Why Can’t Brokers Use “Search the MLS”?

Jan 4, 2008  |  Michael Wurzer

An MLS in Wisconsin has followed some other MLSs in preventing their members from using the term “search the MLS” on their consumer-facing web site. Jay Thompson asks the right question, “I’d love to hear an explanation of why it’s good to prevent Realtors from using the terms related to “MLS” on their site. Seriously. Help me understand.” I don’t get it either.

I suspect the intent is to try to distinguish the “private” MLS from the IDX searches on broker and agent sites, but the time to try to protect the term MLS was decades ago. Consumers now expect to see MLS search options on web sites, and this is a disservice to members to try to separate these. A much better approach (though equally ineffective, most likely) is to change the term for the MLS to something like broker or listing exchange. The best approach, though, is to recognize and embrace that the private and public sides of the MLS are blurring together and, instead of trying to put the genie back in the bottle, MLSs should be embracing the future.

17 Responses to “Why Can’t Brokers Use “Search the MLS”?”

  1. This all started when one MLS lost a court case (backed by NAR) to protect the term “MLS”. The issue at hand was that it was cauing consumer confusion, which can be grounds for protecting a trademark. Of course, as you and others have pointed out, the term MLS is already diluted.

    So, since NAR, et al., couldn’t enforce the action legally, they made it member policy. Play by the rules, or you can’t play.

    It largely comes down to the fact that some (unscrupulous?) individuals have succeeded in trumping the search terms for local MLSes in Google and other search engines, making it almost impossible to find the “real” MLS… and some give the impression of being the MLS. There is a valid intentional confusion argument there.

    I can understand the reaction, although I think it was knee-jerk and not very well executed.


  2. Ryan Hukill says:

    I can see both sides of this argument, although I tend to agree that the term “MLS” is about as exclusive as the term “Realtor” now and is beyond the age of being protected. It’s like when someone asks for a Kleenex. Who cares what brand, they just want a tissue. This effort to block the use of “MLS” is just as ridiculous as the NAR’s insistence that their members don’t use the term “Realtor” in any URLs.

  3. Actually, REALTOR is a trademark and, as such, should be protected by NAR; it would be bad business not to do so (though I know there are cases of use by members that are annoying). The term MLS, however, is not a trademark in the U.S. (except as it pertains to Major League Soccer) and so it can be used by anyone, except those who are members of an MLS, I guess. That’s the crazy part of this issue. Anyone not a member of an MLS can use the term to their heart’s content. Interestingly enough, FBS has a registered trademark for flexmls. Maybe there’s a good use of our trademark lurking in here somewhere . . .

  4. Candy Lynn says:

    Perhaps the MLS in Wisconsin thinks they are complying with the new revisions to COE revised article 12 & New SOP 12.12
    See Real Talk Thread topic: Revisions to Article 12

  5. Oh, yes, I suspect that’s their intent, but the question is what’s the intent of the new rule and is there any realistic possibility of achieving anything of value with these rules? Or is this just making life more difficult for members to the benefit of those not hindered by such rules? I suggested long ago that the NAR would do well to try to brand IDX and give members something to promote instead of spending time trying restrict what they can promote. MLS is not a trademark they can enforce and trying to do it through ethical rules not applicable to anyone else seems counter-productive.

  6. Ron Stephan says:

    While I don’t disagree that NAR is late to react…no trademark …..mls on the internet 14 years ago….etc….I do think there are several valid reasons. Many websites display some but not all of the true MLS listings. Many websites mix FSBO and MLS listings. Most of these websites have out of date information. Many of these wbsites have incorrect information. The list goes on. These sites including some promoted and supported by local MLS’s including ours, NAR and Internet Crusade violate the very policy that NAR and most MLS’s have adopted. Why do we want to continue to demean the quality represented by MLS? “Search the MLS” …..I don’t think so!

  7. I suggested some time ago that “NAR should create and heavily promote a branding and logo program for legitimate IDX sites so consumers can have confidence they are seeing everything.” All they are doing with this “don’t say MLS” approach is frustrating their members who are competing on the web with those not bound by the same rules. They should be proactive on this point instead of restrictive.

  8. John T says:

    For a broker with a Broker reciprocity site it is accurate to say you are searching MLS listings. It should be okay to say that.
    To do everything possible to get “MLS” out of domain names is a good idea because these Domain names may imply the web site is the MLS which is misleading.

  9. Chantal says:

    I think it is crazy also. What about all the real estate agents and brokers that have paid thousands and thousands of dollars branding themselves with websites and marketing materials that have the phrase MLS posted in it.

    MLS has become kind of a descriptive term in the eyes of the public which I would think would make it immune to such censorship. Kind of like when people say, “Just Google XYZ product.” The term google has now become a verb or a descriptive term.

    Correct me if I am wrong, but if any database or site had multiple different real estate listings on it – then wouldn’t the correct term to describe this site be a multiple listing service or MLS?

  10. Heath Coker says:

    There is a solution to this MLS issue that is not technical, but it requires a forward vision that results in actions that are uncomfortable today.

    Here’s what I mean: MLS was created for communication between agents and brokers. Brokers were the only ones who could advertise the listings taken by their agents. The Internet has made brokers believe that “ownership of a listing,” and the broker to broker communication must now be public.

    Brokers have allowed themselves to be convinced that their listings are no longer their own, once the listings are entered into the MLS. Currently, any competing and/or non listing entity can advertise the MLS listings of any broker.

    The forward vision simplified: If brokers continue to allow their listing data, their work product, to be used in this way, there will not be a need for brokers. When suffucient MLS data has been obtained by the agregators like the big Z, T, or R, consumers will deal with them directly. For example, consumers wanting a home will be able to get an online appraisal that is based on MLS data, and there will be no need for a broker produced CMA. Any seller will have their property “listed” for a fee on an agregator with out the need for a broker. A buyer will use the same online value estimator to make an offer using online forms, after they have made an appointment directly with the owner. This is a simplified vision, but realistic.

    The uncomfortable actions required today: Stop allowing listings to be displayed by anyone except the listing broker.

    The problems and objections to the uncomfortable actions are all obvious to any working broker and don’t need stating here, but the facts remain true. On the contrary, what are often unseen are the truths from the results of the uncomfortable action. For example, less competition for search terms because there are less sites with competing content. And less “lead generation” email for the same reason. Brokers have allowed the Internet to use them, rather using the Internet to increase direct communication with consumers.

    Brokers should work to return their work product to their benefit and to return MLS communications to members. Unfortunately many brokers are being advised by those who are either enthralled by technology without an understanding of the real estate business, or by those who are interested in their demise, or by both.

  11. Jim Lee says:

    I suspect you’re largely preaching to the choir here.

    My best understanding of the new rules is that NAR wants to make sure consumers understand they’re not searchin “THE” MLS on anyone’s website. “THE” MLS is only searchable by members.

    What is displayed on most member websites, whatever their URL, is some sort of IDX version of listings taken from “THE” MLS and those IDX listings are typically not as comprehensive as the MLS ones.

    Intent of the rules is good; execution is poor, and understood in as many ways as we have different MLSs’ in the country which is around 900 I believe.

    NAR needs to immediately come out with some clarifications on this.

  12. Heath Coker says:

    Perhaps this is not the correct forum for my comments.

    The rules NAR is working on is a different topic than what I have written about, and different that what I have worked toward for the last eight years. Although, my active ideas would also solve their problems.

    The choir is on vacation. Instead there are sheep. For all intents and purposes, searching an MLS link IS searching the MLS (IDX or otherwise). Until listing agent sheep take the time to think through this mistake, they will continue to increase the competition for visitors to their own site. Allowing listings to be displayed “anywhere” with an MLS link or by data dumping is like putting someone else’s sign in the yard of your own listing. Why provide the content others sites need?

    In my area, the MLS just rejoiced that the local online newspaper is now displaying our listings on their site. I am baffled at how the MLS leaders think that sending customers interested in my listings through another office before they get to communicate with me is a benefit to me.

    “Search the MLS” would not be an issue if listing agents kept their listing to their own pages, to their own online office, rather than allowing them to be splattered all over the place in the hope that more places = more traffic. The facts indicate that having listings in so many places has SLOWED the buying cycle. Because buyers now have to become like first year agents as they sift through all the listing info on the net, they have slowed their decision process. They also think they know as much as agents who have done this for yearS.

    When agents start pulling their listings back home, the “search the mls” issue will be minimized.

  13. John Tittle says:

    Heath, what do you suppose would happen to web sites like Googlebase, Trulia, and Zillow if we stopped sharing MLS information?
    The internet is the place to expose your listings and sellers will demand it no matter what happens to MLS.
    If the flow of MLS data was cut, brokers would have no control and we would be playing by their(the big players on the web) rules. You can wish for the good old days, but you can’t put the genie back in the bottle.
    What is going on is the result of a massive technology change, not the result of MLS playing fast and loose with their data.
    I’m not sure where you get your information regarding listings on the web slowing the buying cycle. I find that it takes fewer appointments with a buyer before getting a sale. The typical buyer comes to me already through what used to be the first part of the process(I’d call it familiarization).
    I had a guy walk into my office yesterday. He was the first person in a long time who I’ve met with who hadn’t looked at anything on the web before comming to me. I had almost forgotten how much more explaining went on in the old days.

  14. Heath Coker says:

    On the contrary John.

    The NWMLS has already lead the way by stopping their feed to the big sites. Their decision was that MLS is for communication between members and not a marketing entity. Of course the advertising dollars of the big sites you mention have squelched reporting of that kind of trend.

    To make that idea more plain, how long before I can advertise anyone’s listing in any form? Why can I only do that on the Internet?

    There is no genie to put back into the bottle. There is data to keep at home though. I have had many conversations with listing agents in MN that are thinking like the NWMLS.

    The assumtion that listings would no longer be available if they weren’t on the sites you mention is not probable. In fact, if those sites didn’t have the content that the search engines look for, the sites with the content would then get found more easily. Wouldn’t that put the consumer in direct contact with more of the agents that actually do the isting? It seems not a genie in the bottle issue, but an improvement of service issue. More direct contact with the actual listers may even speed up more sales in your area.

    If consumers wanted to be “lead generated” then sites like housevalues would still be generating positive revenue growth. The only reason that others are still appearing positive is that they own the media and are squelching reports of actions like the NWMLS has taken.

    I understand the genie idea and phrasing, but I think the issue is broader than that. For example, some agents rely on the MLS links to make it appear they are more active in the real estate business than they are. Without the link, much of their business might go to the ones who actually have the listings.

  15. John Tittle says:

    I wasn’t very clear. I think sites like Google Base would explode in popularity and become the place to go for real estate information. Every agent is going to be trying for as much exposure as possible. These sites will be the only place that puts the information all in one place — and thats what the customer wants.

    You are right, Broker reciprocity makes the little guy look bigger. But agents don’t have listings, Brokers do. Changing the system as you suggest could benifit the big chain brokers and make it harder for the mom and pop shops.

    I think we have a lot less control than we think. This is more like a controlled fall than a leap. At this point hanging on to listing data isn’t even an option. If we stop it from flowing out of MLS it will come out someplace else.

    Agents have the least to worry about. What they have, knowledge, customer service, can’t be duplicated. I suspect the realtor associations and the MLS are going to need to think really hard about their role, which it looks like they are.

    It’s nice to know that others who sell real estate think about this. Your point of view is interesting & I wouldn’t say that its not right, its just not the direction I favor at the moment.


  16. John Tittle says:

    “The NWMLS has already lead the way by stopping their feed to the big sites. ”

    Heath, just curious, what qualifies as a big site?

  17. Robbie says:

    I assume, he means Realtor.com. For whatever reason, the NWMLS stopped feeding all the listings to Realtor.com.

    However, individual broker members still have the authority, though probably not the technical ability to send their listings to Realtor.com, Trulia, Zillow, (or any other site they wish) via the capabilities of their IDX vendor or IT dept. The problem is that unless the MLS provides the service for all it’s members, only the members that are IT savy will be able to easily publish their listings (which puts the little guy at a disadvantage).