Why your MLS system is so “Meh”


When I perform surveys of real estate brokers and agents, I see the following two complaints about MLS systems all the time: “Why doesn’t the MLS have [this cool feature]?” and “Why can’t the MLS system be easier to use?”

The first question – “Why isn’t the MLS system isn’t as full featured as some would like?” – comes down to two things: money and politics.

Let’s talk about money

Some people might think that MLS software providers are making a huge amount of money, and that the providers can put more resources into adding software features. That’s just not the case. The money isn’t there. Think about it: MLS vendors have had to put resources into making their systems work cross-browser and on an expanding number of tablets and phones.

They have added increasingly more sophisticated prospecting and client collaboration features, numerous local information and mapping layers, and so much more over the past decade. All this while, the wholesale cost for MLS systems has not increased, and in many cases has trended lower due to fierce competition for strategic accounts.

The political push and pull

As for the politics, there is a constant push and pull over the future of MLS systems. For every professional that wants the MLS system to evolve and improve, there is one that doesn’t want the system to change. I often hear, “What we have now works fine.”

If MLS staff and software providers only listened to those latter voices, we’d still be using “the MLS book” instead of electronic tools. But even when an MLS is selecting a brand new system and options are being compared, committee members will often say something like, “We should choose this system because it is the most like our current one and so will be easier to learn.” What that means is that the most innovative system is penalized for being different!

Sometimes subscribers who sit on an MLS board of directors or committee don’t want the MLS to improve its functionality. Quite often, an MLS system will be deployed with some features disabled. During a recent demonstration of system features by an MLS vendor, visitors from the neighboring MLS (which used that vendor) commented, “Is this the same system as what we have?”

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Even when the features are enabled, sometimes professionals don’t know what they have.

I see this in surveys all the time – an agent will ask, “Why doesn’t the system do this?” where this is a feature the system already has.

Why is the MLS so difficult to use?

Looking at the second question — “Why can’t the MLS system be easier to use?” — the answer is a lot simpler: the more features a system has and the more ways there are to customize it, the harder the system will be to use.

Since the MLS is a business system with significant complexity, and since subscribers often want it to be customizable to fit their business needs, preferences, branding, and so forth, ease of use can suffer.

For example, it’s easier to enter a listing when there are few required fields, but the fewer required fields there are, the more agents will complain about data inaccuracy and missing data. Likewise, an MLS-generated report with fewer fields on it is easier to read and more attractive.

However, without all the fields accessible, the agent can’t fine-tune the search on behalf of his or her client and must call the listing agent for the information—which is, in actuality, more difficult.

Also, it’s easier to click once to download a pre-built statistical report. Despite this, in order to make the reports more useful to many users, the reports need to be customizable based on the part of the market the user specializes in (i.e., by area, price range, and property type), and need to be styled so the chart can be downloaded and embedded in a newsletter. That means more complexity and a system that is more difficult to use.

MLS software providers try to make good choices when designing the MLS system, balancing out the need for robust features and customization with the desire for an easy-to-use system, but it’s impossible to please everybody.

What you can do about all of this

What this all comes down to is that, if you as a subscriber want to shape how full-featured and easy-to-use tomorrow’s MLS system is going to be, there’s a way for you to do it. Get involved with your local MLS leadership, including with the system evaluation, selection, and implementation processes.

I work with many local MLSs to make sure their leadership is aware of innovation going on in the MLS technology space so they can be smarter shoppers when looking at MLS software providers. When it comes to ease of use, while there sometimes are usability gaffes on the part of the software provider, it is more often the case that system complexity simply reflects the complex needs of active real estate professionals.

Expecting a professional-grade MLS system to be as clean and easy-looking as a consumer-grade real estate search site like Zillow or Trulia is simply unrealistic. Now that you know why your MLS system is so “Meh,” you don’t have to sit back and complain about it. Get involved in your local MLS organization and help take charge of your future!

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6 Responses

You Decide!
  1. Kathy Howe
    May 29, 2014 - 08:02 PM

    Matthew, good article with good advice. I must admit that many of the features agents think they need from their MLS are not used and contribute to the perception of too difficult to use. More is not always better.

  2. Sam DeBord
    May 31, 2014 - 06:36 AM

    Great article, Matt. We hear these complaints sometimes as well. One agent’s superfluous data field is another agent’s godsend for sorting listings. Some MLSs may prefer to have a basic search and an advanced search to pacify both groups of agents, but keeping the complex search criteria available makes the MLS much more powerful.

  3. Matt Cohen
    Jun 02, 2014 - 04:22 AM

    Kathy – the question for me has always been “Can’t we make an MLS with a ‘basic’ mode and an ‘advanced’ mode switch?”. That way the features that only 10% use could be hidden and the system could look easy to use for the occasional users and those with simple needs. But I have heard at least one valid argument against that approach: that features deemed by a committee to be advanced would be hidden from most users and would have even less of a chance to be adopted than they are today – a classic self-fulfilling prophesy, you know? Let’s consider an example of an under-utilized feature in most MLS systems – the financial calculators and worksheets. Usually these have pretty poor adoption. By hiding them in an ‘advanced’ mode, they would surely have even less adoption. But if we thought they were important (look how much traction the NYT rent/buy calculator had last week!) and looked at the low adoption as a challenge, we would improve how they worked in a way that would fulfill the promise of their value. For example, if they could be saved and associated with a prospect for later editing, they would be more useful. If they were integrated into the client collaboration portal for *collaboration* they would be even more useful. If agents could see how their clients filled some of these out, it could provide even more useful business intelligence. This is tricky stuff – again, my first instinct is to eliminate or ‘hide’ – but perhaps there is a better way.

    As you know, one of my hot buttons is how poor many MLSs are when it comes to client-facing reports. Here’s a challenge for my local MLS friends: arrange panels of consumers who have serious interest in particular property types and review the MLS client-view report. Can consensus be reached on what fields aren’t important when comparing properties? (maybe 25% or 50% or more of them?) Of the ones remaining, which field labels and displayed values make no sense to the non-Realtor? From the results, design new default client-facing reports for your MLS system. I bet that without so much content, they can be designed to look much nicer and be much easier to read and find the important stuff on. And there would be room for nice big pictures. I think there’s an assumption that buyers want to see every field that’s non-confidential. It’s worth testing that assumption. It may be useful to have BOTH an easy to read report for initial vetting AND a thorough report for later?

  4. Dan
    Jun 04, 2014 - 03:45 PM

    Matt, how quickly you forget!

    It was only 10 short years or so ago that MLX and Tempo5 shipped in their full (Pro) and Basic (Standard) configurable glory. There were even custom skews delivered with tailored functionality for specific customers. Even so, the same old 80/20 rule made more of the new features obsolete as soon as then shipped. This was always the biggest downer of being a MLS vendor.

    Today, the MLS systems lag far behind their SaaS contemporaries in other verticals and segments where the “purposeful app” and the API culture of build communities prevail. If I were to cast my ballot for what a modern MLS system would like, it would separate the data from apps and rationalize the “swiss army knife” of functionality and a collection of purposeful apps targeted at specific use cases in the real estate transaction. With this rationalization in mind, the association has the means to 1) appropriately govern their data while making it accessible, 2) unburden themselves from the monolith that impairs the delivery of continuous value to their constituency.

  5. Matt Cohen
    Jun 05, 2014 - 07:41 AM

    Ah Dan, I don’t forget Pro vs. Basic. But that wasn’t robust vs easy – that was “with CRMish features or without.”

    I see the benefit of the purposeful app vs. swiss army knife – but a vendor could easily field a set of well integrated modules that are themselves purposeful apps – well designed modules. That comes down to design, and not sacrificing design quality when striving for breadth.

  6. Mike Sparr - www.goomzee.com
    Mar 11, 2015 - 09:28 PM

    I like to refer to a great quote “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” – Henry Ford

    Stay tuned … 😉

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