Social networking around geography

Last week I was asked to speak on “Public Engagement Through Web2.0” at the annual conference of the California Chapter of the American Planning Association (APA).

It started with a request from Eric Fredericks, the guy behind the Walkable Neighborhoods blog, who I’ve known (and liked!) for quite a while now. I’ll happily admit I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect out of the crowd of planners, but I was someone excited since I spent seven years employed as a transportation planner and only asked to speak AFTER I left the industry! LOL!

The theme of the talk that I gave was on trying to understand how social networks can be built up around the concept of geography because I see it being a unique item that links both city/transportation planners and the real estate community. While most social networks are organized around friends (think myspace) or a shared experience (think facebook), the idea behind the communities that are most relevant to planners and real estate agents are rooted in geography…

What surprised me the most was that the questions I was asked during the Q&A were almost exactly the same as I get asked during the seminars I give for agents. Questions like How do you moderate comments?, How do you attract an audience? and How much time does it take?

However, there was one question I’ve never heard from a real estate audience, but I think it is an interesting because it forced me to think a bit differently about access to the real estate website. Essentially, a planner from a local government agency asked: If we set up a blog to communicate to our constituents, how do we reach the 30% or so that do not have access to the internet? I didn’t have a good answer for her (and I still don’t), so I’m glad that I kept quiet and let Eric give an answer. Nonetheless, the idea of being concerned with “full access” is not something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about since my initial angle with this site was much more geared toward hitting the tech-savvy few!

I ended the talk with the concept that we’re not far from a day when our online social networks could have a very useful geographic element to them that could be of use to both real estate professionals and city planners. And while I can’t claim to know what that social network will look like, I look to Google Earth effort to bring avatars akin to Second Life and companies who are bringing in real-world experiences in Second Life for clues… Maybe we’ll hit the sweat spot of “web3.0” when Google replaces our mobile network with gPhones… πŸ™‚

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, let me know and I’ll try to write about it!

Start searching on

[photopress:ShackPrices.gif,thumb,alignright]As of midnight last night, is live. We have a post up on the ShackBlog about what you’ll find on our new site, but I’ll summarize it for our readers here:

What is ShackPrices?

[photopress:map_sample.jpg,thumb,alignleft] is a snappy Google maps-based real estate search site that makes finding a home better by augmenting each real estate listing with data about what is nearby, including the distances to nearby landmarks, nearby schools and nearby bus stops. ShackPrices also helps home buyers learn about cities and neighborhoods through reviews, statistics and photos. Home buyers can search for shacks (shabby to chic, of course) across all of Western Washington on

What makes different?

[photopress:tabs_1_2_3_4.jpg,full,alignright]You’ll spot some obvious things that differentiate right off the bat, including information about what is nearby every listing (check out the surroundings near this Ballard listing) and Suggested Shacks, which predicts houses home buyers might be interested in if they like any of the 20,000+ houses for sale on

ShackPrices is still in its infancy, so expect more handy features in the coming year and please let us know how we can improve your experience.

Jeez Louise! Web 2.0

[photopress:2_1.jpg,full,alignright]We just can’t be the only ones not reporting on this. That’s all I can say. It’s a sad day. Click on every word in Greg’s post for the full scoop heard round the world regarding Redfin and Web 2.0.

Maybe they should have closed for holiday during Glenn’s honeymoon. I never called my office once during my honeymoon…hope Glenn is doing the same and shutting out all forms of communication!

Try this one…it’s quicker.

Required Reading…

Another list of 10:

  1. Worth reiterating: Polly’s comments should be required reading for all agents (including the comments within the post about her comments! πŸ™‚ ).
  2. Claudia Wicks lets us know about this “genealogy” site geared toward homes instead of people… The site includes maps, photos, etc.
  3. Also, are press releases still valuable? A quick search on Claudia shows that a recent press release she put out about being one of the Top Woman Real Estate bloggers dominates the coverage of her name on a google search. Fascinating.
  4. Artemi just emailed me to let me know that he just released a major upgrade to his real estate search site for England. The features that stick out for me are the simplicity, the tags for each property, and the natural language search (like the fact that the site also pre-fills in the search box with relevant tags). Great stuff…
  5. Interesting to read Jim’s perspective on the new website he is building with Ubertor. From what I’ve seen, the website definitely suffices as far as websites go, but if I was searching for an agent, I’d say his blog does a much better job selling himself.
  6. Searchlight had a follow up to their renting is for suckers article that describes some reasons a person should not buy a house. I can’t tell if they read my comment, but they clearly addressed some of the issues I brought up.
  7. Joel gives some insight into the art of being good enough
  8. And then follows it up with news that Prudential is jumping on the Zillow API bandwagon.
  9. My take? Here are the ingredients for housingmaps style publicity: map. geocode. data1. data2.
  10. Jim’s worth noting column reminded me that I really wanted to mention DataPlace at some point. I saw a presentation of this tool at Where2.0 and was very impressed with the massive amount of neighborhood, demographic, socio-economic, etc. data that the Fannie May Foundation has manage to squeeze into their interface (and it is all free!). To give an overview, check out the massive amount of mortgage information available for the Seattle-Bellevue area or better yet, check out the map that I was able to easy build on post on my site of home ownership rates in the area:

Seattle isn’t just a real estate startup hub

O’Reilly discusses research that suggests Seattle is fertile ground for startups, coming in behind San Francisco and Boston at number 3 based on a rough analysis of SimplyHired job postings. Downturn or not, the real estate market here is going to change if a couple more Amazons or Microsofts grow up in the Seattle area.

John Cook has more Seattle-centric observations and points to analysis by (New York-based) Fred Wilson, who claims that New York is number 3, based on an analysis of Conecticut-based Maybe Seattle would hit number 2 if the analysis used job listings from, a Seattle based startup.

By the way, for those who travel a lot, I have invites to my favorite Seattle-based startup, Farecast. Let me know if you want one.

Seattle Real Estate Calendar Update

Thanks to Tom of Trumba, I’ve been playing around with Trumba‘s calendar solutions. They are definitely doing some interesting things and there are some benefits to their solution that go above and beyond the current offerings of Google Calendar I discussed a little while back. In particular, I really like two features they’ve added to the NYTime’s Automotive Calendar that I think could easily be ported to the Seattle real estate scene.

  • Feature 1: Submit an Event allows for any user to add an event
  • Feature 2: Add This Calendar to Your Site gives some simple javascript so that anyone can add the calendar to their site.

There are two types of calendars that can easily be added to another site. One is a preview calendar shown on my sidepanel (below the comments!) and the other is a “full” calendar shown below.

I really like the distributed collaboration and if anyone wants to add this calendar to their real estate site, it is as simple as copy-and-pasting some code… If you are interested, email me and I’ll send you the code!

By the way, the current calendars on this site do not have the “add an event” feature, but Tom assures me that it will be available in a few weeks! Until then, feel free to email me with your real estate event if you’d like me to add it to the calendar!

One more thing!!! The TechCrunch event looks to be a lot of fun and is coming up this next Wednesday!!!