Realtor Data Is More Authoritative Than Surveyor Data

by Brian Timoney

Since the rise of “neo-geography” 5-6 years ago, there has been heavy deployment of the adjective “authoritative”, especially by vendors who serve traditional producers of geospatial data . Unimpeachable accuracy and the gravitas of expertise are what is being implied here, especially in contrast to the unruly new worlds of crowd-sourcing and mashups of heterogeneous information. But the problem is that professionals define authority in units of centimeters while users–aka the public–define authority very differently.

Authority? That’s your position in Google’s search results.

In the US, real estate sites dominate address search results with "authoritative" geo info nowhere to be found


And that’s where our friendly neighborhood realtor enters the story. With beaming faces on business cards and the unshakable faith that it’s always a great time to buy, realtors have figured out search engine optimization (SEO), much to the detriment of the geospatial industry.  Because at least here in the US, type in any residential address into a search engine, and you’ll be sifting through a blizzard of real estate results before you’ll uncover any links to authoritative content directly produced by geospatial professionals.  Of course we users of the web don’t “sift”: if it’s not on the top half of the first page of results, it’s dangerously close to being invisible.

A couple of years ago, Jason Birch of Nanaimo, BC blogged about making municipal data more user-friendly by optimizing its Google-ability.  He laid out the rationale for creating searchable sitemaps for GIS data so it could be discovered the way people are accustomed to finding other information: via the search engine.  With the ascendance of REST-ful architectures that enable access to individual spatial features as unique resources via a standard HTTP request, all of the ingredients seemed to be in place to make authoritative geo information easily discoverable.

But it hasn’t happened. Instead we get ever more complicated, er, “rich” web mapping portals with one way in, and icons normal users often find confusing. Let’s start prioritizing SEO for Geo with the premise that Google may be a person’s first stop when looking for information. Sitemaps for search engine indexing are not a complicated technology. We recently rolled out a small project for a municipality with limited web resources, with SEO, that has yielded decent results in the first few weeks.

There is a great quote from Bill Parcells who was fond of assessing his teams’ performances by saying “you are what your record says you are.”  As an industry we need to wake up to the fact that in web mapping we’re playing by the rules of the web where what you are is largely a function of your search engine ranking. If reaching the public with your information is indeed the goal, then measuring authority strictly in terms of spatial accuracy misses the point in an impatient world where accessibility and findability trumps all.

Just ask a realtor.


—Brian Timoney