What's next for online real estate?

Could we do a better job of helping people find homes through technology? I think the answer resoundingly, is yes.

Something I saw this week opened my eyes to that possibility. But first, some background:

If we break down the online real estate* search experience, it really comes down to two things: content and context. So far, we’ve done a pretty good job of bringing the former into the digital world and pretty lousy job of leveraging the latter.

Real Estate 1.0 (1997-2006)

The first step was to get all real estate content online. Inventory became digital, along with its supporting assets: photos, data and descriptions.

So if we think about listings as the content — the “what” in this equation — the context can be loosely defined as everything else that surrounds them.

Real Estate 2.0 (2006-2012)

The next phase in online real estate began with our early attempts to layer context into digital listings. The industry turned to maps.

Placing the property within its proper physical context was a revelation at the time (really), and kick-started a whole new crop of online real estate companies, including Redfin, Trulia, Zillow and others.

Later, we expanded our notion of context and began layering in neighborhood information through the use of Yelp APIs, Zestimates or Census data. A new group of companies sprung up, including Walkscore and StreetAdvisor, whose products started to color and fill out a fuller picture of a property’s surroundings.

This is context, but it’s purely one dimensional. What’s missing is the direct relevance to me, the visitor.

Real estate 2.0 came to a close with the arrival of a whole new paradigm: the beginning of the mobile era of computing.

So here we are. 2013. The start of something new.

I believe we are on the cusp of something big. It’s rooted in context but is less rooted in external sources and more rooted in the users.

Creating a better context for me, the user, means that the results will help me find the best-fitting home more quickly.

So, what’s next?

Recently, Google launched an experimental advertising project called Art, Copy & Code. The goal was to partner with creatives to re-imagine how advertising and marketing can become more relevant in a more highly connected world.

To be sure, Google has a vested interest in keeping us wired and clicking on more and more ads. But take a moment to watch the video on the site (requires Chrome). Notice anything? When I watched it, it was 11:34 am on Tuesday, March 19 in Portland, Oregon and it was 44 degrees and cloudy outside. I’m positive your experience will be different.

Now that’s context!

We are entering an era in which more and more of our digital experiences will be highly personalized and highly relevant like that video.

For real estate search to evolve, we need to challenge ourselves to intuit more about our users’ context, to better understand their intentions and, perhaps most importantly, do it in a way that is not creepy.

The winner here will be the company or companies that can weave together usage patterns and telemetry from multiple devices, infuse data from the social web and wrap it all up into a search experience that delights users.

I can’t wait to see what’s coming.

*Side note. We need to think of a better categorization than “online real estate”. This description is beginning to feel a little too constrained.