A Fistful of Feeds

The man with no nameCue up the Ennio Morricone music and head for the hills! There’s been some recent talking among the town folk, about the feeding frenzy that’s happening out there on the wild web of the west. Let’s just say San Miguel will never be the same once the schema with no XSD enters town.

Just when you thought it was safe in digital listing land, it’s going to get a little wilder. You see, Jesse ‘Zillow’ James has got a new six shooter and is getting ready to take your listings, publish them for the world to see, and give the town sheriff something else to think about. Right now, Jesse is just at target practice, but high noon at the O.K. Corral is coming soon enough.

Even better, Jesse has been taking marksmanship lessons from Wild Bill Gates’ old play book. It’s every bit as clever as the lead shield old Clint used in the movies. You see, Zillow’s doing 2 things which show they’ve learned the “embrace and extend” tactics from yesterday’s web slinging masters.

First, Zillow is embracing Trulia’s feed format – This move means that anybody who already has a Trulia listings feed will be able to get their listings onto Zillow with than less than 10 minutes of effort (the amount of time it takes to fill out a form with your feed url). It’s entirely possible that by doing this, Trulia’s feed format will become the “de-facto” industry standard. (Which wouldn’t be all bad)

Secondly, Zillow’s extending the purpose of Trulia’s format, by coming out with their own feed format – OK, some of you are already thinking, oh great, another XML format I need to implement and support. However, I think Zillow will be able to garner support for their ZIF format because of the following reasons.

  1. Their spec is simple to understand. Unlike GoogleBase & edgeio, which seem to be trying to win an Obfuscated XML code contest with their name spaced RSS mess, Zillow’s feed documentation is every bit as clear as the current industry feed leader, Trulia.
  2. Their spec is comprehensive. The only industry schema that compares to the breadth and depth of the Zillow’s XML Schema is RETS. Except Zillow has the benefit of not having to getting 900 MLS boards to play nice together.
  3. Doc ‘Trulia’ Holliday is not dumb. A master gun fighter in his own right, nothing is preventing Trulia from embracing the Zillow feed standard as their V2 spec. If that happens, RETS may suffer the same fate as Lester Moore. Out here on the wild web of the west, there’s the quick and the dead.
  4. Oh yeah, they also get about 4+ million monthly visitors on their web site.

Anyway, grab the popcorn; it’s going to be show!

48 thoughts on “A Fistful of Feeds

  1. Yeah, that’s EXACTLY what I was thinking “Oh great! Another XML format…” LOL I was really thinking it’s time for Robbie, Steph and Harrison to come to dinner. I’m working myself to death. I need a Steph break!

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  3. Hi Michael,

    I do agree RETS & the vertical advertising portals (aka Trulia & Zillow) schemas serve different masters, however there is some overlap in purpose. I also think it would be a mistake to completely discount the advertiser’s efforts, despite their simpler goals.

    I think RETS has the following challenges…

    1. Scope – Granted, having real estate license course information, offers, referrals, transactions, and other pieces of information in a standard schema is necessary for the advancement of the industry. However, the demand for standardization of this type of information isn’t as acute as it is for listings information. Maybe we need a RETS Lite that just focuses on the things are most important for the typical IDX, member web site, advertising feed and other public facing applications (listings, offices, and members) and is just of subset of RETS?

    2. Rules, Roles & Permissions – For example, in the NWMLS, they only allow 2 feeds per member. It’s my understanding that this limiting of feeds practice is pretty common across MLS’s across the country. This policy means that the IDX vendor (or broker IT staff) has to do everything, since they are the only ones w/ both data access and the technical skills necessary to make the listings move from pt A to pt B.

    Wouldn’t it be great if a broker could go into their MLS and say I want to provide Zillow and Trulia, and not give Realtor.com a feed of my listings? Why can’t an agent their promote listings via vFlyer’s or postlet’s platform without retyping all that listing information? You could advertise your listings automatically on leading RE portals of your choice with zero or near-zero time and financial investment. The reason why this doesn’t happen is complex and multi-faceted…

    • Broken old policy – A member can only give their data to at most 2 vendors. This policy means you can’t give an advertiser a feed, because you’d lose your IDX feed for your web site. I should note this effects small members greatly, since large brokers can afford to hire software engineers and do everything in house.
    • New policy questions – Should an MLS continue to give all it’s listings to Realtor.com, or should it treat all advertiser’s equally? Should the member have the power to control the flow of their listings to advertiser or should the MLS?
    • Implementation limitations – It appears most MLS’s only have the capability to give a complete listing feed to IDX vendors. If the member has control, they need to ability to give full feeds to IDX vendors and just a member’s listings feed to advertisers. However, this isn’t as big a problem as the above 2, since policy defines technology direction.

    Ideally my clients should have the ability to replace me with an XSLT file. 🙂

    3. Deployment, Documentation & Education – This where the advertising portals have a big advantage. Since they are only consuming XML for their own benefit (instead of producing it for the benefit of all), they can just define a good enough schema instead of trying to make everybody happy. And since they are portals, wide deployment is a non issue.

    In order for me to get my IDX back-end to consume RETS, I need to find a server that produces it, a member who will give me feed access to his MLS RETS server and invest a fair amount of time to change my code to consume it (and do it in a way that makes sense from a cost perspective). I also think RETS community needs less formal technical documentation. I think the informal sample XML document style of Zillow & Trulia is much easier to grok and understand (and quicker to implement) than the formal XSD approach that the RETS community seems to favor to date. I’m not saying having XSDs is a bad thing, just that having less formality would be welcome.

    I do agree Trulia & Zillow joining RETS community would be a good thing in the long run, since their participation has the potential to improve the flow of listings data and lower the costs of everybody. However, I think Zillow’s & Trulia’s “standards” compliment the efforts RETS community since they are making the need for industry listings data standards more visible. They are trying to solve a much simpler problem than what the RETS community is.

  4. Robbie, the current schemas can support a wide variety of payloads. For example, a simple IDX payload has already been defined. The reality is this: If Trulia and Zillow would adopt RETS, they would immediately leverage the efficiency of the existing MLS systems instead of creating yet another format MLS vendors have to follow. As one of those MLS vendors, it is frustrating to no end to continually have third parties creating their own formats and then calling the MLS industry backwards and complicated because it doesn’t support that custom format. This is why RETS is created in the first instance.

    As I mentioned in my post, RETS is a standards process open to everyone. Standards are about efficiency. You ask why agents can’t easily get their listing data into vFlyer or Trulia or Zillow or Base or whatever, but the answer to this question is simple: because all these companies are creating their own formats. If they would just participate in the standards process, we could easily solve this issue once instead of wasting resources tailoring systems to every proprietary deviance each of these companies wants to foist on the community.

  5. Micheal, Let’s assume for the sake of argument that Zillow, Trulia, & everybody else in the RE.net advertiser community decide to consume RETS as their schema.

    The root problem is that MLS members don’t have the authority to give these vendors direct digtal access to their listing data, directly from the MLS source, without denying another vendor data access. (the 2 feed limit problem)

    The other problem, is that most members don’t have the technical ability to provide a feed or to get direct data access of their listings from the MLS to begin with, without the assistance of their IDX vendor or their MLS. (Which is why the NWMLS dropping Realtor.com feeds was a big deal around these parts – it’s the I don’t have software engineering skills problem)

    Given this reality, there’s no incentive for Z & T to support consuming RETS because their clients to date (individual agents and brokers) don’t have the ability to produce it themselves or the authority to give access to their RETS feed on their MLS’ server to them.

    Since Z & T want listings, and they can’t get a RETS feed, they decided to come up with their own standard that would do the job. They don’t have time to wait for a wide deployment of an industry wide standard that’s under deployed and has political issues surrounding it’s deployment. Trulia’s proprietary standard may not be comprehensive as RETS, but it is relatively cheap to support and widely deployed (which as we talked about in the past) is ultimately more important than being an open standard. They want to bring down Realtor.com anyway they can. They only thing worse than multiple standards is a standard that doesn’t come.

    I suppose you could argue that as an IDX vendor, I should produce a RETS feeds instead (despite the fact the NWMLS doesn’t give me the abilty to consume one). But if none of my client’s downstream advertising partners consume RETS schemas, I’m not going to produce it. However, given the small number of listings my clients have, I don’t have the ability to convince advertisers to support RETS instead of their own schemas even if I did generate it.

    As you’ve said on your blog, The MLS Is More Than TechnologyThe MLS is politics!. This is not a technology problem. It’s a policy problem.

    A more interesting scenario is if Realogy, Prudential, RE/MAX or some other really big broker (or a perhaps a few large MLSs in NFL sized markets) tells Zillow they can have all their listings, only if they consume their RETS feed, I’d be willing to bet that Zillow would be willing to accommodate them.

    Will that ever happen? I dunno, but it would be nice to see and it would be a major boost to universal RETS movement.

  6. The root problem is that MLS members don’t have the authority to give these vendors direct digtal access to their listing data, directly from the MLS source, without denying another vendor data access. (the 2 feed limit problem)

    I’m not familiar with Northwest MLS rules, but I think your perspective is skewed to your familiarity with this one MLS and a misunderstanding of the problem at hand. First, of the one hundred plus MLSs we service, I’m not aware of any that restricts what an individual broker can do with their own listings. Moreover, pretty much every MLS system in the country provides some sort of export feature, usually unfettered with regard to a broker’s own listings. If MLS vendors had one format to deal with, providing the tools for agents to export to these advertising sites would be trivial. It is only the disparate nature of all the feeds that makes the problem even slightly challenging and then it is just more of a headache than challenging.

    While I most certainly agree that the MLS is more than technology, in this one case, agreement among competitors is not required or even involved — because we’re only talking about the listings of an individual broker. So, what’s really at issue is whether these types of exports should become a feature of the MLS system, which iit should if it helps our agent/broker clients do their job more easily. We’ve already built tools for exporting to Google Base and are in the process of doing so for Trulia, but, honestly, I get a headache every time some new company wanting listings comes out with some other format. And it’s not just the data format but the process for keeping those listings up to date. Almost all the systems we’ve looked at to date do not have strong processes for ensuring data timeliness and integrity.

    Thus, my point: Our company and all the other MLS vendors and all the big brokers, franchises, etc., have spent a lot of time and resources working together on standards. We put in that effort to make servicing our clients more effective, not to create barriers. If companies like Trulia and Zillow really want to make it easy for brokers to provide listings to them, they will work with industry standards so that vendors like us can more easily work with them without having to manage dozens of different formats and protocols from all their competitors. Then we’ll all be providing value to our clients, which, again, is our job.

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  8. I completely agree that my perspective is probably skewed because I really only deal with the NWMLS on a regular basis. Also, I remember Greg complaining about his MLSs download / feed limit issue some months ago (can’t find the post that I read that in), so it’s entirely possible that brokers and agents in other parts of the country can have as many download agreements with as many different vendors as their heart desires (in which case, this only a technology problem).

    I think if you can make the case that Zillow or Trulia supporting RETS will enable them to get more listings, more data in each listing, get updated listing information quicker and more reliably, and be cheaper to improve (and ideally implement) than their existing schema’s are/were I think they’d consider supporting it. Especially since Zillow embraced Trulia’s format, I suspect that they are pragmatic and aren’t married to their schema. It’s just a means to an end for them.

    I know I would consider it if I were them. Especially since it could 1) improve my standing among my customers, 2) give me more listings data in which to attract eyeballs and 3) narrow the competitive listing gap advantage that Realtor.com has.

    I don’t know if it would save them dev & test hours (somebody still has to write and test the code to consume the schema and integrate it with their respective back-end), but it would save them PM hours (the RETS spec is already written) and marketing/technical evangelizing hours (it’s THE INDUSTRY STANDARD) and it would save some of their customers effort (who presumably already have the ability to provide feeds written to the RETS schema).

    After all, Zillow & Trulia employees read this blog. If you can make the business case that supporting RETS as their V2 feed spec (or in addition their existing standards) will provide them and their customers more business value than not supporting it, they might do it.

    Zillow & Trulia are big, but they aren’t Microsoft big. Besides even Microsoft has been known to bend to the winds of change. (remember the browser wars?)

  9. Hmm, I guess the “less than” symbol in my earlier comment wasn’t appreciated by WordPress. So, here’s the rest of what I posted:

    10 is less than 300, which means that MLS vendors would be more likely to add this functionality to their MLS systems, which would make it easier for agents and brokers to send their listings to these advertising portals. Also, if the updates were coming directly from the MLS systems, they would be more up to date and accurate than if they are required to be maintained separately. Seems like a classic win-win.

  10. Michael, it’s David G from Zillow,

    Our primary audience for this service is brokerages. As you know, RETS is not (yet?) a standard in that community. When we started speaking with partners we realized that Trulia’s feed format is widely adopted and so we decided to support it. Likewise, if there is significant demand for RETS support, we’ll probably add it. Our listings interface is quite flexible and can support transformation and normalization of other XML formats.

    The reason for starting with proprietary interfaces should be obvious. We needed to make it as technically simple as possible for our partners to feed us their listings. It would be counterintuitive to force them to adopt a broad standard purely for feeding listings to Zillow. I’m sure you can understand that. It would be a different story if our partners are saying “hey, we use RETS, do you support that?” They are not.

    There may be an opportunity here for you to extend the usefulness of RETS. If you published standard transformations from RETS to the Trulia and Zillow formats you could greatly enhance the usefulness of agents’ RETS feeds. What do you think?

  11. 30 feed formats! I thought I was thorough, and I only have about 10 feed formats right now.

    Regardless, I think we’ve made a strong case on our ends (producing end). The trick is making a strong case on their end (consuming end) and more importantly, our mutual customers (brokers & agents).
    Perhaps the more interesting question is why haven’t Zillow & Trulia customers demanded they support RETS? I’d like to think that Z & T aspire to be responsive to customer needs. And if their customers wanted them to consume RETS instead of YAXS (yet another XML schema), they’d be willing to do it. (Especially if it would put them in a stronger competitive position vs their common foe, Realtor.com).

    Maybe agents & brokers are so elated at getting free internet promotion of their listings and the opportunity to bring Realtor.com some real competition for their listings, that they forget the software engineering time & effort involved to enable the scenario? After all, many folks have been getting free Realtor.com promotion via their MLS for nearly 10 years, that they’ve forgotten how much work went into getting that infrastructure implemented in the first place. (I can only imagine how much effort it took for the industry to create the web based MLS / IDX infrastructure that we all take for granted today).

    It could also be that big brokers consider the software engineering cost to be small and since they can spread out the fixed cost over hundreds or thousands of listings, so in the end, it’s just a small added cost of doing business to them. The small brokers and agents really have no idea of the effort involved required to create this infrastructure (so they are really at the mercy of their MLS or IDX).

    Granted, I think RETS will become the standard in the MLS / Broker / IDX space. The trick is convincing brokers and vendors beyond real estate’s “inner circle” to support and advocate for it.

  12. If you strike out the method of transport from RETS spec, and simply use the RETS schema payload to define a listing, then life is simple. Anyone can use it, customize it, prune it, whatever. Defining a transport that isnt inherently off the shelf is part of the complexity with RETS.

  13. David, how many brokers are submitting listings to you so far using your new data feed format? Whatever the number, I suggest to you it would be more if you didn’t insist on proprietary protocols, which only make life difficult for those of us who are trying to help agents and brokers manage their listing data.

  14. I have found it challenging to find an simple and effective way to feed listings into Z & T. Being limited on the technological skills its takes to build “said” requirements has me asking providers and chasing down answers when I partly don’t understand the question.

    As a small office there isn’t a war chest laying around to be used when the latest technology, or a semi-standard, hit the industry.

    The perspective I look at it from is giving the most exposure for our cleints in a the most streamlined fashion because my time should be spent on generating more business than continually uploading and editing listings each time there is a change.

  15. In the case of a small office, it’s probably best to use a tool like vFlyer or Postlets. The upside/downside with such tools it that you only enter the data twice (once into your MLS and again into their platform/tool chain). Entering the listing data twice is better than the low tech alternative (entering it in up to dozens of places). Of course, that’s at least twice as much work than the high tech solution.

    Ideally, the listings feed should either be maintained by your MLS or your IDX vendor (since they already have direct digital access to the listing information, it should be straight forward them to implement). In that case, whenever you change the data in the MLS, it’ll get reflected into your feed instantly (depending of course on how your IDX vendor interacts with your MLS).

    The problem with this approach is you need to have an MLS or IDX vendor who is responsive to your needs and desires (which can be difficult or expensive to find). Or conversely, have the technical skills necessary to build it yourself (in which case, you’d probably be writing software for living instead of selling houses).

  16. cyberhomes.com is now getting our nor cal mls data in a few weeks. They will be commoditizing the role of a realtor and giving buyers and sellers tools to do most of the work themselves. This sure sucks for local realtors who are trying to compete by having a better value proposition. Soon all realtors will offer the same basic service and be paid salaries. Cyberhomes.com should kick zillow and trulia’s butt because the have the public record data, they now are getting the mls data via rets, and they have deep competencies with transaction management and they are using that competency to support buyers and sellers doing more work and agents using best practices.

  17. Hey Toby –

    That’s why we started out with listings posted manually. Many agents and small brokerages prefer to input their listing to the site than figuring out how to feed them. If you already use a real estate website service like point2’s … or a listings syndication service like v-flyer, you’d have no additional work to do to integrate with Zillow.

    We are also strongly considering a CSV format – in which case, you could use excel to build your feed. If that would be your preference, let me know.


  18. Hey Robbie & David G,

    I have not looked into using vFlyer or Postlets to assist in feed Z & T but I do currently use MLSFinder as a IDX provider. Also, I have to say that I’ve dropped the ball and haven’t looked into it further since posting the comment.

    I am interested in what Robbie points out:

    “Ideally, the listings feed should either be maintained by your MLS or your IDX vendor (since they already have direct digital access to the listing information, it should be straight forward them to implement).”

    David G, I am not sure I fully understand: “We are also strongly considering a CSV format – in which case, you could use excel to build your feed. If that would be your preference, let me know.” I know what a CSV format but not how to deliver it.

    I could be rambling here with no info from my IDX provider…I will send them an email now and get it going.

    Thanks for the help guys!!

    Dinasaur Realtor, not sure what your getting at. Are you saying, more than providing a better service that Z, Cyberhomes will offer an simple sindication service that will accept any type of feeds?

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