ETS proteins are a group of evolutionarily related, DNA-binding transcriptional factors. These proteins direct gene expression in diverse normal and disease states by binding to specific promoters and enhancers and facilitating assembly of other components of the transcriptional machinery. The highly conserved DNA-binding ETS domain defines the family and is responsible for specific recognition of a common sequence motif, 5'-GGA(A/T)-3'. Attaining specificity for biological regulation in such a family is thus a conundrum. We present the current knowledge of routes to functional diversity and DNA binding specificity, including divergent properties of the conserved ETS and PNT domains, the involvement of flanking structured and unstructured regions appended to these dynamic domains, posttranslational modifications, and protein partnerships with other DNA-binding proteins and coregulators. The review emphasizes recent advances from biochemical and biophysical approaches, as well as insights from genomic studies that detect ETS-factor occupancy in living cells.