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There’s a battle raging between brokerages and third-party aggregators that compile real estate listings online and collect sales leads in order to sell them to agents and brokers. Several large brokerages are so unhappy with aggregators that they’ve turned off syndication in an effort to “get control” of their listings. But what’s really at stake in this debate?

Is it about preventing aggregators from using brokers’ listings as a means of generating advertising revenues? Trying to stop aggregators from selling leads on a broker’s listing to competing brokers? Eliminating outdated listings information and inaccurate home valuations on aggregator websites?

All those issues are at the surface of this debate. But at the heart of the controversy is a problem that’s more far-reaching and integral to the long-term survival of brokerages than just bad data.

This is a high-stakes, winner-take-all war over search engine visibility. It’s a battle for the attention of millions of consumers who routinely use Google and other search engines as the starting point in their journeys to buy or sell their homes. Real estate sites that are found at the top of organic search engine rankings are the early birds who get the worm. They get the first contact with prospective customers, and the first opportunity to build a relationship and beat out the competition.

Third-party aggregators are light years ahead in knowing how to take brokers’ most valuable assets – their property listings — and in using them to attract large volumes of web visitors. Here’s three ways this hurts brokers and agents:

1. Broker websites simply can’t compete with the massive search engine optimization programs deployed by big aggregator sites. As a result of syndication and questionable SEO practices by aggregators, search engines can’t tell who the authoritative, original source of listings information is. This enables aggregators to consistently outrank brokers in Google search results, so they can grab online buyers before real estate professionals ever have a chance. They are becoming the gatekeepers to your customers – and they’re leveraging that advantage into the mobile channel.

2. Aggregators are undermining the identities of agents and brokers, thus turning them into commodities. Here’s a cautionary lesson: look at how the hotel industry has suffered at the hands of web travel agencies, which offer travelers better lodging information than hotel brand sites. Hotel brands have been marginalized and their websites became irrelevant. If third-party sites succeed in becoming consumers’ go-to place for real estate information, brokerages risk a similar outcome.

3. Aggregator sites don’t compare to consumers’ online experiences in nearly any other industry. They’re driven by MLS data rather than the needs of home buyers and sellers. Millions of consumers are subjected to crude search functionality, grainy property images and indecipherable jargon on these sites, which reflects poorly on the entire industry.

The way that consumers shop for homes has fundamentally changed. They’ve moved to new ways of finding information on the web. And whoever wins the online battle for search engine visibility will ultimately win the high-stakes war for home buyers.

Brian Balduf is Chairman of Chicago-based VHT Inc., a leading provider of digital marketing, visual marketing and SEO services to real estate brokerages.

Learn how VHT helped a top-tier brokerage increase search-engine generated visitors to its Website by 50 percent by clicking here.