One of the emerging technologies that was presented earlier this month at the Real Estate Connect conference in New York City is Qwiki (pronounced: "quick-ee"). At its core, Qwiki is one of the search-like services that have cropped up in recent years that attempts to provide context around user searches.

Most of these services work hard to position themselves as something other than a search engine. Probably because everyone knows that Google has very solidly won the competition for search-engine users.

In this week’s column I’m going to take a look at how Qwiki works and how it might be integrated into your real estate work (or not). Please keep in mind, as with other emerging technology I cover from time to time, that this is in the very, very early days for this particular technology (the site is in alpha).

When someone labels their software as "alpha" this means it is pretty much guaranteed to break, and users may experience significant changes in the short term and long term.

One of the fun things about "alpha" software, though, is that if you find a good use for it and participate in making it better, you can help drive the direction the software takes in the future.

A few things to know about Qwiki:

Thing one: Qwiki is very visual

When you first go to the Qwiki website (, it looks quite a bit like a search engine: the familiar short blank text box with a button to submit. Below that text box are a bunch of pictures of a variety of interesting things, like a magazine.

Just as Wolfram Alpha is a "computational knowledge engine" and Bing is a "decision engine," Qwiki is trying hard not to be a search engine. Though the opening interface of a text box certainly suggests the idea of searching, the image and content focus below the text area is more like Wikipedia.

The visual focus of everything lines up with all the trends we’ve been hearing about for years: quality photographs; more video; people don’t want to read; people who don’t speak your language can’t read your words anyway, etc.

From the start, Qwiki is setting us up for a very visual experience connected to whatever we put in that text box. Obviously, we have to put words in that text box so there’s got to be some written-language hook here. It will be interesting to see if and how Qwiki deals with internationalization.

Qwiki’s visual focus should be an obvious fit for use in the real estate industry. People like to see pictures and videos of properties and the neighborhoods where those properties are located.

Thing two: Qwiki is a narrative engine, not a search engine

In a search engine, like Google or Yahoo, the user types in a search term and is then presented with a list of possible matches for that term — the fabled "10 blue links." Qwiki doesn’t work like that.

Once you type your search term into Qwiki, you are presented not with a collection of links to different websites or information sources, but a video presentation. Qwiki assembles a variety of image sources about your search term and overlays a computer voice reading information about your search term.

In effect, Qwiki is developing a short video presentation about your topic on the fly. This makes for a pretty cool "wow" moment. The quality of the presentation depends on what sort of information Qwiki can find.

For example, if you were to ask Qwiki about Ashley, N.D., you will get a Google map that places Ashley in the context of the U.S., basic census information, and some historical information. And that’s about it. Perhaps more than you knew about Ashley, N.D., before reading this column, but not a whole lot. Qwiki has richer information about New York City.

Traditional search engines, with their collection of links to various sources, divert users to a variety of websites. Qwiki, with its focus on narration, establishes a kind of authoritative voice. Either your photography and content is in the presentation, or it isn’t shown to users.

Real estate practitioners should carefully observe developments of Qwiki’s focus on building an authoritative narrative vs. the traditional dispensing of links. If this method of presenting information to searchers catches on, it would require a significant change in the technologies and methods used to reach search audiences.

Thing three: Qwiki is interactive

Throughout the narrative that Qwiki presents about whatever the visitor typed into the search box, there are pictures, video and animation. These assets are sourced from the Web. At this point, it looks like almost all of it is coming from the Wikimedia Commons, a sort of open-source media repository on the Web.

While watching a narrative, you can click on one of the images or videos and the presentation will stop and show you the image and links to other Qwiki presentations that might be related to the image. Sometimes there is a little bit of text about the image as well.

Though this level of interactivity is fairly rudimentary, mostly just consisting of links to source material, the concept of interweaving narratives is something that is more like browsing behavior than search behavior.

People who are searching are typically very focused on finding their information and then getting on with their lives. People who are browsing tend to be following a more circuitous path to gathering information. Sometimes they aren’t as task-focused as searchers.

For real estate practitioners, this interactive presentation style may be important in terms of how users learn about towns, neighborhoods, and perhaps even property types.

Three things about Qwiki, three things about real estate tech

Looking at how Qwiki works and when it might be the most useful, for a user, is worthwhile. There’s no doubt that tech companies are trying to innovate around the 800-pound Web navigation tool known as the Google search box.

Whether Qwiki succeeds on this front (or even tries to succeed on this front) doesn’t matter so much.

What matters is that those who are in the business of helping others buy and sell real estate keep an eye on how the process of locating and learning about property might change.

Qwiki is a tech realization of several trends we’ve all been observing for a few years now: video, images, and the desire for an authoritative source vs. the potential of SEO spam.

The three things outlined above have accompanying implications for how real estate stuff happens online. If the concept of an on-the-fly narrative engine like Qwiki catches on, here are some things to consider:

  • Visual focus: Creating unique and quality imagery will be a distinct advantage.
  • Narrative and authority: Getting included in the narrative will become the new SEO.
  • Interactivity and interruption: Creating compelling content that gets the attention of viewers and shifts their attention to your own narrative will become an important activity.

The primary bottleneck: "How do I get my material into the narrative?" is where the rubber will meet the road.

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