In the Land of Steve, Quality Counts for Something

Redfin is now the top-rated real estate application on every major mobile device. This is an objective fact for Android, where Redfin stands clearly above the competition and it is true for iPhone and iPad too, where our cumulative rating is higher than any other application’s.

Cumulative Scores iPhone only iPad Only iPhone & iPad Android Average
Redfin 3.787 4.525 4.156 3.785 4.199 3.992
Trulia 3.367 4.512 3.518 4.386 3.952
Zillow 3.380 4.294 3.837
ZipRealty 2.429 3.425 2.927

We are comparing cumulative reviews, not just reviews for the latest release. After all, nobody wants the scoring to completely re-set with each new hot-fix, which would allow any comparison to be easily gamed; this is probably why the Android marketplace doesn’t even segment reviews by release date.

Trulia has a claim to fame for being the highest-rated iPad-only application, but Trulia is the only major developer of mobile real estate search to offer an iPad-only application. Everyone else simply upgraded our iPhone application so that the same installation delivered a completely different user experience depending on whether it is launched from an iPhone or iPad. The only way to compare Trulia to any of its competitors is to combine the total reviews for its two iOS applications into one iOS category, where it fares worse.

Redfin became the top-rated iOS and Android apps without rigging the reviews, without asking friends of the company to give us five stars or even allowing employees to do so. We have just gotten better reviews from our users: better because as brokers we have access to far more homes that are actually for sale than pure technology companies, and better because we took years to build our applications ourselves, so that the user experience is seamlessly integrated across web and mobile tools.

Being #1-rated on mobile is a good trend. It’s good because in general mobile traffic will one day exceed website traffic, and good especially in real estate, because mobile traffic is more important than website traffic: as a real estate agent once explained to me in our earliest days, the most important quality of a home-buyer is his willingness to tour listings in person.

But it is a good trend at a deeper level, because applications ratings have restored every developer’s focus on the quality of the user experience. The quality of the user experience has always been important, but perhaps what was most important to software developers for many years was the quality of Google’s experience with a website. After all, most of our website traffic comes from Google.

Google often struggles with real estate websites, because many don’t present homes for sale in a simple list; we display listings on a map, using code that Google struggles to sort through. For years, developers at Redfin have argued about whether simply building a better website was the right focus when what immediately delivered more users was how high we appeared in Google’s search results or how often someone shared our links on Facebook. We still have that argument.

But we almost never have that argument about mobile applications, because user reviews matter so much. It probably isn’t a coincidence that this is because Steve Jobs, the ultimate champion of the user experience, created the first marketplace for mobile applications. It is hard to imagine Steve Jobs arguing for very long about whether to make an application Google-friendly or user-friendly, and it is probably why, for all his many achievements in the Internet age, Steve never once led a company that built a competitive website.

Like every business besides Apple, Redfin has both challenges. We have to build a website that can thrive in the wilderness where Google’s indexing robots roam, all while Facebook’s personalization of the entire web is changing the landscape beneath us. But for mobile devices we only have to create the perfect little garden to which our users can escape for a few minutes every day.

Now Redfin won’t be the top-rated real estate application forever, I promise you, particularly since our advantage over on iPhone is narrow indeed. But the importance of being top-rated will last a long time. Rather than being search-engine optimized, the whole world has tilted again to be beauty-optimized, to be delightful-optimized, to be user-experience optimized. SEO, meet UXO. No one less than Steve Jobs could have pulled that off.