A look behind the Shack, Part 1: Speed Kills


Really, in the world of the web, slow speed kills. And most people only think about the length of time it takes a website to load when it is taking eons to show up. For static sites, meeting the magic four second page load time isn’t too hard, but for sites with lots of “dynamic content” (fancy menus and whatnot) and maps, it becomes sort of a trick.

Many (most?) fancy real estate search sites are plagued by slow load times – see the real estate 2.x person’s site reviews to see scathing analyses of how long it takes to for many sites to load. In light of this, we took great pains to make our site both feel and be speedy and, if I don’t say so, I think we’ve been pretty successful. On my old-ish computer, the Seattle real estate page typically loads in under 10 seconds (we could still do better on this!) and house detail and nearby pages typically load in under 3 seconds.

One of the tricks we employ is we don’t actually shuffle visitors from a complete page to a completely new page, which means we don’t have to reload the time-consuming Google Map or any of the stuff on the sidebar. Instead, we load little subpages within the site using AJAX (which is, I believe, a dumb acronym). When you click to see the details for a house, we only load up those details and leave the side and top of the site alone and intact. When you click back to the map tab, it’s already there waiting for you because it was just hiding behind the house information.

There are some other tricks that are much more technical: before we launched in December we did a bunch of optimization to cut down the time it takes our database (with over 30,000 western Washington properties currently for sale) to find and spit out the houses that match each search. Currently it it returns the ‘shacks’ that match your search within a second of you dragging the map around – the rest of your wait is the time it takes to actually send and display that information on your screen.

The dynamic updating introduces a can of worms of it’s own, including longer development time, but we think the tradeoffs were entirely worth it.

This is the first in a series of “Behind the Shack” themed posts. If you are especially interested in one aspect of ShackPrices.com, let me know and I’ll try to write about it!

No entiendo su lengua (I don’t understand your language)

[photopress:Flags.jpg,full,alignleft]One of the things I don’t understand is the near total absence of non-English real estate web sites. Maybe the industry is too distracted by Web 2.0 and other battles in front of them to notice & exploit this HUGE opportunity. Perhaps I’m looking in the wrong places. However, I believe if Google has difficulty finding what I’m looking for, it’s probably hard to find.

Having spent many years at Microsoft, I learned the value of software localization. You may be surprised to learn the Microsoft makes over 40% of it’s revenues from outside the United States. Frankly, you haven’t lived as a software engineer, until you’ve seen your code running in Japanese and Hebrew. (In case your curious, Hebrew & Arabic is much harder to deal with than East Asian languages). Another data point is that my bank (Washington Mutual) has ATMs that speak English, Spanish, Chinese and Russian and offers offer free homebuyer education workshops in Spanish.

Although, all real estate is local, not all real estate consumers are locals. According to the 1990 & 2000 US Census data, the percentage of people in the US who don’t speak English fluently is growing. Over 10% of our population only speaks Spanish. The number of Asian only language speakers in the US is growing at rate similar to (though smaller in number) to the Hispanic population.

For example, John L Scott, Windermere, & Coldwell Banker Bain, all let you search for a bilingual agent. Unfortunately, that feature of their web sites is only useful if you know enough English to understand you can search for bilingual agent! If you don’t understand English, how are you going to be able to find that feature to begin with? There’s not a single word of non-English content to be found on their web sites. That major shortcoming aside, I have to give them credit for at least trying to make things easier for the non-English speaking public.

Fortunately, I’m not the the only one who thinks this way. There are industry advocacy groups such as the National Association of Hispanic Real Estate Professionals and Asian Real Estate Association of America that are trying to make things easier for Spanish & East Asian speaking consumers & real estate professionals. A Latino Advertising & Marketing blog entry, states (surprise surprise) that bilingual real estate agents are in demand with Latino home buyers. And if you or your web site doesn’t speak their language, ColConnect is a company that can help you, since they focus on bilingual web design & marketing for real estate & mortgage professionals. An example of their client web sites can be found in English and in EspaƱol.

OK, so your thinking, how can I take advantage of this? Here’s what I’d do…

If your bi-lingual or multi-lingual advertise that fact. Join an industry advocacy group such as NAHREP or AREAA. Make your web site multi-lingual. Have one side of your business card in English and the other in your second language. Exploit your linguistic superiority!

If your not bi-lingual, make friends with somebody who is. (Maybe you can hire them as translators?) Link to relevant foreign language real estate content. You should also make your content machine translatable. I don’t speak Spanish, Chinese or Russian, but I know computers that do (which is the next best thing to knowing people who do). Read old Rain City Guide postings and get creative.

If you speak any language, (foreign or domestic) talk with the MLS or your broker and see if there’s a way to change to MLS schema so that it’s contains remarks in Spanish and other foreign languages. As along as they are in the database, perhaps they can increase the size of the remarks field, so agents won’t be compelled to use abbreviations anymore (and make life easier for software translators). Perhaps, the MLS can add $25 to the cost of a listing to cover the cost of a human translating the remarks section into 4 or 5 different languages? After all, why should the listing agent or seller care what language the buyer speaks, as long their check doesn’t bounce? Anyway, I suspect MLSes are limited by their software vendors, and if enough professionals demand these features from their MLS, it might just happen someday. Remember, it wasn’t that long ago, that sold data was a pipe dream too.

Make sure you when you develop your web site’s content or enter listings into your MLS, you use complete sentences with proper spelling, simple languages, and no abbreviations. Then visit a site like AltaVista’s Babel Fish, World Lingo or Google’s Translate and verify that your translated test looks OK. You may not understand the translated page, but if your translated page comes back with a lot of English words & abbreviations, you’ll know you need to revise it so the computer will do a better job of translating it. Translate the text twice (English to foreign language and back to English) and if the text comes back funny get a thesaurus and try to pick words that the computer less likely to get confused with. Even though computers don’t translate human languages nearly as well as humans do, they are better than nothing at all, (they are also much cheaper than people and getting smarter every day).

I’m shocked by the total lack of multi-language MLS search tools and foreign language realtor web sites. I would’ve thought that large brokers would’ve smelled the money by now and pursued this opportunity more aggressively. Regardless, I’m planning on getting Zearch to speak a second & third language by the end of the year and I suspect that others will follow my lead since the demand for non-English real estate services is only going to grow. After all, money is the universal language that everybody understands.