Sarasota Association of Realtors Domain Theft - Fight SAR MLS Support Our Members
This is a long post but it is very important to me personally and it is also important to all REALTORS® – Please read the entire post (especially the end) as a very good friend of mine, Marc Rasmussen, is going through a very hard time right now – I owe him my support, and as a community, as hard working realtors and webmasters we all need to stick together and support each other in dark times such as Marc is going through right now.
Many of you might not already know: One of Real Estate Webmasters's proudest achievements and flagship portfolio websites is gone – I redirected it to another domain.
Because this is one of our oldest design / SEO projects, I have received many concerned or curious emails, private messages and phone calls (thank you for your interest and support btw), most to the effect of:
That was one of my favorite sites that you ever did. Last time I checked it was ranking #1 for everything in his market and he must have been getting a ton of traffic and leads, I just went there and it redirected to a new site www.luxurysarasotarealestate.com – but I have to know, why would you / Marc get rid of such a killer site and risk losing all those rankings?
- Why would I redirect a website that is a flagship for our portfolio?
- Why would I redirect a website that I was so proud of?
- Why would I redirect a website that had hundreds of #1 and thousands of top 10 search engine rankings?
- Why would I redirect a website that generated over 700 unique visitors per day?
- "Are you or Marc out of your mind?"
Why, you ask? Because we had no choice... Details below
Like many Realtors, Marc purchased his domain when he knew absolutely nothing about the Internet (this was back in 2003). He read up on domains and search engines and encountered the usual information available back in the day – you know, it's important to have keywords in your domain, think about things that people type in when looking for houses for sale, or a Realtor.
He went down the list: "AreaRealEstate.com? Nope, that's gone. AreaHomes.com? Nope, some Realtor beat me to it. AreaMLS.com? – OMG this is impossible, everything is gone!" What he ended up with was TheSarasotaMLS.com – "Are you kidding me? That was all that was available?" – I think we have all been there. That's how it goes really, there are only so many domains available and when you are late to the game, you kind of have to take whatever domain another Realtor or domain squatter hasn't taken yet. "Ok my domain sucks but when life gives you lemons..."
Marc ended up purchasing an Advanced Access website and started out on his journey towards local Internet domination, and he did pretty well. So well, in fact, that he managed to get first page search engine rankings for several terms including "Sarasota real estate", "Sarasota homes for sale", and yes, even "Sarasota MLS" – but working on his own search engine optimization (as anyone who works as hard and is as driven as Marc is will tell you) was incredibly time consuming, and ridiculously hard to keep up with (especially fighting an uphill battle due to the unfriendly nature of Advanced Access websites) – in fact to stay at the top, you basically have to stop being a Realtor for half of your day (every day) just to keep the positions you have already worked so hard to get – at some point you need to bite the bullet and hand your baby over to the professionals... I think everyone knows who he hired.
It was May 2005 when Marc came to me – Real Estate Webmasters was in its infancy (a year or so old) – in fact at that time it was not a company, it was a discussion board about search engine marketing and real estate that I had set up to facilitate communication between myself, my staff, a few Internet marketing friends and the SEO clients that I had in real estate at the time (I probably had less than 10). Our membership totaled 1000 or so, however probably half of them at the time were spam bots that I had banned but hadn't purged yet – in all reality there was probably less than 50 truly active members (Marc was member 303).
I can't tell you what an honor it is for me when someone who has worked so hard, putting their heart and soul into something that their livelihood depends on, hands their baby over to me and trusts me to take over such an important project. Their future and everything they have accomplished and are proud of, is now in my hands – you can be damn sure, that I am going to do my best to make sure that I take care of what was so carefully entrusted to me ... to this day, I have never forgotten.
So what happened next? Nothing much, really. All Marc, myself and my team did was spend hundreds of hours, and for Marc tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars, building one of the most dominant local real estate websites the Internet has ever seen. As I referenced above, we ramped that puppy up so tight it was generating over 700 unique visitors per day! (And this is in the local real estate market of Sarasota, which has a population of less than 55,000).
Yes, my team and I got paid well for the work we did, "we earned it" and am I proud of the work that we did and what we accomplished.
But you know what I am much more proud of? Marc Rasmussen
I can tell you right now, the hours (hundreds of them), the hard work and the creativity that myself and my team put into that website are nothing compared to the hours, the blood, sweat and tears that Marc contributed. He truly embodies the spirit and understanding of "you get out of something what you put into it" – for us to have achieved what we did – I think you might begin to appreciate just how much Marc put into this project. How many hours of reading, learning, trial and error – the effort staggers me even now. How much time that he sacrificed, away from his wife and children – all of the things that he gave up in order to be able to take care of that family as only a truly great husband and father would do.
From client to friend...
You don't spend the amount of time with someone that I have with Marc, the late night phone calls or messenger conversations, the occasional disagreements, and not either develop a pretty serious hatred for the person or become true friends. I am lucky enough to call Marc Rasmussen my friend. Together we were able to achieve something amazing – a true testament to hard work, creativity, patience and ingenuity. TheSarasotaMLS.com and my relationship with Marc not only helped me build my business and this community into what it is today, it set a new standard for real estate websites and collaboration between Realtor and webmaster.
And now it's gone...
Redirected into oblivion – all our hard work, all our time spent, all that we have earned is gone because certain members of the Sarasota MLS board arbitrarily decided that it would be a good idea for them to do everything in their power to destroy what we had worked so hard to earn.
Why? Only they know why – but I have a few theories.
At the top of my list – ENVY.
Just who are these members of the board that voted to have Marc harassed and persecuted to the point that he felt he had no other choice than to redirect the domain in one final attempt to retain some portion of what we have worked so hard to achieve? They are other local Realtors, Marc's competition. The fact of the matter is we have held #1 rankings in Google and other search engines for virtually every coveted term in the Sarasota market. In the nearly 4 years that we have worked together, we have seen contenders come and go, throw thousands of dollars at wannabe knock off websites, hire the "best and the brightest" in the SEM world and probably spend a ton of their own time – only to fall short of their goal, and that goal is to dethrone us from our top search engine perch.
You members of the Sarasota MLS board should be ashamed of yourselves! You have every opportunity and a completely level playing field to compete with us. So you couldn't beat us? TRY HARDER! That is what you should have done – we would have welcomed the challenge, and win or lose you could have maintained your dignity and integrity – but instead you took the low road and waited like jackals for any opportunity to motivate and coerce your fellow board members into taking unfair and completely unjust action. This opportunity came in the form of "Article 12 of the National Association of Realtors Code of Ethics".
For those that don't know – I don't want to detract from the purpose of this post so I will be brief in my explanation of Article 12. In a nutshell – the NAR adopted a new stance on the use of the acronym "MLS" in a Realtor's domain name – basically stipulating that "at their discretion" MLS boards could adopt new policies prohibiting the use of MLS in a Realtor's domain. In my opinion, the NAR did not practice any measure of responsible due diligence before adopting this addition to the COE and it was extremely poorly received by its membership as evidenced by the extreme negative reaction by the Realtor / webmaster community as a whole and the emergence of several petition websites such as "Free The MLS" aimed at convincing the NAR to overturn their ruling.
Ryan Ward put it very poignantly when he stated
"In an effort to help to protect consumers, the NAR has set on a path of unintended consequences which will be more detrimental to the consumer than the intent of the initial change."
National Association of Realtors – if you are reading this, perhaps you now understand the impact that your decision has made – here we have a perfect example of "unintended consequences" opening the door for unjust persecution of one of your own members – I don't believe that it was your intention (or that you were even aware) that your decision would be used, not as a tool for the protection of the public as it was intended, but as a catalyst to inspire a plethora of witch hunts targeting Realtors – and who is targeting them? Other Realtors – specifically their local competition.
Back to our story...
You can bet that as soon as the Realtor vs. Realtor MLS domain name issue began to heat up, certain envious members of the Sarasota Association of Realtors seized the opportunity to convince other members (through misinterpretation or misdirection – my opinion) that something must be done about this Mr Rasmussen and his domain – after all, it has MLS in it.
Let's slap him with an ethics violation..
That's right – we were off to an ethics hearing. After years of using the domain name in good faith and with absolutely no intention of ever misleading the public in any way, we are all of a sudden forced to appear in front of the ethics counsel and defend our use of the domain name to a jury of Marc's peers. I say "we" because Marc is my friend, and you can bet that when that hearing was started, I was sworn in by a notary public as a professional witness for the defence to attempt to convince these people, Marc's peers, that not only were we acting in good faith, but that we were not attaining any unfair advantage through the use of this domain.
We pleaded our case, we articulated the facts and attempted to convince the panel that Marc's domain choice was an innocent and harmless event – we stated that at no time was any attempt made to convince our website visitors that instead of a Realtor's website, they were in fact at the official MLS site. In fact the website was clearly labeled with Marc's name, and a disclaimer explaining that his domain was NOT in fact the Sarasota Association of Realtors website, but a website owned and operated by an individual Realtor who offered assistance to buyers and sellers of residential properties in Sarasota Florida, and the surrounding markets.
And we won...
Marc is prohibited from discussing the outcome of his hearing, however I think it is fair to assume, that because after the hearing I was not asked to remove the domain nor did Marc transfer its ownership to the association, that he won his ethics hearing. This is supported by the fact that after the conclusion of the hearing the Sarasota Association of Realtors proceeded to escalate their persecution of Marc's ownership to the next level.
ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) is a regulatory body charged with the responsibility to mediate and resolve domain disputes. After losing their attempt to find Marc guilty of any wrongdoing or ethical violation (as decided by a jury of his peers) the Sarasota Association of Realtors filed a complaint with ICANN – here is their official contention:
Complainant contends that the disputed domain name is identical or confusingly similar to service marks in which Complainant has common law trademark/service mark rights. They are: “Sarasota MLS,” “Sarasota Multiple Listing Service,” “Sarasota Association of Realtors MLS,” and “Sarasota Association of Realtors Multiple Listing Service.” The SARASOTA MLS mark is at issue here. Complainant asserts that Respondent has no rights or legitimate interests in the disputed domain name and that Respondent operates a website using the domain name to mislead the public to believe that Respondent is the source or has control of the Sarasota Multiple Listing Service. Complainant alleges that Respondent registered and is using the domain name in an effort to attract Internet users to his website for commercial gain by taking advantage of confusion with the Complainant’s mark and creating an impression that Complainant sponsors, endorses, is affiliated with or controlled by Respondent.
Yes, you read that right – even AFTER a jury of his peers found that Marc was in no way attempting to misrepresent himself as the official Sarasota MLS or was attempting to use his domain name to confuse the public, they STILL filed a complaint with ICANN.
What happened next, I will never understand...
Marc lost at his ICANN hearing and it was ordered that thesarasotamls.com domain name be TRANSFERRED from Marc's ownership to The Sarasota Association of Realtors.
I could not believe what I was reading when I was sent the decision (which is public domain) – I have read and re-read the entire document and perhaps I am biased, but it seems that out of the committee only Diane Cabell managed to get it right.
In reading the dissent she says:
This Panelist is not convinced that Complainant established common law trademark rights prior to the registration of the domain. None of Complainant’s historical exhibits showed a specific intention of using the term in a trademark sense; the term was used interchangeably as both a noun and adjective and never included any trademark symbol. Symbols are not, of course, required, however Complainant had faithfully applied the symbol to its Sarasota Association of Realtors trademarks where they appeared in the same Exhibits. My conclusion from the Exhibits is that Complainant used the term as the descriptive name of its database and gave no thought to any trademark status until Respondent and other realtors began using MLS in domain names. I find insufficient evidence of trademark rights.
The board has no trademark rights to the domain or the phrase
In addition, Respondent submitted evidence that a major trade association publication advised local realtors to include the term “MLS” in their domain registration specifically to drive traffic to their sites; while the trade association may since have changed its opinion about that matter, the fact remains that Respondent had a reasonable basis for relying on the recommendation at the time when the domain was registered.
Even the NAR was advocating (in fact recommending) that Marc select the domain that he settled on
Lastly, the trade group’s ethics panel declined to censure Respondent for this domain registration. Whether or not Respondent had any right to present the ethics decision in this case is a matter for the ethics panel to determine, but use of the decision here does nothing to prove that Respondent had any bad faith intention at the time the domain was registered. I do not find the ethics opinion dispositive, but only one more link in the chain of evidence that Respondent believed he had a legitimate right to do as he did when he registered the domain. Complainant’s remedy against bad faith use is under US law for which an action may be brought without regard to the domain registrant’s good faith at the time of registration. The UDRP, however, requires that both registration and use be in bad faith. I find no evidence of bad faith registration.
No evidence of bath faith registration? So why the decision in favor of the association? It makes no sense. It makes no sense to me, and it makes no sense to Marc, it even made no sense to Diane Cabell and she was on the tribunal. I am truly hoping that you, the readers will find this unjust decision as appalling as I do and help us make a stand here and now.
September's Google Analytics Report for TheSarasotaMLS.com – Sarasota Association of Realtors, are you satisfied?
What's done is done – now let's end this...
At this point, I think it is safe to say that Marc would be more than happy to move onto more productive things (like closing deals so that he can support his family) and I am hoping that the Sarasota Association of Realtors will be reasonable. However, based on their track record thus far, I am not confident that they will listen to reason.
In a perfect world – this sort of thing wouldn't happen but it did... if it were completely up to me, I would setttle with
The association would settle with respect to the current legal proceedings, allowing me to maintain control of the domain name for the sole purpose of being able to continue a series of custom redirects I have designed to allow us to conserve some portion of the authority that "we" have built over the years. Let us keep what we have worked so hard to build.
I would agree to never place another website on the domain or have it hosted at any time – it would stay a redirect and for all intents and purposes no longer exist, except as said redirect.
I would agree to remove this blog post from public view so that the Sarasota Association of Realtors can avoid any further embarrassment and salvage some portion of their reputation.
But it is not up to me, it's really Marc's call, I am just here to support him and hopefully the board will be willing to work something out.
The alternative: What we are prepared to do... Members, this is where Marc and I NEED YOUR HELP!
We need to let the Sarasota Association of Realtors, the National Association of Realtors, our peers and the general public know that this travesty of justice exists, and will not be tolerated.. If this kind of persecution is able to be swept under the rug then there is nothing to stop it from happening again – whether to another member of our community, or some Realtor unknown to us does not matter – it is not right, it is not ethical and if the associations who choose this path are not careful, someone will take them to task in the supreme court and I would not be surprised to find out that it is not legal.
How you can help resolve this matter:
Here are some ways you can help support us:
Send a letter / email to SAR...
...(the Sarasota Association of Realtors) asking them to listen to reason. Feel free to reference this post in any communications. If enough of us express our concern towards this kind of behaviour, perhaps they will realize the potential far-reaching implications of this situation and choose the better part of valor, and avoid a very public and potentially very embarrassing scandal.
Send a letter / email to NAR...
...(the National Association of Realtors) asking them to please reconsider their position on article 12. I think one of the most serious "unintended consequences" of their decision was that predatory Realtors / Associations use the decision out of context in attempts (like this one) to cause irreparable harm to another member's livelihood and earned search engine positioning (which, by the way, has nothing to do with the words being in the domain name).
Send emails to your peers:
Send a blast email to your contact list (your peers or anyone else who would care to stand up for someone's rights). The more awareness we can create, the more likely it is that we can apply enough pressure to the Association to convince them to listen to reason.
Write a blog post:
Syndicating quality content on the Internet is what we do, and it is one of the most effective ways to reach the millions of readers who would be appalled by this situation and be willing to help. Linking to this blog post and others like it will assist it in generating exposure in the search engines which will add additional exposure for the cause. Also through sharing different takes on a united perspective – perhaps SAR will find enough compelling comments and decide to settle and let us keep our redirect.
How you can help support Marc: Please try to find the time to do all of these if you can — again, I (we) would truly appreciate it
Marc is going through a really hard time right now, as you can imagine. This situation has put an enormous amount of stress on his shoulders – this is his business and personal life and his financial situation (fighting against associations with much deeper pockets than you is not easy, even when you are right – lawyers are not cheap).
Post a supporting comment:
Show your support for Marc and our cause by posting a supportive comment here at the blogs.
Send Marc a private message or contact form
His new website is located at http://www.luxurysarasotarealestate.com – if you would like to wish him well and show your support privately (several of our great members already have) then visit http://www.luxurysarasotarealestate.com and click on the contact link and send him a nice message – I would really appreciate it, because I know he could use it right now.
Send Marc's new website a link:
To say that Marc is worried about his rankings and losing all of the great work that we have done is the understatement of the century. There are no guarantees that SAR will settle, and if they do not there is still the potential that Marc could lose the domain name. If this happens, we are back to square one, and it will take years to develop the kind of authority that we have already earned. Any place you can spare a link from domains you control to assist Marc's new domain http://www.luxurysarasotarealestate.com will be truly appreciated. (Linking from any blog posts you write would be a great place to start.) It won't change the fact that we have to do it all over again, but it will help us recover more quickly – so thank you in advance.