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Fair Listing Attribution

October 10 2018

by Andy Woolley, Vice President of Industry Development, Homes.com

The National Association of REALTORS is considering changes to the Multiple Listing Service policy, related to the display of listing broker attribution when MLS listing data is displayed through IDX, VOW, and in syndication with third-party entities and individuals.

Homes.com believes that each display of a listing should include prominent credit and attribution to the source of the listing. Such attribution should include brokerage name, contact information, and, when desired by the brokerage, a link to the display of the listing on the brokerage website.

Summary of Suggested MLS Policy Changes

Several policy changes related to listing source attribution were recommended and discussed at the MLS Technology and Emerging Issues Advisory Board meeting August 20-21, 2018. The Advisory Board voted to adopt a motion for consideration by the Multiple Listing Issues and Policies Committee during the November 2018 REALTORS® Conference & Expo.

The recommended policy changes would require MLS Participants to publish within an IDX and VOW display the following display elements:

  1. Prominent attribution to the listing broker as the source of the listing content.
  2. A prominent, followable, search engine indexable, plain-html hyperlink (each, a "Link") directly back to the listing broker's website for the listing.
  3. Participants shall ensure that the Link is provided in a manner designed to provide the listing broker with proper attribution, including by recognized search engines.
  4. Participants shall not alter or manipulate any Link such that the Link is not readily indexable by recognized search engines, nor shall Participant otherwise reduce proper attribution for the Listing.

With respect to the transmittal of MLS Participant's listings to third-party aggregators, the recommended policy changes would force each MLS to require those entities to publish on each listing the following display elements "in a reasonably prominent location and in a readily visible color and typeface not smaller than the median used in the display of listing data":

  1. Prominent attribution to the listing broker as the source of the listing content.
  2. A prominent, followable, search engine indexable, plain html hyperlink (each, a "Link") directly back to the listing broker's website for the listing. (Except when a link is not provided by the listing broker.)
  3. Third-party aggregators shall ensure that the Link is provided in a manner designed to provide the listing broker with proper attribution, including by recognized search engines.
  4. Third-party aggregators shall not alter or manipulate any Link such that the Link is not readily indexable by recognized search engines, nor shall third-party aggregators otherwise reduce proper attribution for the listing.

Listing Source Attribution Best Practices

Homes.com agrees with the genesis of these recommendations, that each website displaying a listing should follow attribution best practices and provide appropriate credit to the listing brokerage as the authoritative source. Consumers deserve to know which brokerage is representing each listing, just as they have a right to choose which brokerage and agent will represent them.

We currently display prominent attribution to the listing broker as the source of listing content for all listings displayed on Homes.com. We also display a prominent, search engine indexable hyperlink back to the listing displayed on the listing broker's website for all listings sent to us with linkback information. In some instances, brokers have arranged for the linkback to be directed to their MLS public website or their franchise website.

We agree that a comprehensive set of listing source attribution best practices should be established. Core to these best practices should be the display of prominent attribution to the listing broker as the source of listing content. Most reputable publishers already comply with this best practice. The benefits of source attribution to both brokerages and consumers are indisputable.

SEO Implications

The recommendation to require specific linkbacks is a more complicated issue which we believe will most likely cause negative SEO implications for brokerage websites. While the concept of providing consumers with a hyperlink back to the listing displayed on the listing broker's website is sound, any mandate requiring that link to be search engine indexable may be perceived negatively by search engines.

There are many factors involved in search engine algorithms beyond links that impact a website's ability to rank. Website speed, performance, relevant content, user experience, and mobile compatibility are all factors considered equally, if not more prominently than referring linkbacks in a website's ranking success. Furthermore, if hundreds or thousands of links are directed to a brokerage website from a single referring website, it could be considered by search engines as a link scheme, particularly if there is a mandate requiring those links.

Google describes a link scheme as: "Any links intended to manipulate PageRank or a site's ranking in Google search results may be considered part of a link scheme and in violation of Google's Webmaster Guidelines."

There are also challenges around velocity of attribution link acquisition. Search engines look at the speed of link growth pointed to a website, and compare it against the average growth rate of naturally acquired links. If the rate of link acquisition is significantly faster or different than what search engines would expect organically, there is a high risk it could be perceived as a link scheme. Requiring linkbacks on all real estate websites that publish MLS content in a short period of time would potentially send warning signals to search engines based on that unnatural velocity.

Linkback requests themselves fall under an SEO gray area for site owners who request the links, especially when those links are in exchange for something else, such as content or money. While it might be perfectly fine for a content originator to share content on a limited basis and make the linkback a requirement for publishing that content, it gets more complicated if a license agreement requires a linkback to a content originator's website purely for search engine purposes. Intent is an important element in determining a link scheme. If the intent of a linkback goes beyond the concept of providing fair credit back to a content originator, the risk of negative search engine implications increases.

And while requiring that someone link to you for a unique work in a single license agreement may avoid being perceived as a link scheme, requiring that same linkback with the same work over and over again — as would be the case if it were required under MLS Policy and included in every MLS license agreement — would likely be perceived with a different intent than fair credit.

If you're a content publisher in a situation where you are asking for a link, or worse, requiring a linkback specifically and categorically noted for search engines as part of a blanket license agreement, that probably would not be seen or interpreted as a natural link, which is a pretty clear violation of Google's Webmaster guidelines.

Homes.com Listing Source Attribution

As mentioned above, we currently display on Homes.com prominent attribution to the listing broker and a prominent, search engine indexable hyperlink back to the listing displayed on the listing broker's website.

Homes.com is built using React.js as the front end website user interface. To aid search engines in crawling our site, we render pages as a simple HTML page before presenting the page content to search bots. This gives users a great (faster) experience through client-side rendering in their browser, and provides an optimal experience for search engine bots through server-side rendering, delivering speedy and efficient code for easier retrieval and indexing. Although we deliver our site content in two different ways, the elements that both human users and search bots see is the same, avoiding any potential penalty for 'cloaking.'

We follow these Google best practices to deliver the optimal experience to both our users and search engines, and we provide the linkback to a listing broker's website to help drive exposure and consumer traffic downstream to our brokerage partners.

Conclusion and Recommendation

It is our opinion that:

  • Any mandate in MLS policy requiring a search engine indexable linkback offers a high risk of negative search engine reaction and should therefore be eliminated from consideration.
  • Prominent attribution to the listing broker as the source of the listing content is a common sense best practice and a beneficial enhancement to MLS policy.

Our recommendation is to:

  • Remove from consideration the linkback references as a requirement in MLS policy.
  • Instead recommend linkbacks as a listing source attribution best practices, which we believe will avoid interpretation as a potential link scheme and mitigate the risk of negative search engine impact.

To view the original article, visit the Homes.com blog.