If you’re on the RE.net, then you know that the hottest topic within the community right now is the issue of NAR’s ruling that search engines are no different from scrapers. Even my post on this blog talking about social media process using just the NAR handling of the issue as an example got enormous traffic and commentary. I think it’s fair to say that the overwhelming opinion within the RE.net community is one of outrage, anger, and outright rebellion against MIBOR and against NAR.
So it was a surprise when I got an email from a reader who asked for anonymity expressing a contrarian view. S/he is a REALTOR who actually agrees with MIBOR’s ruling (backed up by NAR) that indexing of IDX listings should be prohibited and MLS members should be forced to block search engines from finding those listings. I encouraged him/her to post the email as a comment, but got a firm refusal, as s/he was worried (with some justification, I think) about possible negative reaction from the RE.net.
In fact, I ended up chatting with this REALTOR and agreed that instead of posting his/her email, I would just understand his/her point of view then write it up myself. While I wouldn’t normally bother, the issue is an important one, and the sensitivities are such that I felt it would be helpful to the conversation to present a contrarian opinion without fear of retribution or accusation of bias.
The Argument of the Contrarian View
The contrarian view on the Indexing issue is that allowing search engines to index IDX listings hurts REALTORS, sellers, and buyers, and ultimately hurts the image of the real estate professional.
[We must note at the outset that preventing the indexing of IDX listings is not the same thing as preventing the indexing of all listings. The information still gets into the “Cloud” (the whole interconnected global web of computers & data), and is searchable by consumers, but only the listing agent and other authorized websites will show up in searches in the Cloud. So a “Damn the Luddites!” counter is nonsense; the contrarian view is just as hip to Google and search engines as the majority view.]
That allowing indexing of IDX hurts listing agents is fairly obvious. Whether NAR or society at large should care is another issue, of course, as is the whole related issue of dual agency. But it seems fairly obvious that listing agents would rather bring all Internet search users to their website than to another agent’s website who has better search engine rankings.
The argument that indexing of IDX hurts consumers is not so obvious, but one worth considering. It goes like this:
- Seller clients select a listing agent for his ability not only to market the property, but also to price it appropriately and negotiate on behalf of the seller with full knowledge of the local market dynamics. For all intents and purposes, the listing agent is the de facto expert on that house on that street in that neighborhood in that town.
- IDX, when used internally by other agents, is fine as the buyer agent would call the listing agent to get information. And professional-to-professional communication is relatively simple and straightforward.
- When, however, the IDX data is indexed by search engines, then buyers go directly to the website of an agent who actually knows nothing about the property, the neighborhood, and in some cases, the entire town. Depending on the coverage of the MLS, the agent could live in a whole different state. The buyer, then, seeks to ask further questions about the property, the area, etc. to an agent who knows about as much about the listing or the neighborhood as the buyer who called her.
- The buyer agent who gets the lead off the Web inquiring after a property that she herself knows nothing about simply cannot provide adequate information or context to the buyer about the property or the area.
- This harms the seller since the advocate the seller had selected to represent her interests cannot do so, and cannot even comunicate with the buyer agent.
- It harms the buyer since the agent he contacted doesn’t know squat about the property or the area. She may receive erroneous information, and conclude wrongly that the listing isn’t right for her, when in fact, it actually is.
If the goal of REALTORS is to service consumers better, then ensuring that search engines serve up the listing agent’s own website is a way to actually advance that goal. Furthermore, since NAR is charged with protecting the REALTOR brand name, making it easier for consumers to contact REALTORS who cannot speak with expertise on a particular property, area, or town found off the Internet continues the degradation of the REALTOR brand, and lumps the great agents together with the crappy ones who know Jacques Sheet.
Assessing the Argument [From here on out is me.]
I think there’s something to this argument. I don’t know that I’m convinced, but there is something to the notion that the best source for information on a property is someone who knows it inside and out. And that someone is often the listing agent who had to sit down with the seller, with knowledge of the local market, local comps, local inventory levels, what else has come on the market and what has been taken off the market, to come up with a price for the house.
Why exactly is it better for consumers — even for the seller — to have the blind leading the blind? That is approximately the situation when a web searcher lands on the IDX-fed site of an agent who knows nothing about the property or the area.
On the other hand, it seems plainly ridiculous to treat search engines the same as malicious scrapers. No other industry in the world would treat Google the same as some pirate hacker site. Furthermore, with something north of 85% of real estate consumers beginning their search process online, probably with the dominant search engine Google, it seems a fair statement to say that most real estate agents would rather give up their membership in NAR than be blacklisted by Google. Which is what blocking Google bots basically amounts to… a self-imposed blacklist.
Plus, it isn’t as if various REALTORS preventing indexing by search engines is necessarily going to drive inquiries to the listing agent. As many commenters have pointed out in the original AgentGenius thread, various aggregator sites like Realtor.com, Trulia, Zillow, etc. are not under any obligation to follow NAR (or any local association’s) policy on indexing. So any such rules by any association only serves to hurt the buyer agents without necessarily helping the listing agents.
It isn’t clear to me anymore what the right answer is. I don’t envy the policymakers at NAR and elsewhere. This issue is not as clear-cut as partisans on either side of the issue would like to portray it, and however things ultimately get decided, some significant group or another is going to be pissed at the policymakers.
Good Faith, Y’all
In any event, I think it’s somewhat unfortunate — and surprising to boot — that people would feel so worried about what others in the RE.net would think of them that they would rather remain silent, or email bloggers asking for anonymity, to voice what is a reasonable opinion. I do hope that will change, and that we will all treat arguments in good faith instead of engaging in ad hominem attacks.
That can only be good for the state of dialogue amongst and between us all.