Adventures in digital listing land

Recently, one of my clients (Real Property Associates) asked me to automate the process of submitting (or advertising) their real estate listings and rental properties on Trulia, Google Base, and Craigslist. After implementing the feature, I thought sharing my experiences would a make an interesting blog post. (So here we are)…

[photopress:Feed_1_2.gif,full,alignright]As you may know, there are 2 ways of getting your listings on Trulia. The easiest is just to let Trulia crawl your site. Unfortunately this method doesn’t work very well since there are an infinite number of ways to present listings on a web page, and Trulia’s engineers haven’t been able to spend the requisite infinite amount of time required to handle all the cases. This isn’t a knock on Trulia, since Google Base doesn’t even attempt to do this, but just a reminder that there are a lot of things software just can’t do yet. If this method works for you, your lucky.

The recommended way is far more reliable. You merely need to host an XML file on your web site that contains the listings you want to promote, and then once day or so, Trulia’s web farm will request your file, parse it, and import onto their site for the whole world to see.

In my case, since I already export MLS searches via RSS (I knew writing that feature was a good idea), I merely had to spend a couple hours tweaking the output of my MLS RSS feed pages to match Trulia’s schema, register the URL on Trulia, and in 48 hours, we had listings on Trulia. And in 72 hours, I noticed referrals from Trulia was already generating about 4% of the site’s traffic!

By comparison, Google Base was easier in some respects and more cumbersome in others. The nice thing about the Google Base file format is that it is standard RSS. Or rather, it’s standard in the same way the Microsoft Word exports standard HTML. It’s RSS with a bunch of namespaced items for the custom attributes that Google Base uses for it’s Housing item type. Anyway, if you have already have an MLS RSS feed, tweaking the output to match Google’s schema is pretty straight forward. I should note that Google appeared to be more particular about the XML it gets than Trulia appeared to be, so you’ll probably be spending more time getting things onto Google Base.

The problem with Google Base isn’t creating the feed, it’s getting it up there. You see, Google Base does not download an URL like Trulia does, therefore you have to upload your data to the GooglePlex. There are 2 ways to upload your data, via a web browser or via ftp. I ended up writing a script on my server that would download a Google Base feed from my web server, and then upload it to Google in the middle of the night.

Automating Craigslist from a web page was an interesting challenge. They have a very aggressive anti-spamming policy, CAPTCHAs, have no supported way of submitting a post programatically, and the web browser’s cross domain security model certainly doesn’t make things easier. Fortunately, I found a way around everything but the CAPTCHA, but it required some IE only technology since Firefox on Windows still doesn’t support COM automation. (BTW, if any developers out there know if XUL applications on Firefox/Mozilla can accomplish everything IE based HTA’s can, drop me line. I’d love to talk with you)

After serving up listings to “the major players”, I decided to see what the beast from Redmond was up to. Turns out they want in on the action too (big surprise), and the 1-2 punch of Windows Live Expo and Live Product Upload appears to be Microsoft’s answer to both Craigslist and GoogleBase. I’ve signed up for the Live Product Upload Beta, and I’m looking forward to adding support for their service once they get their act together. It looks promising, but currently their upload service is more designed for merchants selling products, instead of real estate professionals selling homes.

Hopefully, the Live Product Upload team will correct this oversight and support multiple item types for upload. They better not wait too long to get that feature implemented, because I’ve recently discovered that Propsmart, Oodle, Edgeio, already have web feed programs in place for XML formatted listing submission. It looks like I’m going to be busy…

So, what sites do you use for listing promotion (or just reading classifieds)? looks like a promising up and comer. Anybody use to assist in your online classified ad management? Anybody using Zillow,, or Ebay for listings promotion? Is paid advertising worth the expense when the free online classified marketplace is exploding?

Google takes real estate seriously

The people who poke and prod Google in the hopes of finding secrets hit a treasure trove of services in Google’s testing area today and it looks like Google isn’t just dinking around with a crummy Google-base – real estate listings mashup anymore. It shouldn’t be much of a surprise, what with Paul Rademacher (founder of on board, a Google base full of listings, and a great mapping service, Google is creating real estate search as a distinct service.

If Google real estate search uses the same technology as Froogle, you can expect to see a lot of Seattle-area homes listed for $150,000 with $300,000 in shipping costs shown to you after you try to buy it.

In other news, Trulia is now letting you post their listings on your site. They say it’s for agents and brokers, but do agents and brokers really want to steer people away from their web sites? If a visitor clicks on More details… they are whisked to the listing agent’s website. I predict that it will mostly be used by bloggers and non-real estate people.

Why Google Base Matters

If you are building a real estate search site and you didn’t hear the warning shot fired by Google today, then you don’t really deserve to be in business much longer. While just about anyone building a real estate search tool should be concerned, I’m going to focus this article on my friends over at Zillow

Zillow: be worried… Be very worried.

Here’s some background… Yesterday I was playing around with some google searches when I noticed a new box that shows up when you do a real estate search… as in [Seattle+real+estate]:

This takes you to a simple (and kind of ugly) results page:

Where you can also go to a simple (and not very user-friendly) map of listings:

My impression of Google’s latest features is that the data is VERY incomplete and the interface is ugly.

So, why should the people behind Zillow be worried?

Three reasons:

  1. You are not sticky. I’m a hard-core real estate user and after satisfying my Day 1 voyeurism, I’ve never had a good reason to visit your site again. I’ve talked with your staff about this and I know that you are not geared toward a user like me, but I recommend you find a way to create stickiness if you really are planning to be an ad-based media company. Why? See reason #2…
  2. A super-sticky site only has to be half as good at proving a home valuation to decimate your business. People who start their home search on-line do not start a home search by typing in [] or even []. People start a home search (and especially people moving to a new city) by typing a query into a google search box. From now on, those people are ALL going to see Google’s offerings, and should Google decide to add a valuation tool, the tool will likely be “good enough” so that they never even both going to Zillow. Google only has to be good enough at providing a valuation in order to capture most of your market. Why? See reason #3…
  3. People are lazy. People don’t use your site to get the “exact” price of their home since you don’t even try to provide it. If you asked 10 appraisers to value a typical Seattle home, you would get 10 different answers and at least a 5% standard deviation in their answers. Even if you can improve your answers by 2% more to match the variability inherent in the emotional decisions associated with buying a home, that is still not good enough. Don’t waste much more time trying to improve your appraisal methods. You’re good enough and soon others (like Google?!?) will have a service that is good enough as well. Instead, find something sticky. You have a very talented team, so I doubt you’re suffering from lack of ideas. Nonetheless, it is clearly time to develop something that will bring me back to your site on a regular basis.

To everyone else creating real estate search tools, I’m not convinced that a vertical real estate search will ever beat Google’s offerings UNLESS they have a much better database of homes than Google. Right now, Google is seriously lacking in quality inventory. However, if the consumers go there (and they will), then you can expect brokers (and someday brokerages!) to follow with their listings.

Google Base Launches without “Housing”

Google BaseGoogle Base launched today without the “housing” option that was available in the temporary site (as shown in this screenshot). Of course, users can still add their own housing information, but if it is not a default option, I doubt it will take off.

The site looks real interesting… Here’s a positive review and here’s a negative review. I’ll post my review after I’ve had a chance to play with it more.

So what impact will this have on the real estate industry?

Short-term: none.
Long-term: It depends on where Google takes it.

List of the Most innovative Search Sites

Innovative Real Estate TechnologiesThere are so many interesting real estate search sites that are pop up every day, and in the process of trying to cover all of them in a blog format, I think things have gotten a little too scattered. So I took a little time this evening and put all of the sites that I’m aware of on one page along with a few notes about them. Check it out at:

At this point, I’ve broken all of the sites into four categories:

  • National Sites: major MLS and FSBO sites
  • Regional Sites: smaller data sets that are yet to go national
  • Specialty Sites: sold data, property information, etc.
  • Vaporware: still waiting for a product…

This beauty of making this list on a webpage instead of a blog post is that it will be much more fluid. I always feel awkward about updating a blog entry after I’ve posted it, but I’ll feel no qualms about updating this list on a regular basis. Along those lines, if you know of an innovative real estate tool that I’ve missed, please let me know!

Where the Streets Have No Name…

Grand View
Part I: Background
Just when I thought I was getting a handle on the players in the future of real estate search, today’s news unleashes a whole new set of opportunities! “Homestore, Inc., the leading provider of real estate media and technology solutions, today announced that Elevation Partners, a private equity firm, has agreed to invest $100 million in Homestore…”

Since I’ve been covering real estate search, I’ve had numerous emails, chats, conversations, etc. from real estate agents who think that I should highlight more of the companies that are working to improve the MLS instead of the companies that are looking to replace it!

More than anyone else, Homestore represents the hope that someone will provide an awesome, nationwide, competitive real estate search based on the current MLS system.

Why? Homestore already operates the largest real estate database, i.e.the database that operates

Now mix together (1) the only complete nationwide MLS database (that I’m aware of), (2) $100M to improve operations, and (3) some VERY accomplished tech visionaries, and I’d imagine that expectations are set very high.

For Homestore, Elevation Partners brings a former Apple star, a former Electronic Arts star, a Silicon Valley star, and of course, a rock star… There are enough opportunities to make one’s head buzz… I’m thinking:

  • Real estate listings on my iPod
  • Simcity interface for home search
  • Home listing videos done MTV-style

Okay, so maybe my head started spinning a little too much! Back on planet earth, I’d say that all the players (Zillow, Trulia, Redfin, Google, etc.) building innovative home search tools should keep a close eye on Homestore. They already “own” a complete and nationwide set of real estate data (ownership in the sense that they have “possession”!). Should they start putting together some innovative tools, they have leverage that others are going to find hard to beat!

Part II: Where the Streets have No Name
I want to run
I want to hide
I want to tear down the walls
That hold me inside
I want to reach out
And touch the flame
Where the streets have no name

Part III: Your Mission Should you Wish to Accept It
Imagine that you’ve been invited to 2800 Sand Hill Road to discuss the future of real estate with Roger McNamee, Fred Anderson, Bono, John Riccitiello, John Doerr, and Joe Hanauer.

What do you tell them? What features do you want to see in real estate search? If you are an agent, what is the biggest pain that someone could fix with a technical solution? If you are a buyer, what are the major gaps you see in the current system? What information do you wish you had?

I know that some of my readers have some great ideas. Please share as much as you’re willing. Remember that these guys want to work “within” the current system (i.e. cooperate with real estate agents!), and, most importantly, these people are thinking huge… $100M huge!

The State of Real Estate Search

real estate search enginesTom over at the Seattle Property News summed the current state of real estate search with this question: “Is there a regional bubble in online real estate sites?

From a consumer’s point-of-view, it is wonderful that home buyers (and sellers!) are starting to see so many options come on the market. I’ve really enjoyed following as more and more of these tools come on-line and I thought I would take today to review some of the posts I’ve had on real estate search. If you are looking to freshen up on the future of real estate search, there is lots of information (and links to more info) in the following articles:

As a fun little aside, when a new search site is announced I like to see the type of buzz that it is getting in the blogosphere. The chart from this post shows the relative buzz that Trulia, Redfin and Zillow have been getting.

Also, there are a few small search sites, like Propsmart, that I haven’t covered mainly because I simply don’t have anything interesting to say about them yet. However, if you are building (or have built) a real estate search site, I’m definitely interested in hearing about it!

GoogleBase Heads into Real Estate?

Google BaseThe Search Engine Roundtable brings up the possibility that Google will slip into the real estate market as part of a much large (all-inclusive) database (or GoogleBase). This has a ton of potential and should Google get serious about listing real estate, this should be a major concern to all the people who are creating real estate applications (Zillow, Trulia, Redfin, etc):

There has been some talk this morning onto what will actually be included into Google Base, there are some nice screenshots that have come live this morning. Giving us a little glimpse of how Google thinks the world’s information should be organized. Here is a shot where you can post your items to Google Base and another shot where you need enter in some information about a house.

To get an idea of where they might go, check out this screenshot of a house listing. It is shockingly simple… but then again, the simple solutions are often the best!

Update 1: I was able to get into GoogleBase today and play around a little. I even found the “housing” page that is shown in the screenshot from above. However, when I tried to save a test entry, the system kicked me out. From my early preview, it appears that they’re building a “Craigslist on Steroids!”

Update 2: The NYTimes followed up on the idea of Google getting into real estate: “Among the many projects being developed and debated inside Google is a real estate service, according to a person who has attended meetings on the proposal. The concept, the person said, would be to improve the capabilities of its satellite imaging, maps and local search and combine them with property listings.”

“The service, this person said, could make house hunting far more efficient, requiring potential buyers to visit fewer real estate agents and houses. If successful, it would be another magnet for the text ads that appear next to search results, the source of most of Google’s revenue.”

Update 3: The property grunt had an interesting take on Google Base.