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Third party real estate sites’ alleged black hat SEO tactics

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.

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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.

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“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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