from search engines for MLS related terms due to the great articles and forum contributions of our members, so taking the competition from Realtors out of the way only increases my exposure. Also - I have quite a few Realtors as customers that have used my web development and SEO services on domains containing MLS in them (Which at the time they purchased them) was completely acceptable practice and a non issue. These customers are loyal, and have seen the results we achieve through SEO and are happy with our services. If they were forced to relinquish their MLS related domains through no fault of REW, I have no doubt (Although they would hate being forced to start from scratch) that they would do it all over again and use us as their vendor, generating a large influx of profit for my company. So I stand to gain quite a bit from this - but the fact of the matter is, it is unfair, and unjust and that is why I have a problem with it. I would rather see those same customers spend money on further development of their websites and exposure to earn more profit as opposed to having to spend their reserves and start over, the whole time being without the income they (And their teams often times in excess of 20 agents) have come to rely on. Besides - Many of these customers I have come to think of as friends, and I would hate to see them suffer due to something as poorly thought out or implemented as a complete ban on the use of the phrase MLS in websites.

Morgan Carey

Jason, thank you for the compliment :)

Sam Chapman

You just know that someone from NAR or a local board is going to see this, which is why I am suggesting that you get the word REALTOR® in all caps with the registration mark as this is the NAR standard. And if someone from a local board decides to do the City MLS search, they will find sites using the term MLS in a way it isn't supposed to be used. They then may decide to fine the folks using the term improperly. Having said that, excellent post.

Jason Painter

Sam, I think you may be missing the point. Anybody OTHER than a REALTOR® can use the term MLS in their site, URL, web addresses, or anything else as they please. NAR does not own the rights to this term. Only REALTORS® will be fined. This opens up the MLS portal buisness to non-REALTORS® and then they will just sell the leads back to us. This is the real issue at hand. None of these sites will dissapear, they will just be ran by non-REALTORS®.

Jennifer Mackay

I recently sent this comment to NAR regarding this position: Quote: By prohibiting the use of "MLS" from members advertising you have essentially jeopordized thousands of us who rely on the ability to make a living using the internet as a tool and advertising medium. By NAR's own estimates, roughly 80% of home buyers use the internet first. With this move, you have basically removed NAR members from a major revenue factor for their businesses and placed it completely unregulated in the hands of lead sellers and non NAR members who are constantly attempting to "sell back" to NAR members leads and customers we should be and ARE obtaining on our own! Why would you even consider taking a major income generator away from NAR members and placing it carte blanche in the hands of non members and our competition? We are REALTORS® for a reason! We value the ethics in place for doing business as REALTORS. We do not value having our businesses hampered while non-members gain substantial advantages over us! Do not remove the ability for us to be successful on the internet and place us at the mercy of non-member listing services who will be freely able to use the term "MLS" in all their advertising. How does that follow ethical real estate practices? I certainly hope for all our sakes they listen to their members. If not, why bother being a member if they continue to assault members business' practices and place us at the mercy of conglomerate real estate sites?

Steve Didier

Great post. My opinion is the same as everybody else's - if the NAR is truly an organization that has the best interests of it's members at heart, this shouldn't even be a discussion. It seems ridiculous to me that they would even consider this. It is painfully clear that only the re-sellers would reap any benefit, while there are many, many REALTORS that would suffer greatly. I fail to see how this would benefit even those agents who do not make use of the acronym MLS in their site of URLs (except of course the elimination of some of their competition). Hopefully together we can all fight this successfully.

Malok

Great article and follow up discussion, Morgan. Unless the NAR is able to impose penalties/fines for non-members use of the term MLS (which it appears that they won't be able to) - restricting the use of the term for NAR members does nothing to benefit the NAR, its members or the real estate buyers/sellers that are searching for the term in the first place. The only persons that would benefit from the restriction would be the NON-members. The NAR spending the fees/dues that are collected from its members and taking the time/money/effort to "help" the competition seems absurdly paradoxical.

MLS Update

The argument the MLS's give that 'Search the MLS' is false advertising is a straw man. Customers using the ' MLS' search term are not seeking the sold, opt-out, or pending listings. They want listings that are public and available. Maybe a requirement of a disclaimer saying "This portion of the MLS is incomplete and will not contain any active listings from Brokers who choose to opt-out of the Broker Reciprocity program." Companies use disclaimers all the time to avoid false advertising, why not the MLS's? "Where available", "on approved credit", "while quantities last", etc. all help clarify the situation to the public. It does not appear that the MLS's are too concerned about clarifying this situation.

Keith Lutz

Here is one way someone is trying to fool the public in my area. This is not even wikipedia! http: //www. charlottemls. com/ , since we have the same restrictions as Jim Jackson stated here in Charlotte. If it does come down to being prohibited, give your MLS website to your Non-Realtor spouse, pointing to your new website.

judyo

Great post, Morgan. I offer VOW on my website which I pay extra for. It also requires registration but we have many brokers that did opt out of IDX & it only offers a fraction of our active listings. I do use a disclaimer that my search offers all active listings in the MLS. Yet I just received a decease & resist order from my local board.

judyo

Ooops, wish I could edit my above comment - I meant "cease & desist" - LOL!

Sam Trevino

Wow, I am currently obtaining my Texas real estate license. I am still learning and educating myself on issues in real estate, but this particular issue seems pretty significant. The Austin Board of Realtors (ABOR) is restricting the term of Multiple Listing Service (MLS) on member websites. If I understand the arguments correctly I could stand to benefit more if I were simply a licensed real estate agent and not a Realtor. I could then utilize the National Association of Realtor's (NAR) banned MLS terminology and effectively market my real estate services online. I could then offer links on my website to home search sites that access MLS data (e.g. Google Beta, austinhomesearch.com, trulia.com, etc.). Of course I would have to consult with an attorney to determine any legal issues of linking to such sites under such terms. I could also simply create a database for any non-Realtor broker I work under based on their listings and any other cooperating broker's listings. I would also not have to pay for the privilege of having such an economic advertising benefit banned. If this issue is as I perceive it to be, NAR and subsequently ABOR, limiting it's members economically is plain stupid. Also Jim Jackson made a comment on retention of power. Based on what I've researched thus far I would have to agree. However, this action, by ABOR, may have a backlash, especially in Austin, Tx where I have been reading significant complaints of the roll out of the new MLS data management tool for Realtors. ABOR has strategically positioned themselves to be assaulted by an entrepreneurial competitor, say a group of brokers who break from ABOR and form a new MLS type service or even an independent or open MLS service to compete against ABOR's ACTRIS. Think about it, a competitive MLS that does not have the restrictions of ABOR. Such an entity could be launched since NAR or ABOR do not own the MLS terminology. Of course I could be way off base I am a newbie, but I sense opportunity here with the synthesis of these foolish actions. Just my limited opinion.

Gary Ashton

Morgan, I maybe biased but I think you hit the nail on the head when it comes to the publics perception as to the meaning of MLS. It just means "homes for sale" that they can see and review that are listed for sale by realtors. FSBO means the same thing but for homes that do not involve a realtor. Much the same as people constantly use the phrase "whois" to see who owns the domain most people don't care who has the source data just as long as they can see it! The whole issue is raising its ugly head because of a "nameless" realtor in Nashville that was quoted in the recent INMAN news article as follows: A Nashville-area Realtor said there should be greater enforcement of the standard relating to the presentation of a true picture in Realtor Web addresses because those Realtors that use MLS terms in their Web addresses may have an unfair competitive advantage over other Realtors. This surely highlights the reason for this agents interest in the ethics violation as he is worried about competition...not ethics in misleading the public!

thataway61

Thats right Gary, and there is an infinite number of URL's that could be obtained with MLS in it so they can level the playing field for themselves. Truth of the matter is they just don't get it.

Jonathan G

MLS is history. We have the internet for mass consumer use for at least a decade now. MLS is trying to fight advances in technology because technology replaces MLS.

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