Inman News asked me to write up some predictions for 2010. I’m not a fan of prognostication, being more of a "let’s try it and see what works" sort of guy. But as William Gibson said, "The future is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed." Let’s look at some existing trends and see what they might tell us about the year ahead.
Even though this column is ostensibly about technology, I’m going to start with human/cultural trends. Technology doesn’t mean much without people pushing the buttons, sliding the sliders, touching the touch things, and so on. So let’s look at the way people are using technology and make a few guesses that relate to technology.
I’ve got to get this one out of the way early because, as noted by others, every year is the big year for mobile. 2010 won’t be any different. More people are going to be using cell phones, and more people are going to be using cell phones with Web or Web-like capabilities.
Maybe Google will make its own hardware, but that’s mostly irrelevant — the Android software platform will provide enough computing capabilities at a price point that will finally give the iPhone some worthy competition. But watching the "Apple vs. Google Mobile Grudge Match" is just a distraction.
The real show: human beings increasing their ability to access meaningful data and information from nearly anywhere (the little dead spot on Interstate 89 between Waterbury, Vt., and Montpelier, Vt., will remain throughout the entirety of 2010). Technologists will continue their push to create mobile Web experiences and mobile applications that provide specific data for mobile audiences.
For real estate, there will probably continue to be some efforts to capture a mobile audience from a property data perspective. As Rob Hahn noted in his mobile lament ("Mobile: Forever the ‘next big thing’?") the success of this particular approach to mobile will depend on the urban vs. rural setting of the customer.
Perhaps someone will build a mobile app that solves a real estate-related problem that isn’t about data delivery and also takes into account the urban/rural issue.
Blending of online and offline
The increase of mobile technologies is going to make way for an increase in blending of online stuff with offline stuff. A blending of cyberspace and "meatspace." Unlike the trend of increasing mobile tech, blending online and offline is really only at the start and in some places might not even be perceptible.
The blending of offline and online will take several forms. Already in existence are things like augmented reality (AR). Data or digital images next to specific objects visible in a digital viewscreen (like the ones in all those mobile devices) using AR. Some variations also use GPS location and direction to deliver data or images.
Blending also happens in social/local systems like Foursquare and Gowalla, where data is being used in conjunction with real-world events and locations. People are creating and sharing data about where they are, what they like about where they are, and so on. It’s sort of a hybrid communication system and recommendation engine.
For real estate, I would expect to see at least a couple attempts to use blending technologies to deliver data to an audience at a specific location or to an audience in possession of a particular object (probably a postcard or within eyesight of a sign). …CONTINUED
Perhaps someone will develop some blending technologies that don’t approach real estate from a data-delivery perspective, but instead makes use of the social/local or possession features of this trending medium.
Search and real estate aggregators
Property-data delivery via search technology will continue to become commodified. Google has been getting serious about real estate search for some time. Its recent talks with Trulia should come as no particular surprise. One way for Google to augment its real estate team with people who’ve been thinking about real estate search for some time is to just buy a team.
A big move by Google could push Microsoft into buying one of the remaining property aggregators: Zillow being high on the list of speculators. This would be to shore up Bing’s real estate search capabilities.
As all of this shakes down I expect the search aggregation business to be pretty exciting throughout 2010. But the Google vs. Microsoft thing will probably be just another distraction for most real estate practitioners (except for those directly involved in the aggregation business or getting exceptionally valuable traffic from aggregators). The real changes at the broker-agent level will come from how to market properties online.
I expect the nature of search-engine optimization for real estate sites to adjust more dramatically in 2010 to incorporate a variety of techniques beyond the usual "I want to be No. 1 on Google" to include multiple media formats and specialized real estate searches at the big engines as well as the remaining aggregators.
Maybe one of the aggregators will develop a usable API (an application programming interface can simplify the development of new tools that build on the technology, and can facilitate mashups) and/or WordPress plugin to make integrated search on agent-broker sites significantly less painful (and in turn the aggregator will generate revenue or access to useful search data). Trulia’s RSS (really simple syndication) feed is perhaps halfway there already. Google has a history of developing APIs to make use of the technology it develops.
A lot of these trends are pointing at the decreasing value of data delivery at the agent-broker level. Certainly arguments can be made about data accuracy, completeness and so on. In 2010, for people not playing at the aggregation level or higher, it will become increasingly clear that property data is a train that left the station.
As Google and Microsoft capture property data down to the individual property, the best way to get good search results will be to represent the listings and monitor them to be sure they are represented properly in the search engines. In order to reach an audience looking for property, agents and brokers will need to be representing listings that an audience wants to find. The property data will be showing up in the engines and displayed the way that the search engines want to display them.
Getting visitors to agent and broker sites will need to involve entering into conversations about real estate that revolve around something other than property data. The property data will still be necessary, of course, but it won’t be the same kind of point of entry it has been in the past. There will be new points of entry that, when successful, align customers with agents and brokers who can best serve them.
Those who are planning on treading water this year will be working on differentiating their own property data from the commodified property data that is already available everywhere. The innovative and aggressive will be doing that and also looking for opportunities in the customers’ purchasing cycle to provide value beyond property data.
Gahlord Dewald is the president and janitor of Thoughtfaucet, a strategic creative services company in Burlington, Vt. He’s a frequent speaker on applying analytics and data to creative marketing endeavors.
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