OpenSearch is beyond cool – it’s the new cold

I was reading Redfin’s Developer Blog and the IE blog a few months ago and I got this desire to write my own OpenSearch provider. OpenSearch was originally created by (an company) and was primarily designed as a way for web developers to publish search results in a standard and accessible format. This turns out to be a good idea because different types of content require different types of search engines. The best search engine for a particular type of content is frequently the search engine written by the people that know the content the best. Google is great at searching unstructured content on the internet, but when it comes to structured search on a single web site there are much better options (Endeca, FAST, Autonomy, Solr, my favorite SQL database, etc). The other benefit of OpenSearch providers is that it shifts the balance of power away from Google and back toward web browser vendors & web site developers.

Both of the major web browsers support the OpenSearch Referrer extension. IE 7+, Firefox 2+ & Chrome allows you to add search engines to your browser without leaving the web page. The best place to get started is from the browsers vendors themselves. You can add search providers from Microsoft’s site or you can add search providers from Firefox’s add-ons site. In the interest of full disclosure, Opera allows you to add search engines manually, and Safari currently does not support this feature in any form (unless you count using vi to edit the Safari executable or changing your OS’s hosts file as support, which I do not recommend).

Anyway, our developer friends at Redfin wrote a blog post about their OpenSearch provider on their dev blog some time ago. Of course, they took the easy way out by not developing an OpenSearch Suggestions extension (slackers). I decided that a search provider without suggestion support is lame, so I took a stab at creating one. I think what inspired me to write an OpenSearch suggestions provider is that the IE 8 team blogged about their new Visual Search feature (which embraces & extends the OpenSearch suggestions work that Firefox pioneered) and I could leverage the work to improve the search experience for both IE 8 & Firefox 2+ users. (And the satisfaction of having a cool feature that Redfin & Estately haven’t implemented yet was probably another factor).

This functionality is typically exposed to users, via the search engine bar, next to the address bar in your web browser. So in your page markup, you’ll add something like this that tells the browser that your web site has a search service.

<link title="RPA Real Estate Search" type="application/opensearchdescription+xml" rel="search" href=""/>

The above element points to your site OpenSearch Description XML file which describes your search service in a way the browser can understand. When you visit RPA’s site, the browser will read RPA’s OpenSearch Description file located here and unobtrusively let you add the site’s search providers.

Assuming everything is working correctly, the user should be able to visit RPA’s web site, click on the browser’s search bar to add our search provider like so… (IE’s screen captures are on the left, Firefox’s are on the right).

I’ve also added a button in RPA’s search bar (see above right) in case site visitors don’t discover our search provider via the browser (I suspect most users would miss it otherwise).

After you’ve registered RPA’s search provider with your web browser, you can select it and just start typing. Since I’ve implemented a suggestions service, it will auto complete cities, school districts & neighborhoods as you type them (Didn’t I say this was cool?). I should note that although IE 7 & Chrome support OpenSearch, only IE 8 and Firefox currently support the suggestions providers. Anyway, if you wanted to look for listings in Bellevue, here’s what it currently looks like.

As you’ll notice, IE 8 & Firefox 3 displays suggestions differently on RPA’s site. This is intentional because IE 8 supports a newer version of the OpenSearch standards (Microsoft calls it Visual Search) and I designed RPA’s search provider to exploit this fact. In Firefox, the browser can only handle plain text suggestions, which can lead to ambiguous searches. For example, let’s say you search for Riverview. Riverview is both a neighborhood in Kent and a school district in Carnation / Duvall, so in Firefox there is no means for the user to tell the web site in which context they meant to search for when they typed in Riverview. I suppose one could create a “Did you mean” results page for cases like this, but I think that somewhat defeats the purpose of having suggestions support.

However, in IE 8, if a term has multiple contexts, the search provider can display them all and the user can select the one they meant. Also in IE 8, the search provider can display thumbnails next to the suggestions, which further helps the user quickly find what they are looking for. Although, I haven’t implemented that feature yet (mostly because I wasn’t sure what picture I should put up there for search terms that return multiple results), other web sites have. For example, if you wanted to buy a movie from Amazon or learn more about our 16th president from Wikipedia, the IE 8 search provider experience looks like this…

As the Redfin developers stated, implementing OpenSearch Referrer extensions are surprisingly easy (so I think users will soon request them from all web sites once the word gets out). The OpenSearch Suggestions extensions are more difficult to implement because every single keystroke is essentially a REST web service call. If you aren’t careful, you could bring your web server to its knees real quick. However, given all the AJAX map based tricks today’s real estate web sites perform, this isn’t anything that a professional software engineer can’t handle.

Call me crazy, but I think OpenSearch providers are going to become bigger than RSS feeds over the next year. If IE 8’s forth coming release doesn’t launch them into the mainstream, I think future releases of Firefox & Chrome will improve upon IE 8’s good ideas. Maybe you should think of it as browser favorites on steroids? If search is sticky, then OpenSearch is superglue and duct tape. If Firefox’s suggestions support were the tip of the iceberg, then IE 8’s implementation is cooler than Barrow, Alaska. The future of OpenSearch looks bright, even if it’s cold outside.

The MLS of the future

[photopress:futurama_bender.jpg,thumb,alignright]Recently, the Center for Realtor Technology and Jim Duncan’s Real Central VA had blog posts on the desire to have MLSs’ add another column to their schema that indicated the broadband access status of a property. I think this is an idea whose time has been a long time coming. When I moved from my old home in Carnation to my new home in Issaquah, the new owner of my old house wanted to know everything I could tell him about the home’s local ISP (I believe he was a network engineer). Similarly, one of the major reasons I moved into my current home, was that it had bandwidth to spare (my ISP’s top of the line plan is currently 8 M download / 2 M upload speeds). In the Emerald City or the Bay Area, this information is probably second in importance only to the list price of a home or its location. Simply put, a home’s high speed internet capabilities is an increasingly important factor in your purchasing decision.

However, as long as the MLS DBA is mucking around with database schema and typing in ALTER TABLE Residential ADD Internet varchar(50) and other SQL DDL commands, why should we stop there? Here’s what I’d like to see when the MLS gets around to enhancing it’s database schema.

Use Links. Why not enhance school, local government, builder & utility information in the MLS to have both names and urls? When I move to a new home, usually the first thing I need to do is contact all the local utilities and let them know I’m in a new place. Having links to Puget Sound Energy, Issaquah School District, Specialized Homes, and King County Government in the MLS would save me time. Finding contact information and phone numbers is a much bigger pain than it should be at times.

Cell phone reception information. If you don’t have good cable or DSL internet access, knowing how strong Sprint’s or Clearwire’s signal is would be nice to know. I suspect real estate agents and other professionals that increasingly depend on wireless internet access would find this information very helpful.

More accurate and fewer errors. OK, I’ve complained about this before. Still, is it really too much to ask? If a property doesn’t geocode, somebody may not find it when they use a popular map based real estate search engine.

Embrace RETS. Enough said.

Richer media. OK, so the MLS allows you to upload 10 or 20 small photos (or whatever the number is). Why not allow larger photos, MP3 files, video files or PDF flyers? As broadband takes over the world, the stuff is a lot more practical. Although, the idea sounds nice in theory, I’m not sure agents are ready to hire professional audio engineers or videographers when many haven’t learned the value of high quality photography yet. I also think the MLS IT infrastructure isn’t ready for this kind of load (frankly if you can’t handle the bandwidth demands of digital photography, you should probably outsource to Amazon S3 or Flickr Pro before it’s too late), and it’s going to make life more a lot more interesting for us IDX vendors.

So, if you could change the MLS database, what would you like to add or change? What information do you wish was there, but isn’t? Is built green home information and information on low flow toilets something today’s home buyer wants to be able to search for? Do you think more information would pose an undue burden on agents or brokers (those MLS listing forms are one step removed from a tax return), or do you want more, more, more? What would you like IDX vendors to do differently, regardless if the MLS changes or not?

Using Alexa to Compare Traffic Across Sites

Do you ever wonder how well your website and/or blog is doing in comparison to your competitors?

While there is not a great site on the web for getting accurate traffic statistics on competitors, Amazon does provides some stats based on people who are using their Alexa Toolbar. Rather than try to give total site hits (which they can’t do), Amazon gives us relative stats (as in “X number of people out of a million” visited this site). Here are some observations from some searches I did tonight:

All good stuff, but remember to take these statistics with a grain of salt. As Matt Cutts of Google discussed a while back, the type of people visiting a site can definitely skew these results greatly and considering Rain City Guide is in Amazon’s backyard, we’re more likely than most to have traffic from people with the Alexa toolbar installed.