Syndication Storm

First, let’s understand what syndication is.  When a real estate broker submits a listing to the MLS, he/she is given the choice whether to share the listing with various Internet property portals:  Trulia, Zillow, and many more.  At Help-U-Sell, with the broker’s agreement, we pull all property listings from the MLS via an IDX feed – that’s how we get the Help-U-Sell broker’s listings (along with all the others in the MLS) into  We also share information with dozens of Internet portals and our brokers can opt in or out of that sharing for their individual listings.  That’s syndication.

These portals – let’s call them what they are:  aggregators – present the listing data on their own sites and use the traffic they generate to sell advertisements.  The advertisers are usually REALTORS who want to be seen as the knowledgable expert in their areas.

I remember Dale Strack railing on about this seven years ago.  ‘First they get you to share your data with them – For Free! – then they turn around and sell the leads your data generates back to you!’ he’d say.  And he was right:  we real estate pros often take the easiest path . . .  I mean:  we could have done the work the aggregators did to get our listings seen and preserve the leads not for advertisers but for the source of the data, but we didn’t.  We had a long and rich history of hoarding information from consumers and the thought of opening up our own treasure trove of data was repugnant to us!  We opted to let someone else do that.

Thank goodness we did.  Now the consumer has almost all the information we used to hoard from them!

But now there is this tempest brewing.  It started a few months ago in Minnesota, where the gigantic Independent firm, Edina, opted out of syndication on their listings.  A few firms followed over the following months and then, last week, Jim Abbott from San Diego pulled his firm out.  Abbott is not near the heavy weight that Edina is, but he understands media and created a very compelling video about his decision.  The video has gone viral in the real estate community and I’m sure will bring this issue to the forefront for many.  Here – give it a look:

Abbott’s frustration is that his listings are generating leads for other brokers.  And he is correct, it is almost impossible to find listing agent information on most of the portals.  The only agents easy to find are those who ponied up the cash for premium accounts – and there is no screening process for agents wanting to advertise in this way.  The consumer is as likely to find a Dud this way as a Star.

Imagine the frustration of a great agent who takes dozens of good property listings and sends them out to the syndicators.  Meanwhile a new agent or a failing one inks an agreement with a syndicator to become a ‘Preferred Agent’  and snares a quality lead on one of those listings.  Because they know nothing about the property (and little about the business), they lean heavily on the listing agent through the showing, offer and acceptance process.  The listing agent feels as if he/she carried the selling agent through the sale and is bothered by the low level of service the buyer client received from their agent.

I think pulling the plug on syndication is a noble thing.  I’m not sure it’s practical.  Truth is, I hear from my brokers every week that the preferred agent programs on Trulia and especially on Zillow work:  they produce leads. And today, it’s a rare broker who pulls the plug on anything producing leads.

Funny:  there’s been an alternative – actually a better program than that of any of the aggregators – out there for years:  ListingBook.  It’s free to agents and brokers, gives consumers real time access to the local MLS and the same listings the aggregators have, and preserves the lead for the agent who brings the prospect into ListingBook.  It’s the consumer centric alternative to the problems Abbott is talking about in his video.  I’ve been pushing ListingBook for years: it’s a wonderful way to give the very best infomation to your clients without giving up control.  If brokers understood its power there would be no need to syndicate to anybody.

I am very curious about where you weigh in on this and would welcome your comments.  We’re also going to spend a little time on the issue on our Wednesday Help-U-Sell Power Hour.  So please plan to attend.

5 thoughts on “Syndication Storm”

  1. I have always felt the same as Dale. The fact is that without our data they would not have a product. In particular, I don’t like the thought of paying for extras because of the affiliation with nar. It simply does not feel right.
    I agree with you, James, our industry set the stage for the Zillows and Trulias of the world by hoarding information. There was a need that was not met and so a new business model was born to meet that need. And I think it is too late to go back. With all of it’s inaccuracies, consumers love Zillow. I think it would be a mistake to withold listings from a web-site that consumers love. Better, in my mind, to accept that there has been a shift and find a way to work w/in this new environment. It is a bit of a muddy environment right now and so I expect there will be some more shifts. We need to be open and proactive and ready.

  2. I’ve been watching all this with interest too. An interesting factor is that there is a very low barrier to entry for competitors. Zillow, Trulia, etc. have to actually compete for how to best serve consumers (not agents) to get traffic. It isn’t like Facebook where the value is in how many people are on it. Any new startup with a little cash can hook into MLS data nationwide and take a run at it! It is ripe for churn on an ongoing basis. That stated, consumers obviously love Zillow compared to local MLS and agent site experiences. If I were running a real estate web design firm I would just follow the lead of the major players and keep getting as close to that as I could for realtor sites…

  3. Scott from Listingbook here. James, I think your post is exactly on target. These third party listing aggregators are not supporting agents and brokers at all and Jim Abbott is taking a great stand on this.

    I’m glad you see Listingbook as we do. It allows consumers to get the best information: always up to date, always accurate (fed directly from 55+ MLSs), while never showing other agents. The agent who invites a customer to Listingbook is essentially “chaperoning” that customer through their home buying process.

    @Robin, I don’t think it is too late. Consumers are fickle. If they see something that is easy to use and has better information, they will switch to it. We see this all of the time.

    If we can help any Help-U-Sell brokers or agents please contact me at

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