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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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Tis the season for employment scams – here’s what to look out for

(BUSINESS NEWS) Desperate times call for desperate measures. Seasonal employment scams are back on the menu and here’s how you can avoid them.

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A serious man considers a clipboard in potential employment scams.

With the sheer amount of desperation surrounding the holidays, employment scams typically have a resurgence during this season. Thanks to the Better Business Bureau, there are some clear warning signs that can help you spot and avoid seasonal scams this year.

The typical crux of any employment scam revolves around a prospective employee’s willingness to pay for something upfront, be it training or some other kind of quasi-justifiable item (e.g., a uniform). However, other iterations of the scam actually involve an “employer” overpaying for something at the onset—albeit with a fake check—and then asking the recipient to wire “back” the extra money.

Either way, these scams can leave you jobless and with less money than you initially had, so here are some things for which you should watch out.

Firstly, employers shouldn’t ever charge you before hiring you. Some industries do require employees to make small purchases on their own dime (i.e., the aforementioned uniform), but payroll will usually deduct the cost of these materials from the employee’s first paycheck—not require payment upfront.

As a general rule, it’s probably best to avoid companies that charge you at all. Aramark, for example, is known for requiring employees to buy company clothes—and they’re no peach to work with. But desperate times may warrant an exception in this regard.

It’s also to your benefit to avoid postings that boast an “interview-free” experience. Put simply, no one is hiring sans an interview unless it’s nepotism or a scam. If you aren’t related to the poster, that doesn’t leave much up for interpretation. Similarly, advertising a large sum of money for disproportionately low amounts of work is a pretty big warning sign.

Finally, watch out for jobs that ask for a work sample before hiring. While this is common for internships, most entry-level positions and beyond aren’t going to require you to complete a project for free before determining whether or not you’re good for the job. At best, this is a tactic to get free work from you; at worst, your application information can be stolen.

It’s sad to think that people would stoop to the level of scamming others amidst the dumpster fire of a year it’s been, but if you avoid these red flags, you should be able to keep yourself safe during this holiday season.

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Genomelink is a one-stop-shop for your DNA data, but is it safe?

(NEWS) Genomelink is presenting a dashboard product to unlock further insights using your genetic data. Sounds cool…until you think about privacy.

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dna ancestry tests representing genomelink

Have you ever done one of those nifty home test kits to check your ancestry? In this new world where covid is a long-term reality and the resulting boom in telehealth services, genetic home test kits are seeing a comeback in popularity. What many consumers aren’t aware of, is what happens to their data after they get their report back. Now, there is a new contender in the market called Genomelink that is presenting a dashboard product to unlock further insights using your genetic data. That sounds cool… until you start thinking about privacy.

Most of the major companies in the business don’t even give you the option to not have your data sold, but that fact is buried so far into the fine print, it is no wonder that people miss it. Research published in the journal Nature found that genetic-testing companies frequently fail to meet even basic international transparency standards. Unifying all this data into one dashboard product unlocks even more opportunities for your data to be compromised.

There are four big glaring red flags prospective users should be aware of:

1. Cyber security standards in the genetic testing industry are low-tier.

2. The protocols for how to make your information “anonymous” before they sell it en masse are laughably ineffective.

3. There are no restrictions on who can purchase it or for what purpose.

4. Genomelink is trying to build a platform to streamline access to this data for “all users everywhere.”

Genomelink Co-founder Tomohiro Takano provided the following quote on ProductHunt.com: “We believe in the future, billions of people will have access to their DNA data. When that happens, imagine: [the place] where you will store DNA data and how you [will] connect data [to an] app ecosystem. That will be Genomelink in a nutshell.”

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9-to-5 workdays are no longer the norm: Flexibility brings productivity

(BUSINESS) Doing away with 9-to-5 workdays in a cubicle can work wonders for a team’s productivity. This is no longer a dream, but today’s reality.

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productivity outside of the challenging the norm of 9-to-5 workdays

As we’ve seen in recent years, many of the old concepts about work have been turned on their heads. Many offices allow a more casual dress as compared to the suit and tie standard, and more and more teams have the option of working remotely. One of these concepts that have been in flux for a bit is challenging the norm of 9-to-5 workdays. Offices are giving more options of flex hours and remote work, with the understanding that the work must be completed effectively and efficiently with these flexibilities.

Recently, I got sucked into one of those quick-cut Facebook videos about a company that decided to test out the method of a four-day workweek. This gave employees the option of what day they would like to take off, or, it gave employees the option to work all five days of the week, but with flex hours.

Despite the decrease in hours worked, employees were still paid for a 40-hour workweek which continued their incentive to get the same amount of work done in a more flexible manner. With this shift in time use, the results found that employees wasted less time around the office with mindless chit-chat, as they understood there was less time to waste.

The boss in this office had each team explain how they were going to deliver the same level of productivity. The video did not share the explanations, but it could be assumed that the incentive of a day off would encourage employees to continue their level of productivity, if not increase it.

This was done with the goal of working smarter, rather than harder. Finding ways to manage time better (like finishing up a task before starting another one) helps to stay efficient.

During the trial, it was found that productivity, team engagement, and morale all increased, while stress levels decreased. Having time for yourself (an extra day off) and not overworking yourself are important keys to being balanced and engaged.

There is such a stigma about the way you have to operate in order to be successful (e.g. getting up early, using every hour at your disposal, and using free time to meditate).

Let’s get real – we all need a little free time to check back in with ourselves by doing something mindless (like a good old-fashioned Game of Thrones binge). If not, we’ll go bonkers.

Flex hours and remote working are not all about having time to do morning yoga and read best-seller after best-seller. Flex hours give us the time to take our kids to and from school and comfortably wear our parenting caps without fear of getting fired for not showing up to work precisely at 9 AM.

9-to-5 workdays are becoming dated and I’m glad to see that happen. So many people run themselves ragged within this frame and it’s impossible to find that happy work-life balance. Using flex options can help people manage every aspect of their lives in a positive way.

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