When it comes to building a real estate Web presence, the choices are bewildering.

You can cobble something together yourself in flat HTML. You can hire a professional to cobble something together in flat HTML.

You can sign on with a company that develops real estate websites on their proprietary content management software that they’ve spent years tuning for the needs of real estate. You can do a mix of all of these things.

When it comes to building a real estate Web presence, the choices are bewildering.

You can cobble something together yourself in flat HTML. You can hire a professional to cobble something together in flat HTML.

You can sign on with a company that develops real estate websites on their proprietary content management software that they’ve spent years tuning for the needs of real estate. You can do a mix of all of these things.

One of the constant topics related to Web software is "open source." Open-source software is basically code that you are allowed to look at and tinker with on your own. Some of it even allows you to sell the results of your tinkering.

It’s sort of like buying a car — if you know how to fix cars and soup them up, then no one is going to stop you from doing so.

There are a wide variety of licenses associated with "open source," and sometimes the people who, for whatever reason, don’t care for open source use this as a negative for using open-source software.

Keep in mind, however, that the alternative to open source is closed source. Closed-source software is like a car that has its hood super-glued shut and you aren’t allowed to make any changes (and maybe not even change the oil).

So we have these two broad categories of software available to make stuff for the Web: open and closed. And though I’m a fan of open, there are times when it makes sense to use closed. Let’s take a look at some of these.

When to use open-source software

If the business problem you’re solving is fairly common not just in your industry but across several industries, using open source is likely a good way to go.

For example, many businesses don’t want to have to pay a Web developer every time a page on the site needs updating. Updating pages on websites without having to pay a developer is a common business goal for a lot of businesses (maybe all businesses that aren’t website developers).

As a result, a lot of excellent Web publishing content management systems that are open source have come about: WordPress, Drupal, Joomla and so on.

One of the nice things about well-used open-source systems, like the ones just mentioned, is that because lots of people are using them and can tinker with them, lots of people are constantly working to improve them.

Some of these improvements get added into the software and so it gets better.

If you had a team of 10 full-time programmers at your disposal, it would probably take you a lot of time and cost you a lot of money before you developed a system that allowed you to update your Web pages without calling a developer. That’s why these open-source systems rock for larger, general business goals.

When to use closed source

Since many open-source systems are free, the temptation is to use open source for everything. However, sometimes that isn’t possible. And at times, it isn’t desirable.

If there aren’t enough people who share your business problem, then there isn’t likely to be much interest in making an open-source solution.

For example, say you want to make a real estate search system for a multiple listing service that serves only 1,000 brokers and the data feed is totally unlike any other data feed in the country (which is pretty much the case everywhere, right?).

You might be able to make such a system, bearing the development costs yourself. But maybe no one else wants to help out. So everyone else in the MLS would just be freeloading on your open-source solution. This is when you might want to go with a closed-source solution.

You might not want to go with closed source, though, if your approach to the business problem is so unique it’s a brand advantage.

For example, if you have a totally new and excellent way to deliver real estate search results that turns website visitors into people who want to work with your business, then that might be a brand-level advantage.

It also isn’t desirable to have open source if you don’t want to do any work on your Web presence at all. If you’d rather just throw money at the problem and make it go away, then closed source might be a good option. Sort of like buying a car and then paying a concierge service to pick it up and change the oil for you.

Mix it up

Ultimately, it’s nice to have a mix of open and closed technologies. Use open technologies when the scale of participation is large enough that really great solutions get delivered faster and cheaper than with closed technologies (WordPress and the plug-in ecosystem around it being a great example of this).

Use closed technologies when it isn’t possible to use open-source tech, or when you can use it to develop a distinct and clear advantage in your real estate marketplace.

Hey, vendors

This goes for vendors, too. Why not focus your tech skills on solving a specific problem very, very well instead of reinventing the wheel in areas where open source already has the lead?

Plug-in architectures are great for monetizing specific bits of functionality. And real estate has more than its fair share of specific functionality that needs better code.

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