One of the biggest challenges of the Information Age has been how to manage all that "new" information.

And as the tools to produce new content have escaped from the professional newsrooms, recording studios and movie soundstages, the challenge has only gotten greater. People are inundated with data.

Real estate is no different. Where property data was once presented by a human being to another human being who could help filter it down to relevant options, today most data is available all the time to anyone who cares to look.

Lots and lots of real estate data is available. Making sense of it all isn’t so easy.

One of the biggest challenges of the Information Age has been how to manage all that "new" information.

And as the tools to produce new content have escaped from the professional newsrooms, recording studios and movie soundstages, the challenge has only gotten greater. People are inundated with data.

Real estate is no different. Where property data was once presented by a human being to another human being who could help filter it down to relevant options, today most data is available all the time to anyone who cares to look.

Lots and lots of real estate data is available. Making sense of it all isn’t so easy.

Most tools for presenting data, whether they are for houses or socks or cars or airline flights, offer the opportunity to group items together based on some shared characteristic. These are usually called "categories."

Categories are a way for the site owner to present all that data in some way that makes it easier for the site visitor to make sense of all that data. Categories online are the nearest equivalent to the human touch that was required before all the data was available 24/7.

Give me a moment to talk a bit about a different information-rich industry — one that is seeing some significant disruption: the newspaper industry. I know everyone likes to bash on the newspaper industry for failing to figure all of this out back in 1998 or so.

But I actually think the big opportunity for newspapers was missed earlier than that.

How to turn information into a commodity: real-world example

When you pick up a newspaper you quickly realize that even the paper edition has had categories for years: Local, World, Business, Entertainment, Science/Tech and maybe a handful of others.

It really doesn’t matter that much whether you pick up the New York Times or the Napoleon Homestead. (OK, the Homestead might be a little more local-focused and generally thinner — but you get the idea.)

All the news articles have been sifted into these general categories.

Certain brands of newspaper might be preferred by readers as excelling in certain categories. But this is like when I prefer to get my produce from my local co-op and my paper towels from the big-box bargain grocery warehouse. Newspaper industry participants have been working hard to make their product into a commodity by shoveling it into the same categories for years.

Turning real estate information into a commodity

When it comes to presenting data about a property, real estate seems to be doing the same thing. I see that most sites, from the aggregators on through to the agents, use the same categories.

For a "product" that is supposed to be so individual and unique and emotionally involved, real estate sites do an excellent job presenting houses as a commodity.

Even the supposedly "lifestyle"-centric brands, agents, etc., use a bunch of default categories to present their data. My "lifestyle" isn’t the number of bedrooms or bathrooms or price range of my house, so why is that the only way I can search for a house?

Rethinking categories

The categories you use to present your real estate data on your website are a replacement for your personal, in-real-life approach to real estate.

Think your brand is different from your competition? Go look at the categories for real estate on your site then go look at the categories for real estate on your competition’s sites. See any difference?

This isn’t a case of tools not existing. Categories are an inherent function in every database-driven content management system out there.

But a quick tour of real estate sites will reveal that most of these systems have been set on autopilot to mimic the same categories that were used for real estate in — you guessed it — newspapers.

I haven’t seen the data, but I’m going to assume that the existing categories used for real estate (number of bedrooms, number of bathrooms, price, etc.) are there for a good reason.

They probably work for somebody, maybe even most bodies. However, a real estate professional probably can’t help most bodies.

As Inman News columnist Kris Berg pointed out in her column last week, even though her inbox is humming as a result of having her site ranking well, not all of the people who contact her actually want her assistance.

The categories used in the past have been focused on getting exposure to the most people. This makes sense for a newspaper in a world where all the information in the world is not at the fingertips of anyone with an Internet connection.

Getting a fire hose of "average" leads, based on standard categories, may not be helpful to real estate professionals who want to maximize their time by seeking out highly qualified leads.

The idea of categories, at the root of it all, is to help make meaning for the audience.

And while the newspaper and other mass media outlets have done a good job establishing a baseline of relevant categories for the "average" person, they may be missing the meaning that can be created for the wide variety of segments and interests and "lifestyles" that exist in the real world.

Do I think you should hide the number of bedrooms, bathrooms and price in your online presentation of property data? Test it (but don’t hold your breath).

Do I think it’s worthwhile to think about the specific customers you serve and present real estate data in categories that make meaning for them? Yes. And test it.

Note from the author: Hey, it’s my one-year anniversary of writing this weekly column. I hope you’ve found it helpful! I’m looking forward to writing more. Feel free to let me know if there’s stuff you’d like me to write about.

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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