A few weeks ago Michael Wurzer of the Real Estate Standards Organization (RESO) posted an open letter to the Yahoo!, Google, Zillow, and Trulia (David Harris touched on this here on GeekEstate too) requesting that we adopt and contribute to the RETS 2.0 standard. From my standpoint, this was great timing because for the past several months we’ve been working with Zillow and Trulia to create a coalition among the real estate portals (which includes Homes.com, Homescape, Oodle, Point2 Technologies, Realestate.com, Vast.com, and vFlyer) whose goal is to create and adopt an industry standard feed specification (Press Release) for receiving homes for sale listings from real estate companies. I’m not going to rehash the benefits of open standards because I think Michael has done a good job of this at here and here.

As Michael noted, if everyone adheres to a single specification, it reduces the development cost for brokers to send feeds to new distribution channels. But a single specification also benefits the distribution channel as well since it reduces the amount of resources we need to invest in our listings processing systems and frees us up to concentrate on creating better products for our customers. We want to create great tools for agents and brokers to market their listings online. An industry standard feed specification allows us to do just that.

But creating a standard is tricky business. There are several issues that could cause a data standard to fail:

Format: Companies will typically standardize the structure of data but forget to standardize the format of the data within the structure. Take for example a field like open house date. There are multiple ways of representing the data in this field. It can be “2008/01/10” or “January 10th, 2008” or the # of seconds since the epoch. If the standard doesn’t specify a format for these types of fields and leaves the validation of this data open to the implementer of the standard then each company will implement their own validation rules. If Yahoo! implements a different set of validation rules than Trulia and we reject/accept listings as a result this is a major problem for the sender of the listings. They now have to create partner specific code to handle the irregularities between different distribution channels. This would potentially negate the value of the specification.

Quality: As a distribution channel we are obsessed with quality. We want to ensure that whatever listings we serve to the user meets a basic level of quality. Unfortunately what constitutes a quality listing is subjective so translating this into a technical measure is difficult (but not impossible). One step towards ensuring high quality listings is to make a set of fields in a specification required. If data for a required field is not present then the listing would not adhere to the specification and as a result be considered invalid. I think this is definitely an important issue for distribution channels like ours. If any specification allows for low quality listings then we wouldn’t be interested in adopting it because it would degrade the experience of our users.

Yahoo! user research has shown that if listings do not meet a minimum quality bar they have no value to the user. You might assume the kind of data that would meet the minimum quality bar includes basic information like beds and baths. But the buyers’ perception of a quality listing goes beyond the basic information and includes the need for things like photo and video and detailed contact information for the listing agent.

Ownership and Control: There are many standards in this world but not all of them are what you might consider ‘open’. I’m not going to reiterate the benefits of open versus closed standards. People like Paul Graham have done a great job talking about similar topics like the benefits of open source. But in general open standards encourage creativity and innovation which are good things for any industry.

Personally I’m excited to be working with a great collection of people. The folks at Trulia and Zillow are top notch people who have an excellent grasp on technology and the real estate business. I’m also excited to potentially be working with the RESO as well. I think our two groups can work together to improve the overall industry. As the standard develops I’ll be sure to post more here at the Geek Estate Blog.

[Press Release]