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Third party real estate sites’ alleged black hat SEO tactics

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The renewed fight against questionable tactics

For years, third party real estate media sites have been under scrutiny by SEO experts for using what some call “questionable tactics” as they are accused of hurting real estate brokerages’ ability to achieve search engine visibility for their own websites. Many fought against the multi-million dollar sites years ago, but most have given up and accepted the SEO competition as an inevitability.

VHT Visual Marketing Services is making waves in the industry for reinvigorating the debate on what they call “black hat” tactics, and fighting against what they say is an injustice. VHT is known for their digital marketing platform, ImageWorks, now used by Century 21, Edina Realty and 50 other top brokerages, as well as having acquired real estate bookmarking service, Dwellicious last year.

Edina Realty is among the real estate brokerages that have announced their decision to pull their listings from third party real estate media sites, and has opted to use VHT ImageWorks to search optimize their listings. VHT says their platform is different than third party aggregators because they use the brokers’ visual assets (property photos and videos) to inform search engines that brokers are the original source of all of the listing data.

Because of brokers pulling their listings from third party real estate search sites, the fight over who owns the data, how it is displayed, who is compensated (or not) and what each party’s rights are is vigorously renewed.

VHT Chairman takes a strong stand

VHT Chairman, Brian Balduf issued the following statement to AGBeat, addressing third party aggregation practices:

“While brokerages have been fighting battles among themselves to recruit agents, the competition for customers has moved online. Brokers lost the marketing high ground to third party aggregators that have become very good at attracting home buyers on the web and controlling the source of potential customers.

“In October 2011, Zillow attracted 24.4 million unique visitors, that’s more than the total number of visitors to the nation’s 15 largest residential real estate brokerage/brand sites combined. By ceding control of their listings and more importantly, the source of new clients, brokerages risk being perceived as diminishing in value to their agents and franchisees. While the industry once feared that third parties would disintermediate agents from buyers and sellers, instead, what’s happening is that brokerages are actually being distintermediated from agents.

“Some top brokerages, such as Edina Realty in the Twin Cities and Shorewest in Wisconsin, have begun fighting back by pulling their listings from third party aggregators. They believe they can do a better job of search engine marketing on their own. They don’t want third parties getting in between them and their target customers, and they’re frustrated by the rising cost and confusion it causes with consumers..

“Brokerages are tired of being blocked from search engine results due to the questionable tactics commonly used by third party aggregators such as Zillow, Trulia, Realtor.com, and Yahoo. Brokerages provide their listings for free, and in return, the aggregators commonly insert ‘no-follow tags’ on the links back to the broker’s websites. The ‘no-follow’ tags effectively tell the search engines to ignore the actual source of the listing data. It’s dirty pool.

“Search engines don’t count links with no-follow tags in their rankings calculations. So it’s virtually impossible for brokerage sites to be recognized by search engines and consumers as the original, authoritative source of their listings. It also means it’s very difficult for brokerage sites to be ranked higher than third party sites.”

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81 Comments

81 Comments

  1. Drew Meyers - ESM Exec Designs

    January 29, 2012 at 4:06 am

    Black hat? I'm calling total BS on the use of that term.

    Are brokers getting crushed SEO-wise? Yes. But no-follow links are by no means black hat SEO. Z/T/R are too big to risk black hat practices getting them into the Google penalty box.

    • Benn Rosales

      January 29, 2012 at 11:34 am

      If you're not linking to the source of your data, rather placing yourself as the source as it's being drawn from a secured database, then technically by web standards it isn't sourced – google cannot see the primary root of the content. That isn't blackhat, rather, it's another way that brokers aren't getting proper credit for the content they're serving. Because it is intentional to limit pagerank back to brokers, there is a realistic threat to market positions based on the practice. blackhat or copyright infringement either way, it's always been a problem.

      I'm not making this argument, I'm simply positing the reality of conversations we're hearing.

      • Drew Meyers - ESM Exec Designs

        January 30, 2012 at 4:20 am

        I know Benn. All I'm saying is that referring to those tactics as black hat in the title of this post is false. No SEO I know would call that black hat…not even close.

        • Karen Highland

          March 5, 2012 at 6:28 pm

          Poetic license, “black hat” is a term that paints an accurate word picture, even though it may not be technically accurate.

  2. Ken Brand

    January 29, 2012 at 9:49 am

    The answer is pretty simple. Crimp the oxygen hose. If third parties didn't exist, the listing information wouldn't disappear. The only thing that would happen is brokers/agents would get an immediate raise due to not buying enhancements and advertising around your OWN listings, and all those page views would most likely land on a broker/agents local site. I believe it doesn't matter how broadly the listing promotion/information is syndicated, what matters is how supremely optimized and easily found by an interested person it is. If Google can find it and serve it up, it doesn't have to be in 50 places.

    Also, if I'm a big broker and paying $50K, $100K, $150k to Showcase enhance my OWN listings on Realtor.com, I could use that money to create a wow-worthy site that would benefit the sellers, consumers and my real estate team members.

    We've seen this movie before, only the issue was Corporate Relocation. Brokers let that one get away too. It was no big deal when referral fees were 20%, now they're 40%. Same story with 3rd party aggregators. Do we imagine that over time the advertising enhancements on our OWN listings will go down. No way! It's business that thrives only if created dependence. The more dependent we/you become the more we'll pay (think Corporate Relocation). It will be interesting to see what happens with issue.

    One thing for sure, we've seen how social media has impacted world wide and local events, revolutions, elections, debate and rescue. This issue of 3rd parties and brokerage revolt is one that would have been invisible a couple of years now. Today their are 3rd party campfire conversations everywhere (online). Most sentiment is resentment.

  3. Sig Buster

    January 29, 2012 at 10:28 am

    anyone who would pay a 40% referral fee is crazy anyway. no one has to be held hostage by black hatters or 3rd party aggregators. If you maintain control of your listing they have to play by your rules.

  4. Roberta Murphy

    January 29, 2012 at 11:13 am

    I wonder what the value of each listing is to the syndicators, and if they have ever considered paying a fee to brokers and agents for the commercial use of their inventory? As brokers, we've never really negotiated with Zillow, Trulia, Realtor.com, Yahoo or other syndicators–and I think we have something of value to offer.

    And that "no follow" thingy quietly diminishes the value of all broker and agent-owned sites. It's not black hat, but is certainly something we should try to negotiate.

  5. Jason Fox

    January 29, 2012 at 12:48 pm

    It is true that for a long time the value proposition for real estat firms was the ability for their website to generate leads. But what about the agents? With the ability to get Idx, a well designed WordPress website, and a little moxy, they can create their own leads.
    Perhaps brokerages would be better suited helping their agents with marketing. I would appreciate someone training me and helping me grow my own referral system, than simply selling me leads with a 40% or higher price tag.
    A large brokerage on the west coast is attempting to do just that, and I have been watching many agents switch to that company.

    • Ginger Fawcett

      January 31, 2012 at 5:40 pm

      Being from the midwest I am wondering which west coast brokerage is doing that (or don't you want to mention it pubicly). I'd love to check out what they are doing to help their agents and try to implement some of the ideas here.

  6. Jack

    January 30, 2012 at 12:36 pm

    These sites can and do rank higher than a regular broker site by using white hat SEO. Do they also use black hat SEO? Maybe, I don't know, probably… true black hat is so hard to track (very time consuming). It's hard to fight for the same keywords against sites like these. We've managed to find a way to out-compete them for a lot of organic traffic, but it wasn't easy to figure out how to do it.

    The incredible amount of keyword-rich internal links is the main reason that allows these mammoth sites to rank so highly for local searches (they are drinking your milkshake). Look at the bottom 3 sections of Trulia to see what I mean by keyword rich internal linking… and some sort of variation of that is found on almost every single page of their multi-million page index.

    Also, these gigantic sites have a higher PageRank than any individual broker site, which will make them rank higher than you. The only way to fight against their PageRank is to inflate your own by pumping up your content marketing. Make infographics & videos and control how people share them using your own embed codes (e.g. the embed button beneath SEOmoz whiteboard Friday videos and the embed codes above and below the infographics at frugaldad (dot) com).

    Basically, to defeat these giants you need highly focused SEO on individual property pages that Trulia, Zillow, and REALTOR don't have the resources or time to (hint: it involves you writing). You also need to increase your PageRank, the quality of the anchor text of your inbound links, and the quality of your inbound links themselves. Feel free to get more specific with your homepage title tags, descriptions, and keywords as well.

    It's possible to beat these sites for your city's traffic, but you need to get better at content marketing to do it. Also, blog more about anything relating to your local area.

  7. exploreto

    September 29, 2012 at 11:34 am

    I don’t think Brian Balduf understands the first thing about SEO. “questionable tactics” are only questionable if you have no clue what your looking at and as for using the nofollow… “aggregators” have to do  that else they are allowing, “Paid links” to be followed and are at risk of putting both the advertiser and themselves at risk.

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Business News

Leadership versus management: What’s the difference?

(Business News) The two terms, leadership and management, are often used interchangeably, but there are substantial differences; let’s explore them.

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leadership Startups meeting led by Black woman.

Some people use the terms “leader” and “manager” interchangeably, and while there is nothing inherently wrong with this, there is still a debate regarding their similarities or differences.

Is it merely a matter of preference, or are there cut and dry differences that define each term?

Ronald E. Riggio, professor of leadership and organizational psychology at Claremont McKenna College, described what he felt to be the difference between the terms, noting the commonality in the distinction of “leadership” versus “management” was that leaders tend to engage in the “higher” functions of running an organization, while managers handle the more mundane tasks.

However, Riggio believes it is only a matter of semantics because successful and effective leaders and managers must do the same things. They must set the standard for followers and the organization, be willing to motivate and encourage, develop good working relationships with followers, be a positive role model, and motivate their team to achieve goals.

He states that there is a history explaining the difference between the two terms: business schools and “management” departments adopted the term “manager” because the prevailing view was that managers were in charge.

They were still seen as “professional workers with critical roles and responsibilities to help the organization succeed, but leadership was mostly not in the everyday vocabulary of management scholars.”

Leadership on the other hand, derived from organizational psychologists and sociologists who were interested in the various roles across all types of groups.

So, “leader” became the term to define someone who played a key role in “group decision making and setting direction and tone for the group. For psychologists, manager was a profession, not a key role in a group.”

When their research began to merge with business school settings, they brought the term “leadership” with them, but the terms continued to be used to mean different things.

The short answer, according to Riggio is no, not really; simply because leaders and managers need the same skills to be productive and respected.

This editorial was first published here in June of 2014.

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Business News

Does Raising Cane’s have the secret to combatting restaurant labor shortages?

(NEWS) Fried Chicken Franchise, Raising Cane’s, has turned to an unusual source of front-line employees during the labor shortage- Their executives!

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White paper sign with black text reading "Help Wanted."

I wouldn’t call myself a fried chicken aficionado or anything, but since chains are designed to blow up everywhere, I have experienced Raising Cane’s.

I’m pretty sure the Cane’s sauce is just barbecue mixed with ranch, but hey, when you’ve got a good idea, keep with it.

In the further pursuit of good ideas, the company has resorted to an intriguing method of boosting staff in a world where the lowest paid among us are still steadily dying of Covid, and/or choosing to peace out of jobs that they don’t find worth the infection risk.

Via Nation Restaurant News: “This is obviously a very tough time, so it was a joint idea of everybody volunteering together to go out there and be recruiters, fry cooks and cashiers —whatever it takes,” said AJ Kumaran, co-CEO and chief operating officer for the Baton Rouge, La.-based quick-service company, from a restaurant in Las Vegas, where he had deployed himself.”

The goal of this volunteer mission, which involves 250 of the 500 executives deployed working directly in service roles, is to bolster locations until 10,000 new hires can be made in both existing locations and locations planned to open.

It’s obvious that this is a bandaid move – execs exist for good reason, and in terms of sheer numbers (not to mention location and salary changes), this is hardly tenable long-term. But I can say this as someone who’s gone from retail to office, and back (and then forth…and then back again) several times – if this doesn’t keep everyone at the corporate level humble, and much more mindful of employees’ needs, nothing will.

The fast-food world is notorious for wonky schedules only going up a day before the week begins, broken promises on hours (both over and under), horrendous pay, and little to no defense of employee dignity in the face of customers with rank dispositions. With the wave of strikes (Nabisco, John Deere, IATSE) making the news, and lack of hazard pay/brutal physical attacks over mask mandates still very fresh in workers’ minds, smart companies are hipping themselves to the fact that “low level” employee acquisition and retention needs to be much more than the ‘work here or starve’ tactics that have served since the beginning of decades of wage stagnation. The best way for that fact to stay front-of-mind is to go out and live the truths behind it.

In Raising Cane’s case, the company also announced that they’re upping wages at all locations — to the tune of an actually not totally insulting $2 per hour, resulting in a starting wage of $15 and a managerial wage of $18.

Ideally, paying people more to cook, clean, and customer service all in one job will actually attract people back to fast food work. Seriously consider the fact that the people cleaning fast-food toilets are the same people making the food that goes into your mouth. The additional fact is that it’s better for everyone’s health when they’re paid enough to care about what they’re doing and stay healthy themselves.

Of course, one does also need to consider how much inflation has affected the price of goods and housing since the ‘fight for $15’ began almost a decade ago in 2012. Now, raising wages closer to the end point of multiple goods still might not be enough!

AJ Kumaran continued, “The chicken prices are through the roof. Logistics are very hard. Shipping is difficult. Simple things cups and paper napkins — everything is in shortage right now. Some are overseas suppliers and others domestic suppliers. Just in poultry alone, we have taken significant inflation.”

That’s global disruption for ya.

It remains to be seen whether this plucky move can save Raising Cane’s dark meat, but I’m very pro regardless. Send more top-earning employees into the trenches! No more executives with 0 knowledge of how the sausage sandwich gets made.

No more leading from behind.

Why not? What are ya? Chicken?

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Business News

Unify your remote team with these important conversations

(BUSINESS NEWS) More than a happy hour, consider having these poignant conversations to bring your remote team together like never before.

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Woman working in office with remote team

Cultivating a team dynamic is difficult enough without everyone’s Zoom feed freezing halfway through “happy” hour. You may not be able to bond over margaritas these days, but there are a few conversations you can have to make your team feel more supported—and more comfortable with communicating.

According to Forbes, the first conversation to have pertains to individual productivity. Ask your employees, quite simply, what their productivity indicators are. Since you can’t rely on popping into the office to see who is working on a project and who is beating their Snake score, knowing how your employees quantify productivity is the next-best thing. This may lead to a conversation about what you want to see in return, which is always helpful for your employees to know.

Another thing to discuss with your employees regards communication. Determining which avenues of communication are appropriate, which ones should be reserved for emergencies, and which ones are completely off the table is key. For example, you might find that most employees are comfortable texting each other while you prefer Slack or email updates. Setting that boundary ahead of time and making it “office” policy will help prevent strain down the road.

Finally, checking in with your employees about their expectations is also important. If you can discuss the sticky issue of who deals with what, whose job responsibilities overlap, and what each person is predominantly responsible for, you’ll negate a lot of stress later. Knowing exactly which of your employees specialize in specific areas is good for you, and it’s good for the team as a whole.

With these 3 discussions out of the way, you can turn your focus to more nebulous concepts, the first of which pertains to hiring. Loop your employees in and ask them how they would hire new talent during this time; what aspects would they look for, and how would they discern between candidates without being able to meet in-person? It may seem like a trivial conversation, but having it will serve to unify further your team—so it’s worth your time.

The last crucial conversation, per Forbes, is simple: Ask your employees what they would prioritize if they became CEOs tomorrow. There’s a lot of latitude for goofy responses here, but you’ll hear some really valuable—and potentially gut-wrenching—feedback you wouldn’t usually receive. It never hurts to know what your staff prioritize as idealists.

Unifying your staff can be difficult, but if you start with these conversations, you’ll be well on your way to a strong team during these trying times.

This story was first published in November 2020.

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