First off, let me just be clear about my financial relationship to my former employer: I have no vested financial interest in Trulia.
These are my opinions.
Hardly a week goes by where someone in the real estate industry doesn’t write a blog post, commission a white paper, or publish a press release about the inaccuracy of listing data on Trulia and Zillow. Just yesterday, Inman news reported on Zip Realty’s new “listing check” tool. It highlights the number of inaccurate listings on portals that accept non-MLS sourced data. It shouldn’t be news to anyone in our industry that Zillow and Trulia have a significant problem with stale listing data and listing coverage, but I’m often surprised at how many professionals don’t understand why. What’s causing the nation’s top two real estate portals to struggle with this issue? Well, it’s a community effort.
While Trulia and Zillow would love to source more data from the MLS, not all of them are playing ball. They have their own interests to protect, and I’m not saying they are wrong, but when an MLS refuses to send data feeds to Zillow and Trulia, the portals use non-MLS sources.
Often, an MLS will choose to use a syndication service to manage their broker’s requests to market their listings on Zillow and Trulia. These companies push very accurate MLS sourced data to the publishers, but time is a measure of accuracy as well. Realtor.com gets their data from the MLS several times an hour. Most syndicating companies only send updates a few times a day. Some only post once a day. In a hot market, a day can be a long time for updated listing information to be published.
Some brokers have decided to opt-out of syndication to Zillow and Trulia. I understand the logic behind doing this as well, and for them, it might be a good move. However, when a broker pulls out of syndication, you’ll often see that broker’s biggest competitor use the decision as a talking point in recruiting agents and securing listing agreements. Because of this, brokers that pull out of syndication often have a hard time forcing their agents to go along with the decision. In most cases, they allow the agent to continue to submit the listing manually, and outside of the control of the broker or MLS. Manually entered listings are by far the largest cause of bad data.
The broker is the legal owner of the listing and the MLS is the governing body that assures the listing data is correct. When both of these shepherds refuse to participate, it’s an agent free-for-all.
While the MLS and brokers may have decided that it’s in their best interest not to work with Zillow and Trulia, agents are less likely to agree. They have consumers who want their listings on the two most trafficked real estate portals in the country and they don’t care about the motivations of the broker, or the MLS. When unsupported, agents turn to less reliable methods of syndication. They either enter the data manually or use a virtual tour company, or some other syndicator that processes non-MLS feeds.
Listings are generally pretty accurate when they are created, but as the status of the listing changes on the MLS, it’s not being updated as often on these other platforms. Some agents don’t remember to go back and manually update the listing in all the places they published it. Eventually the home sells, but no one tells Trulia or Zillow, so they keep reporting it as an active listing.
In addition, some agents push listings to Trulia and Zillow through more than one source. The portals have to sort through the various feeds, determine which one is most accurate, and trump the rest. Amazingly, some agents will try to trip up the portals by changing the verbiage of the address to try to generate more than one listing of the same home.
Finally, a few agents purposely avoid updating a listing that’s now off the market because they are still trying to generate leads from it.
By accepting non-MLS sources of data both Trulia and Zillow know that stale data is going to be a reality on their sites. They’ve heavily invested in developing the technology to try to identify bad listings on their own, but they ultimately need the cooperation of the MLS to really get a grip on what data is good, and what data is bad.
So what can be done?
Many argue that Zillow and Trulia should pledge to only take data from MLS sources. If they did that, the argument is that the MLS will want to work with them. However, both Zillow and Trulia would have never made it this far if they had adhered to that principle. The MLS that doesn’t want to work with them would simply refuse to do so, and the publishers would cease to exist. The willingness to take non-MLS data is a leveraging point to counter the unwillingness of the MLS to syndicate to these portals.
The most popular solution seems to be that Trulia and Zillow should pay for the listing data. Here’s the real reason why they can’t do this: both companies built their platforms through partnerships with paying brokers that wanted a competitive advantage in their market. Going back to those partners, thanking them for their business, and letting them know the capital raised will be used to secure competing listings, isn’t going to fly. Less listings on Zillow and Trulia means more visibility for paying brokers. Paying brokers don’t want their competitors to be able to list for free and they definitely don’t want their competitors to get paid. Ultimately, Zillow and Trulia have to serve their paying customers.
Another option is to hold brokers and agents accountable for the inaccurate listing data they push to Zillow and Trulia. The portals aren’t going to do this, but fellow REALTORS® in their markets could certainly attempt to resolve the issue through COE complaints. However, most REALTORS® are hesitant to file a COE complaint.
Finally, the MLS could work more closely with Zillow and Trulia by sending a direct feed, or by fact-checking the portal’s data against their own. Obviously, this is what Trulia and Zillow would like. Adoption of this kind of partnership takes trust from both sides. That’s something that’s going to take time. Many MLS boards still feel that these portals ultimately want to disintermediate the MLS (a topic for another blog post).
The Result (for now)
Trulia and Zillow will continue to have a data problem. Their competitors will keep publishing white papers and blog posts, and the peanut gallery will have something to talk about.
Consider this: in spite of their data problems, Zillow and Trulia have become the two biggest real estate portals in America. This should lead you to ask yourself what the consumer cares about most, because data accuracy doesn’t seem to be it.
Photo: Creative Commons license via Flickr user stallio.