Why the MLS Needs to Tell Google Who Owns the Listing

googleAs I and countless others have written here and elsewhere, real estate companies are no longer the “keepers of the gate” when it comes to consumers and property data. According to Google however, in the ZMOT (Zero Moment of Truth) consumers do spend a lot of time looking at property information online, and the competition for the consumer’s eye is fierce and ongoing.

The “Great Syndication Wars” of the early 21st century are far from over, and it is a slow week when there is not a conversation or article or blog post and IDX feeds, syndication and the role of the MLS published somewhere by someone who talks about the challenge real estate companies face in being found by the real estate consumer. And it is even a slower week when a real estate agent of broker doesn’t receive a number of email solicitations from individuals or companies that claim to be able to increase their SEO through some arcane manipulation of the interwebz to foil Google’s attempts to return relevant results to consumers where their search engine is employed. But Google’s value proposition to consumers lies, in great degree, in their ability to provide relevant search results, and they work diligently to make sure that the efforts to “tilt the playing field” are countered so that the most relevant returns are provided on every search.

One of the ways Google ensures relevancy is through Author and Canonical tags. These tags provide information about what piece of content published to the web is the “original” and who the author of a specific piece of content is. By adding 2 fields to the property data collected by the MLS, we would increase the SEO for the web site of the real estate firm who has the listing for that property. every participating broker would immediately increase the relevance of their web site in Google’s eyes, making them more likely to be found by a consumer looking for property in their marketplace.

The technical conversation about these two tags has already been started by Gahlord Dewald in his Inman news column. Since Gahlord and my friend Mark Lesswing of NAR were my two “go to guys” about the technical feasibility of this, I would suggest reading those columns if you have any questions about how this works – my purpose here is to discuss the business benefits to the industry and how this could be implemented to benefit the members of every MLS in the country.

Of course, every action raises questions about the whys and wherefores, and what better place to ask and answer some of those questions than right here.

Why Should we do this?

The first and most obvious answer is that we should do this because it is the right thing to do and it helps present a “true picture” as required under Article 12 of the NAR Code of Ethics. Further it benefits the members of the MLS at little or no cost. Every brokerage that has a web site wants that website to be found by consumers. Assigning the author and canonical tags to the listing broker provides every one of those brokerage websites with additional SEO.

Why should the Listing Brokerage receive any SEO benefit from the use of the tags?

Why not? Without the participation of these brokerages there would be no “stock” for the MLS, and nothing for the consumer to see. Doing this is no different that adding the name of the listing broker to every one of their listings that are displayed, as every MLS already does. Doing this merely tells Google in a meaningful way what the MLS mandates as part of their listing display.

Why  Brokerage sites instead of Agent’s web sites?

The first reason and the most compelling is that the legal relationship between the client and the real estate firm is based on their relationship with the brokerage. The second is that its far easier to implement and police. And finally, if the business model of the brokerage is such that they wish the consumer contacts generated by the web site to be distributed to the listing agents, its an easy matter for them to do so. Frankly, with the amount of concern about dual agency that I hear expressed all the time, distributing the consumer contacts to people other than the listing broker may be more prudent, but in any case, its an internal matter for each company.

Are we providing an unfair advantage for some brokerages over others?

Actually, vis a vis their relationship to each other, adding these tags is a “zero sum” game for the member brokers. While the brokerages with larger listing inventory benefit from the publication of a larger number of tags than offices with smaller listing inventories, if everyone gets some benefit from the use of tags on their listings , the impact is really seen in competition with websites that do not have the benefit of the use of author and canonical tags on the listing display information. In other words, the brokerage web sites gain more advantage over non-brokerage web sites than they do over each other.

Why Would Real Estate Brokerages Want their MLS to Add these fields to the IDX Feed?
By adding these fields, the listing broker would be seen by Google as a trusted source of property information, and the originator of new property information content every time a new listing is added to the IDX feed. It would, at no expense to them increase their SEO, and make their web site more relevant in the “eyes” of Google, making it easier for consumers to find.

Why Would an MLS Want to do This?
The integrity of property data is a primary concern of the MLS. Many of the rules and regulations of local MLSs are designed to insure that the information published is as accurate as possible. The publication of the listing brokerage in the author and canonical ages is nothing more than additional data accuracy. It is the equivalent of adding the listing broker name on each property in the IDX feed.

In addition. the MLS exists for the benefit of its members, to facilitate cooperation in real estate and act as a n engine to increase market efficiency in a fractured marketplace. Helping members achieve better SEO for their sites, at no cost to the MLS is a no-brainer. What MLS wants to take the position that it is uninterested in benefiting its members? What benefit could be better than increasing the ability of the consumer to find the member’s website? Even MLSs with public facing websites generally send the traffic directly to the listing company’s web site, and this is merely an extension of that philosophy

How would it Work?

It is really very simple. The tags are two extra fields added to each property in the feed. The cost of adding them is minimal, and the execution is really simple.Two simple fields identify the author and the canonical tags, they are opaque so they cannot be changed, they are placed in the idx fields supplied to syndicators with the restriction that if they (the syndicators) change the fields they lose the data feed, and the members each , in their own idx feeds get the tags that identify their site as the one deserving of trust and authority befitting the owner of those tags on their listing

Why Does The MLS Need to be Involved?

The MLS is the obvious mechanism for assuring inserting the tags and assuring that the tags are correct on each listings. The tags could be added the same way the Broker’s name is added to each listing. NAR’s code of ethics already prohibits placing misleading meta-tags, and the MLS can help members conform to the COE by automating this process for them. As the provider of IDX and MLS data feeds to syndicators, the MLS can also assure that Non-members don;t manipulate or modify these tags by making that a condition of the IDX feed. If the entities receiving the feed, or their affiliates, manipulate those fields, they lose the feed. Since most of them have business models that require an MLS data feed, they will certainly not risk losing it over something so simple.

Why would an MLS not want to be involved?

I truly don’t know. Perhaps they are distrustful of change. Perhaps they have some concern about how the aggregators might react. Perhaps the leadership is afraid of change. Or possibly because they are skeptical of ideas that originate from others. Perhaps they are waiting for others to do it before they try it. But every MLS executive I’ve spoken to face to face, ends the conversation by understanding how little it would cost, how much it will help their members, and how easy it would be to implement. So maybe we’ll get lucky and we won;t even need to have this questions raised…

What will this mean to ZIllow, Trulia, Realtor.com, and other sites?.

It means far less to them than it does to the brokerages across the country. They have groups of tech people whose job is to maximize their SEO. They are tech companies with long term strategies about reaching the consumer. This will require an adjustment for them, but nothing that will destroy their business or harm their income. Brokers on the other hand will receive a far more substantial benefit from the additional ongoing relevance this will provide to their sites while they are busy doing what they do best – listing and selling real estate.

Well, that’s all the questions I could think of. If you have more questions or comments on how best to promote the use of the author and canonical tags, I would love to hear them.

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21 comments for “Why the MLS Needs to Tell Google Who Owns the Listing

  1. May 6, 2013 at 11:39 am

    Technically speaking, the data needed to credit the author tag already exists in nearly RETS feed being produced by the MLS. However, the MLS, the franchisors, and the syndicators who provide listings to publishers all have their own motivations. Look at Trulia’s data pledge. They promise to list “The Source” of the listing. If the broker is not the source, who is? For Trulia, it’s the people delivering the feed. The reason an MLS might not want to be a part of this is that they want to be listed as the source, not the broker. I think I will write a blog post about this to explain further.

  2. May 6, 2013 at 12:35 pm

    How does it benefit the mls to be the source, Todd? I guess I will read your post. A consumer site on an mls gets SEO from Trulia listing them as the source of the data? Or does the mls get SEO? Credit? In an mls without a consumer facing site is there a reason the mls would want to be the source rather than the brokerage / listing agent?

  3. May 6, 2013 at 12:46 pm

    Bill,
    I’m not sure how an MLS would do this outside of placing the listing on the MLS public facing website which already hurts the broker, and then doing a rel=author link. All this will do is help the MLS public facing site outrank ZTR.

    What it effectively would do is stifle all SEO competition from the agents and brokers out there that currently use SEO as an advantage.

    In addition, something I’ve seen as a flawed argument for authorship in listings from the begining is that Google sees the listing on Zillow as completely different from on Trulia and on the broker site. Therefore unless you were able to speak directly to Google and have them change the way they handle listings and have a new method of proving who owned the listings (which they’d have to change their entire search algorithm to do that), they’ll still see listings from Zillow as authored by Zillow and the listing on the MLS website from the broker / agent. Then Google will decide who has more domain authority for that particular listing.

    One final item of note that I think was glossed over above: small listings would be heavily impacted by any decision such as this. Currently smaller brokers are competing by being more nimble and tech savvy. A change to allow this for a big broker would not be zero – sum. By having the authorship connected to the MLS public facing website, and then if they connected that account to the company’s website, that company could see a disproportionate increase in their rankings due to the authorship appearing so heavily on other places. Google has started to understand if you like things posted by someone. Therefore if a broker has 1000 listings and another has 10, when you view listings by the large broker, Google understands that and will potentially present options to you down the road that would be more heavily weighted to that broker instead of the smaller broker.

  4. May 6, 2013 at 1:00 pm

    While the basic concept has merit, having the MLS help a brokerage with SEO runs contrary to my basic theory of what I need from a brokerage: 1) pay me on time, 2) stay the hell out of my way.

  5. May 6, 2013 at 1:36 pm

    Well, the MLS may have a public facing site. Or, they may have a semi-public site that captures and delivers leads to the broker. The franchisors definitely are heavily invested as well and provide a significant share of listings to Trulia and Zillow. Even syndicators like ListHub have public facing property pages that Zillow and Trulia link to. They are trying to position themselves as the source of the leads to the broker. If Z&T are the middlemen of real estate leads, they are the middle middle men.

  6. Nick Bastian
    May 6, 2013 at 2:21 pm

    This one could get interesting, for sure.
    Dual/Duel agency conversations. 🙂
    Z T R conversations.
    Large vs Small brokerage conversations.
    Working with MLS providers conversations.
    Individual agent web site conversations.
    Broker vs. MLS provided tags conversations.
    etc. etc….

    I think I’ll park here for a while and see what else comes up…

  7. May 6, 2013 at 2:57 pm

    Eric; If the MLS provided an author and canonical tag on the MLS feed used by the broker for their own web site, the issue regarding public facing sites is eliminated. I’m not sure where you got the impression that I was advocating the use of the tags by the MLS on their sites, but that wasn’t the intent.
    As far as the issue of the larger broker versus the smaller broker, the fact that they both have the tags to help them in their individual efforts doesn’t change the ability of the smaller broker to be more agile and tech savvy.And the failure of the MLS to do this doesn’t allow them to manipulate the tags since Article 12 specifically prohibits the use of misleading tags, As a result on that issue, there should be no controversy. The greatest benefit is still reaped by the entire brokerage community as their web sites become more relevant sources to Google.

  8. May 6, 2013 at 3:02 pm

    Todd, I agree that everyone has their own horse in this race, but the MLS is not a stand alone business. It is an organization that is supposed to serve the needs of its members. And even when the MLS has a public facing web site, generally that site onyl directs the traffic back to the listing brokerages. Why not allow the listing brokerages to have the benefit of alerting Google to the truth of the matter – that they are the originators of the material?

  9. May 6, 2013 at 3:07 pm

    Bill,
    In this case you’re absolutely right, and that might provide LOTS of value to the brokerage! But I challenge you to call up any MLS CEO and say “Are you willing to give up all of the SEO on your public facing website to push your broker members.” Their answer will be “No and here’s why, our site is better and we have better consumer engagement” yadda yadda yadda. Perfect example- har.com I guarantee you they aren’t going to do anything that loses them their 1 million visitors. Doing rel=canonical would basically de-index every listing on their site.

    However, perhaps I misread something are you suggesting that Broker A has the listing and Broker B displays it on their website via an IDX agreement. That Broker B must then do rel=canonical back to Broker A on the listing? This would effectively kills the SEO of every single small brokerage. So while they may have a better mousetrap (their website and their interface), they won’t be able to get anyone to it without using traditional advertising. SEO for that brokerage site would be dead as would online competition. The biggest broker in the market would reign supreme and Google rankings would be based upon how large that broker was.

    If you’re saying ZTR do it, there is no way they would do that either due to the exact same reason. Overnight death of their pageviews / ad revenues. What is being asked for is effectively the death of the agent / small broker SEO’d website that is if I’m understanding you.

  10. May 6, 2013 at 3:49 pm

    Eric I believe you have this wrong – first of all there are over 500 MLSs without public facing web sites, so they should have no issue with assigning the tags – secondly groups like HAR will make business decisions that are good for their members, whatever those decisions are – if they want the public facing MLS site to have the benefit of the tags, that’s fine, but they should still regulate what others may do with those tags. Every MLS is a membership organization and I don;t want to speak for any of them – they have staff, leadersip and memberships to do that. Finally , the MLS should limit ZTR and any other 3rd party sites from using the tags or manipulating them. And since, as I said in the post, they need the feeds, they would comply.

  11. May 6, 2013 at 3:56 pm

    Ok – MLS’s aside. You’ve just told ZTR that they can no longer rank for any individual address searches. Effectively dumping their traffic / income 30+% (our last report showed that was the percentage of traffic they got for address based searches). But then you’re also going to have to take out neighborhood etc based searches because the neighborhood / city pages that they rank so well for are essentially just a collection of the listings in that market. I don’t exactly see them saying “hmm ok they’re your listings after all.” I’m just playing devi’s advocate here. I do believe the broker should have better control over what’s going on. I’m just being a cynic that anyone is just going to let this happen. I think you’ll see mounds of ZTR lawyers come out of the wood work speaking to DOJ attorneys should this happen.

  12. May 6, 2013 at 3:59 pm

    Don’t get me wrong, I think MLSs should do this. They don’t.

  13. May 6, 2013 at 4:03 pm

    Eric, I’ve seen some goofy litigation in my time, but that’s about as goofy as any I could imagine “Please DOJ, give us a commercial advantage over the source of our content?” Seriously? As long as they have access to the data, limiting their ability to spoof Google by claiming to be the author of information they didn’t create shouldn’t cause any problems – and they have lots of smart folks working to help them rise to the top of the SEO pile.

  14. May 6, 2013 at 4:26 pm

    I would argue that this isn’t a commercial advantage that ZTR has right now. But by making them not be able to rank for any of their search terms and losing more than 30% of their revenues / traffic overnight. They’ll come out swinging. Including finding any argument why NAR is being anti-competitive possible.

    Keep in mind too that while the listing on the MLS is owned by the broker, when that broker shares it to ZTR the information is technically owned by them (read the TOSs – this is why Zillow can display your listing photos on their Digs service or Trulia can show the photo on their page seeing which kitchen you like better.) So once the data hits those sites, within their own rules, they can basically do what they want. What rules would you setup that would tell them they had to do anything? All you could do is go to the MLSs and say they had to make rules for when the data comes right from the MLS. To which then ZTR will just say they won’t accept feeds from them anymore. I think you overestimate the value of a bunch of people sitting in a room working on SEO. Yes they have them, but their entire strategies are built around the listings and around their sharable content. Without the ability for them to generate inbound links to their listings (or internal cross linking of listings), they will literally lose a very large percentage of non direct typed in traffic within 3-4 weeks. This would be the doomsday scenarios that ZT have mentioned in their 10Ks and R mentions in their ways that they would lose out on their agreement with NAR (sub 500k visitors / month).

    PS: I promise I’m just being pragmatic here. Something needs to be done, but the collateral damage needs to be carefully considered.

  15. May 6, 2013 at 5:01 pm

    Nice article. I wanted to join the discussion on Facebook but can not. This seems pretty irrelevant in the world of selling real estate.

  16. Judith Lindenau
    May 6, 2013 at 8:55 pm

    Of course, the SEO of today will not be the SEO of the end of the year, when there are 800-1000 new top level domains.

  17. Kathleen Seide
    May 24, 2013 at 9:24 pm

    I think this is a great idea and just sent an email to the IDX committee to talk about this at our next meeting… We can talk it over and see if we can come up with any big problems – we’ll see where it goes.

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