Thoughts on a new theme for RCG?

4realz screenshotI’ve wanted to update the Rain City Guide theme for a while now, and took some time this week to play around with some different ideas.  I *think*I’ve come up with something that will work well for me, but wanted to run it by the RCG community for feedback first…  If you head over to, you can see the theme (in action) that I’m thinking of launching here.

Here’s what I like about this theme:

  • Magazine-style so more articles are featured “above-the-fold” . This “teaser” style of posts is a bit controversial, and I won’t really know if it’s better until after I have some data with RCG-level traffic. My hope is that the bounce-rate for people that land on the homepage will go down.
  • The pages and categories are featured just below the header which, for a site like RCG, will help show off the breadth of content.
  • I noticed that the existing RCG theme played funny with a couple of new features of WordPress (in ways I didn’t like), and this one plays much better. Just one example is that when I linked out to RCG with a Facebook status update the existing theme is doing something funny so that the title and photos are not being pulled… That problem is solved with this new theme.
  • Threaded comments@ARDELLd and I have been having an interesting conversation about this on twitter, but my opinion is that the threaded conversations will actually help improve the flow of the conversation. It will be interesting to see and would love your feedback on this feature.
  • By pushing the “pages” to the header, I’ll free up some space for bringing recent comments in a more prominent place (I’ll probably put them where the “connect” widget currently exists).
  • And finally, my wife, Anna, says the theme is easier on the eyes (and I trust her “design” sense over mine any day!). When/if I launch this theme on RCG, I’m going to use “RCG” colors instead of “4realz” colors (i.e. maroon instead of blue) and “Seattle” photos instead of “Dustin” photos, but the idea is that the new theme will be very similar

Here’s a screenshot with the colors/graphics I’m thinking I’ll use when (if?) I launch it on RCG:


One of the main things I’ll be looking at with the new theme is if our bounce rate for people who arrive on the homepage for the first time drops… I don’t know if a magazine-style theme is the solution to our high bounce rate, but the easiest way to find out if to actually launch it on the site.

By the way, the theme I’m using is a slightly modified version of the theme by c.bavota called Magazine Basic. The only changes I made were to:

  • Add some color and graphics (like the 4realz/Raindrop logo in the header)
  • Add an “author” box below each post (much more important for RCG than 4realz!)
  • Add some code so that the “comment preview” shows up with a box around it…

As you can see, really minor stuff… and that’s only because the theme rocks the boat right out of the box!

As always, I’d love your feedback!

What Drives an Active Online Community?

You do with your comments!

When I give talks about the value of blogs, I always brag about how active the rain city guide community is, but I hadn’t thought to try quantify it until I saw John Cook’s post this morning.

Over the past 3+ years, we’ve had 30,802 comments from 1,744 posts!

This is an average of over 17 comments for every post!  That’s pretty darn impressive!

It’s kind of fun to look back at the posts that have generated the most conversations, so I thought I’d list all the posts that have generated over 100 comments:

* 200+ comments

So much great stuff thanks to the entire RCG community!

Subscribe to Comments via Email

I just installed a long requested plugin that allows a user (YOU!) to subscribe to comments on any given post. The idea is that after you’ve written a comment you can opt to also be notified via email every time a new comment is added to that post. It is not for everyone, but if this is your cup-of-tea, then try it out and let me know if you’re having any issues…

The Big List of RCG Plugins

My list is a little longer than Greg’s

Akismet. A must for WP blogs… I’ve complained in the past how their service is somewhat of a blackhole and I can’t seem to rescue a few of the people who leave comments on RCG from the Akismet spam filter. Nonetheless, the service catches hundreds of spam messages every moment. If I didn’t have a life, I could just keep hitting refresh on my spam filter and there would always be another spam message to delete. Matt, if you’re listening... Here are the two improvements I’d like to see. (1) A way to not have spam limited to showing only the most recent 150 spam messages. Recently, I’ve had two different people leave comments who say there were picked up by the spam filter, but because my queue had already built up to greater than 150 messages, I had no way to rescue them. When I hit the “delete all” button, I only (wrongly) reinforced that these people were spam. (2) A way to rescue people who are labeled spam from deep within the blackhole of Akismet’s database. Galen, one of RCG’s contributor’s has to go “save himself” every time he posts. This sucks! (but is better than me dealing with 450 spam messages a day!)

Exec-PHP. Allows for Admin and Editors to write PHP code within their posts… Both dangerous and powerful and the easiest way to get the Archive plugin to work.

Filosofo Comments Preview. This allows for the preview button. I wish I had time to figure out how to format the “preview” page, but I remember spending a whole evening on that one time and not making enough progress, so I just leave it unformatted. It’s ugly, but better than not having the preview option!

Gravatars. This plugin allows me to easily show the author’s photo on the beginning of every post. At one point, I tried to set this up to allow commenters to have their own gravatars (which is the more common use for this plugin), but I couldn’t get it to work with my theme.

Recent Comments. This really nice plugin lets me show the most recent comments on the sidepanel. It is highly configurable and very easy to work with. I attribute the use of this plugin to the high comment level that we get on many RCG posts because it allows everyone to easily seeing where there is “action” on the site…

GeoPress. This allows me to geocode my posts so that they show up over a map. If you haven’t seen this in action, then you’re going to have to wait a little longer. Normally, when you visit adetail page on Anna’s home search tool, a bunch of little rain drops show up that represent blog posts about that location. At the moment, no rain drops are showing up and I suspect this is because of changes to the server during my recent move and Robbie and I never noticed it was broken (until now!). It’s a very cool feature and way under-utilized by me. Note that the author mentions there is a new and improved version of the plugin here.

PhotoPress. This was top-of-the-line when I first started built RCG a year and a half ago. Since then, WP has designed a built-in photo uploaded that is better integrated with the core system. However, I’m stuck on the old photo upload program because I don’t even want to try thinking about reloading all the photos to a new system and getting everything to work. I dread thinking about the day when the PhotoPress people stop updating their code because demand has shrunk. That’s the day I’m going to be forced to hire a developer for this site!

WP-Print. Add a little printer icon next to the post and allows people to print off a clean looking version of the post. I never print articles, but I’ve heard others do, so this is meant to help save a few trees.

Role Manager. This lets me be very picky about what the different contributors can do on the site… Do I want Jon to upload photos but not publish? Do I want to give Ardell all “editor” rights except the ability to run PHP within posts? This plugin handles that kind of thing.

WP-Stats. This page provides a lot of pretty useless stats, but I installed it and have never turned it off… On the day when I decide to award free-round vacation packages to the top 10 WP contributors, I’ll use this plugin because it counts links like number of posts by author and number of comments by author.

Smart Archives. Clean, simple, smart archive.

Ultimate Tag Warrior. This this is so feature rich, I’ll never even play around with half the options on my beta site. At this point, I’ve been keeping it pretty simple and using the code to tag the bottom of blog posts and create the tag cloud in the archives.

WordPress Database Backup. A backup option without the need to go into PHPmyAdmin! Greg once mentioned that he linked my quote: “I believe real estate agents are either in marketing or broke”… Today’s version: “People running website either backup on a regular basis, or they are broke!”.

WP-Contact Form. Simple, but useful, contact form. I use it on the buyer information and seller information pages. (note: this is also the way that I monetize this blog! 😉 )

Just because users can post doesn’t mean they will

In spite of all the hype for social websites, there have been a rash of noble attempts that come up short recently. No one has quite figured out the right way to start an open dialog about individual homes yet.

ShackYack, “the only real estate site where you can comment and rate the product, just like amazon, netflix, ebay etc.,” launched in late May. Apparently they have found that houses aren’t mass produced and sold by the millions like iPods and people really don’t have much to post about them. That said, part of the reluctance to comment on properties is probably the buggy interface and their newness on the market.

However! Propsmart’s interface isn’t buggy. In fact, it’s one of the best out there and they encourage comments too. But a random sampling of homes on the site shows no comments.

Why would you want to publicly comment on a house unless you’re the owner or an agent looking for leads? The house, along with your comments, is going to be off the market in a few weeks and, unless you’re an agent, you’re going to be out of the market in a short period of time too. And if you’re an agent, blogging seems like a more public and permanent way to go.

That said, Propsmart’s blogging service appears to be stillborn, with the last post being posted over 2 months ago. Even blogging systems aren’t always a hit.

I feel like I’m picking on PropSmart here, but I’m really not. Whenever you introduce new services, some will be hits and some won’t. Their search site and their interface in particular are great and they are definitely the most straight-talking real estate search company out there (possibly the only one?).

Inspiring People to Comment

The total number of comments on a post is probably one of the better indicators that a blog post met the interestingness test.

Here are the top 10 most commented on posts on RCG:

  1. 8 Common Mistakes Made By Real Estate Bloggers – 70 comments
  2. You Have to Wonder…. – 66 comments
  3. Paying for the Privilege of Marginalization – 56 comments
  4. Adding Some Sun to Rain City Guide – 49 comments
  5. Why Google Base Matters – 48 comments
  6. Agents and Consumers – A Perplexing Business Model – 43 comments
  7. Is Your Earnest Money Protected By The Finance Contingency? – 40 comments
  8. Redfin – Something to think about. – 39 comments
  9. The Lame List Part II – MLS Rules – 35 comments
  10. Something’s Afoot in the Real Estate Business – but what does it mean and where is it going? – 32 comments

Here’s some of the common themes I see running through these posts:

  • Controversy. They give a strong opinion on a controversial topic.
  • On Topic. Rain City Guide is about real estate and the blog posts that are most commented on are all about real estate. While not surprising, I think it is worth noting that off topic posts are do not generate as much interest.
  • Minimal moderation. This may not be readily apparent to everyone else, but I haven’t had to moderate or remove almost any comments on any of these blog posts.
  • No begging for comments. None of the posts asked the users to comment… For example, not one of them states “What do you think?” at the end. I like to think that a good blog post “inspires” users to comment as oppose to asks them.

So… What do you think? 😉

Update: Paying people to comment is pretty darn effective as well. Looks like Hanan is giving away 100 bucks to one lucky person if enough of us go over to his site and leave a comment!

What is more dangerous: censorship or self-censorship?

At yesterday’s seminar, the issue of liability came up (as it always does) with many agents worried that they could get in legal danger for content that they write on a blog. My summary of what Russ is able to say quite eloquently is that the type of content that is legally appropriate for an email or other correspondence is the same for a blog. In other words, if you’re not allowed to call a neighborhood “family-friendly” to a client in person or in an email, then you can’t do it in a blog. The take home lesson is that blogging is like all other business endeavors in that an agent needs to use common-sense when blogging.

While liability is interesting, I find the concept of censorship to be a much bigger danger for the real estate community. To give an example, yesterday someone requested that I take down a set of comments he had written (over a month ago) on RCG because the powers that be (most likely his broker) did not want him blogging. Considering his comments were part of a long dialog that was already read and commented upon by hundreds of people, the request seemed hopelessly short-sighted on the part of his broker. Nonetheless, I did make the changes he requested. But this got me thinking… There really are two types of censorships that are common in the way that the real estate industry operates online:

  • Censorship: When agents are censored by their brokers/industry
  • Self-censorship: When agents simply refuse to take part in an online community because they are afraid that the “powers that be” might not approve of their comments

Personally, I think self-censorship is the real danger in that agents don’t even take the chance to push the limits of what it means to create an online community. If the censorship is overt, the conversations over and an agent can either live with the consequences of not having an online “voice” or move to a new broker. But when the censorship is self-imposed based on a climate of uncertainty, I think agents will have a much harder time demonstrating the expertise that they can provide to their potential clients. It seems obvious to me that agents need to have a high level of freedom if they are going to differentiate and successfully market themselves online.

Website Owners Not Liable for Comments

Considering this issue comes up every time Russ and I speak in front of an audience (including yesterday), I thought it would be interesting to share that the courts have been consistently ruling that blog owners are not legally responsible for the comments on their site, even if they moderate…

It happens all too often that some website owner in the US is sued with claims of libel over comments on that site in an open forum. We usually point to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, and note that it’s pretty clear that service providers of such forums are not liable for content they didn’t write themselves. We also like to point to a 9th Circuit ruling, noting that, even when such comments are moderated or approved, the site owner or moderator isn’t responsible. While the Supreme Court later refused to hear an appeal on the case, meaning the ruling really still only covers the 9th Circuit, the ruling is so reasonable, you’d have to hope other courts would agree with the logic. It appears some already are. Tech Law Advisor points us to a few different sources covering a District Court ruling (outside of the 9th Circuit) that comes to similar conclusions (even if the article is improperly headlined). The case involves the somewhat infamous TuckerMax forums, which are known for being a bit on the… free wheeling side of things. Apparently, a bunch of anonymous commenters there were upset about a party thrown by some publicist, and posted some relatively mean comments about him in the forums. The publicist then sued Tucker Max, claiming that he was liable for the comments, even though it was clear they weren’t made by him. The actual court ruling (warning: pdf) is an enjoyable read, as the judge clearly explains why he’s throwing out the case. He even cites the ridiculous number of censors China employs to filter the internet to explain why it’s not reasonable to expect internet site owners to police their forums more carefully — even as he notes that Tucker Max clearly admits to moderating comments on his site. The ruling also refers back to an older ruling pointing out the importance of protecting free speech, even when vulgar. It’s another reasonable ruling concerning these issues. Hopefully, once enough of these pile up, most lawyers will know better than to file such lawsuits.

There’s a Person Behind that Blog

Robert Scoble (the excellent Microsoft blogger) has been writing about the pain of watching his mother die.

One of the things that shocked him was that even while he’s describing these events, people are still sending him PR pitches for new products. He follows up these comments by saying he doesn’t mind receiving product pitches, however, the people need to read his blog and be current on his situation if they expect a response.

He’s making some interesting points that are very relevant to real estate blogging… Always remember that there are people behind the blogs. Real estate is such a “people” business, and yet, when people get on the internet they sometimes act like they are only dealing with computers.

Before you pitch a product, website or service (either via comments or email) remember that it is not a computer reading your pitch but a human being. Write something that demonstrates you’re interested in the person’s writing.

Personally, I receive so many emails now that I couldn’t possibly respond to them all and still handle a full-time job. However, getting me (and just about every blogger I know) to respond is quite easy… Write something that shows your interested in their thoughts or opinions!

Should RCG Allow Anonymous Comments?

In my mind, the best thing about Rain City Guide is that the site has grown into a wonderful community with a constant stream of interesting posts and comments. In no way do I want to mess with this!

However, I’m a slightly concerned with the rise in anonymous commenters on Rain City Guide because I’ve seen a few blogs and forums where the discussions degenerate once people start leaving anonymous comments in bunches. So far this hasn’t been a problem on Rain City Guide, but I don’t want to let things slip to the point where anonymous people (like Bob Cat, el nino, Milton Friedman) make others feel uncomfortable posting their comments.

Here are the options I see in dealing with anonymous comments:

  1. No change… Leave all non-spam comments on the site (anonymous or otherwise)
  2. Selectively delete anonymous comments that are clearly meant to antagonize or bait people.
  3. Try to preempt any issues by requiring that all posts be from people with a valid email address. I could check this by emailing anonymous posters after they leave a comment and if they don’t respond in a reasonable amount of time, I would delete their comment.
  4. Require people to register with Rain City Guide before leaving a comment. This would include an automatic email address verification.

If I was going to make a change, the purpose of the change would be to discourage degrading comments (before they start to occur) and to encourage people to leave comments with less chance of harassment. What do you think? Am I making much-to-do about nothing? Should we just assume that only people with a think enough skin are going to leave comments anyway?

I’m definitely interested in your feedback! (and feel free to comment anonymously… for now.) 😉