We're almost to the end of this line, I think. I took a break for a couple weeks to think more about this and to talk to some thought leaders (and also to do a little of the work for which I get paid ;-). In this post, I'll spend a little time on the history of IDX and what I think most brokers think its purpose is. I'll argue that IDX index fishing, though not illegal or immoral, 'breaks' the expectations of most listing brokers regarding IDX, but that we probably should find a way to permit it. In the next post, I'll talk about a couple technical and legal details. And in my final planned post (number VIII!) I'll discuss the specific proposals of which I'm aware and wrap it up.
A little history
I sometimes get described as "the father of IDX." I think that's an unfair characterization. Of course, anyone who's known me long knows that I am head-over-heels-in-love with the idea that I believe underlies IDX: "The best source for listing information on the web should be the web site of a broker participating in MLS." IDX facilitates this by ensuring that a broker with an IDX site can display nearly all the active listings in the MLS to visiting consumers. In almost all MLS markets (with some quirky and distressing exceptions), that means the broker's site can be unsurpassed as a source for listing information.
Back in 1999, when I managed the RMLS in Minneapolis/St. Paul, we looked at the model adopted at the broker-owned MLS in Seattle, Northwest MLS. They called their program "Broker Control." RMLS considered whether it should adopt the same approach. While I was on a three-month sabbatical, two key members of my staff, Rachel Wiest and Rebecca Younger, worked tirelessly with a small group of RMLS's leaders, most notably Phil Olson (a Coldwell Banker broker who sadly died just a couple years later at a tragically young age) and Henry Brandis (a leader at Edina Realty). Late that year, after I returned from sabbatical, we tweaked the rules to address the concerns of a big listing broker in our market.
As soon as RMLS launched IDX (we called it "Broker Reciprocity"), I started crowing about it on listservs (like those maintained by Internet Crusade) and via other means. I spent the balance of 2000 and 2001 traveling all over the country explaining IDX to large groups of brokers and MLS execs. In 2001, on behalf of RMLS, I wrote the IDX Implementation Guide for NAR, which NAR published in August of that year, just a few months before the implementation deadline of January 1, 2002. I also moderated a listserv at for the Internet Crusade on IDX or broker reciprocity issues. Over the years, I may have talked with more brokers and MLSs about the 'why' and 'how' of IDX than anyone else – I've heard a lot about their expectations.
The purpose of IDX
There is no definitive statement of the purpose of IDX. NAR did not adopt one with the IDX policy in 2000. The NAR IDX Implementation Guide did not articulate one in 2001. Even RMLS did not adopt an explanation for why it had done IDX. But the message of the leaders at Northwest MLS and at RMLS was very consistent:
The purpose of IDX is to ensure that brokers are unsurpassed as a source for real estate listing information on the web.
I looked back at my communications and presentations from the 2000-2001 era. Back then, we focused on IDX as a tool for brokers to make their sites 'sticky,' to keep the consumers on their sites once they arrived. We expected brokers would get the consumers to their sites using traditional marketing; brokers were already spending heftily on it, and adding a web address to display advertising would not increase their costs. That angle also helped to persuade large brokers, who held most of the listings, that it was cool sharing their listings in IDX with smaller competitors. Yes, the large broker and small broker sites would have all the listings, but the large broker's greater marketing budget assured more traffic per capita (with the capitae here being those of agents). (It turns out we were wrong about that, too. Some small and medium brokers get much more traffic per agent to their sites than even very successful large-broker sites.)
Until a consultant showed me IDX index fishing a couple years ago, I had never considered the question of listings serving as 'bait' to get consumers to broker sites from search engines. Of course, they were always bait for the big listing aggregators in principle; I just had blinders on regarding their utility for SEO on broker sites.
Expectations thwarted, but maybe they need to change
I'm spending this time on history and the way things were to make a point: I expect many brokers in IDX share my antiquated views about how IDX ought to work, and that those expectations shaped the brokers' strategies to participate in IDX. Now that brokers have built web strategies around IDX, they cannot respond to expectation-breaking uses of the IDX data just by pulling out of IDX, as some have suggested. Preventing other brokers using your listings in IDX means giving up your own IDX. I can't imagine a broker doing that.
Thus, while I don't think IDX index fishing is illegal or immoral, I do think it departs from the expectations of brokers contributing their listings to IDX, particularly in that a consumer using a web search engine to search for the address or listing agent name of one broker's listing may get a search result showing another broker's site at the top. Listing brokers are right to be distressed about this. Brokers who get inquiries on their web sites about other brokers' listing are terrible at replying, resulting in a disservice to seller, buyer, and listing broker. (WAVGroup published research to this effect in "The Consumer Online Real Estate Search Experience" in March; Victor, I could not find a link....)
Practically, though, it may not be reasonable to ask brokers to hamstring their web-sites when it comes to competing with the likes of Realtor.com and other aggregators, many of whom are engaged in index fishing themselves. Thus, I think we need to find a way to make it possible for brokers' IDX sites to be indexed by legitimate web search engines. That also means educating all brokers in IDX about what their new expectations should be.
We'll talk specifics in post VIII on this topic, but we have a few little items to address in post VII first.