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Web Sites: Template or Custom?

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Template Sites Suck

I was stumbling through the Internet today and wound up on a post written by a vendor that supplies custom (well, semi-custom really) web sites to real estate agents. No, I’m not going to link to it because it’s not really germane to the discussion. And it’s strikingly similar to about half a jillion posts and forum entries out there.

The gist of the post I read today and the plethora of others on the topic is that template based sites suck. “They” claim that template sites are bad for SEO, are bad for visitors, are bad for agents. Bad bad bad template sites!

I Dunno…

But are template sites so bad? Personally, I don’t think so, if you work with them. Back in 2006 I wrote a lengthy tome on the good, the bad, and the ugly of template based real estate sites. I just re-read it and it’s not a bad post (if I do say so myself).

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I’ve got a “traditional” static real estate web site. It’s loaded with information on communities, schools, the real estate process. It’s got a great IDX search solution — by far and away it’s most popular feature.

And it’s a template site.

No, it is not “Web 2.0”, at all. It’s not all flashy. But you know what? It attracts a lot of visitors, and creates a lot of phone calls. That lousy little template site has allowed me to build up a database of over 4,700 potential clients over its three year lifetime.

I don’t think that sucks.

Reality Check

Here’s the bottom line…. I don’t care if you have a $10/month template based site, or a $40,000 custom web site (and trust me, you can spend $40K—and more—if you want to). If you don’t work the site, it won’t work for you.

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Want good organic search placement? Then you need to have fresh content. A site that sits for months on end with nothing done to it will drop in search placement over time, and I don’t care how Web 2.0 it is. This is one of the reasons that blogs “SEO well” — they are constantly updated with new, and hopefully good, content. A blog with a well-worn keyboard behind it will almost SEO itself.

And let’s be real, even if you do get great search results and tons of prospects, if you don’t convert those prospects, then what good is any of it? (more on this another day)

There’s nothing wrong with a fully loaded custom site. They can work just fine, if you work them.

Ditto for a template based site.

It’s not the site so much as what you do with it.

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Written By

Jay is the Broker / Owner of Thompson's Realty in Phoenix, Arizona. A self-professed "Man with a blogging problem" he can be found across the Interweb, including at the Phoenix Real Estate Guy blog where he opines on all things real estate and tosses out random musings.



  1. Mariana

    July 17, 2008 at 8:52 pm

    I have 2 cheap/free template websites that rank #1 in Google for all kinds of things. It is TOTALLY how you work it.

  2. Frank Jewett

    July 17, 2008 at 9:14 pm

    Jay, any thoughts on PropertyMinder websites?

  3. Bill Lublin

    July 17, 2008 at 9:27 pm

    Jay; I __________ with your comment about_________________. I think you are totally _______________ about templates.

  4. Matt Wilkins

    July 17, 2008 at 9:37 pm

    It’s funny how web prescense has changed over the years. I remember when I got into the business in 2002-2003 agnts were paying big bucks to have top placement in the search engines and now wit hthe right tags and content you can do it for much less if not free.

    I also agree about fresh content. not only does it help SEO but it also gives people a reason to come back to your site and have your name in ther mind when they think Real Estate.

  5. ines

    July 17, 2008 at 9:51 pm

    I started off with a template site and did really well with it until I reached a plateau but it had to do with the aesthetic part of it that I just couldn’t do more with.

    There is a saying about not the size of the wave but the motion of the ocean…… wait…..that is totally irrelevant here.

  6. Michelle Berry

    July 17, 2008 at 9:54 pm

    It’s all about the agent’s goals, and what sort of site will work with their time & money budgets. I’ve used nothing but template sites since I was first in the business in 2004 (google apps is $10 a year, you get several templates, ample email accounts, free hosting, intranet sites, & more) I’m now working on my first ‘from scratch site’. And honestly, the average consumer doesn’t know the difference. Another thing to note, sites with a lot of flash don’t display well on phones with internet browsers. A basic html site will. Consumers are on the internet for information about listings, you, and just possibly the community. The quicker they can find this information the longer they will stick around, and hopefully contact you.

  7. Jay Thompson

    July 17, 2008 at 11:02 pm

    @Frank – other than seeing a few PropertyMinder sites, I’m not familiar with them.

    This statement on their site concerns me: “Search Engine Submission – Every 6 weeks, PropertyMinder submits your website to Google, Yahoo®, MSN® and other major search engines”

    Submitting a site repeatedly is a waste of time, and could potentially been seen as spamming. There is absolutely no need to submit a web site every six weeks. Once it’s indexed, resubmitting does nothing.

    If they don’t understand that….

    My personal opinion is that Point2 Agent and Ubertor offer the best real estate template sites. But I’m certainly not familiar with all of the providers.

  8. Mack in Atlanta

    July 18, 2008 at 5:15 am

    I am amazed at how many agents have websites that the default content is the only content on the site. Many of these agents wonder why their site doesn’t produce traffic. Template or not, if you don’t have original content on your site you will not be found for you key search terms.

  9. Chuck G

    July 18, 2008 at 5:46 am

    @Frank — Just my take on PM websites…they are about as static as static can get. They haven’t made any changes to their templates or functionality (short of a few benign cosmetic colors) in years. The reason that most agents I know (myself included) use PropertyMinder is that their MLS Search and email notification are still the king of the hill. While most sites will send out email notifications once daily, PM does it pretty much continuously.

    I have to admit that this is a nice feature, but is it worth $100/mo for a site that you really can’t customize? No. I am adding the Diverse Solutions iDS Search function to my blog this week, and it’s my hope that I’ll be able to punt on Property Minder within a month or so.

    By the way, check out PM’s opinion about blogs:

    …clearly a defensive position against a technology that threatens the very core of their business!

  10. Elaine Reese

    July 18, 2008 at 7:05 am

    I’ve had my template site since ’99. I can customize it quite a bit with html and I make changes to the front page a couple times a week. The key is to provide info that the public wants. I’ve seen glitzy custom sites that only speak to how great the agent is, and don’t offer the consumer any market info. IMO, it’s better to have a site that provides info rather than advertises the agent, no matter whether it’s a template or custom.

    The major fault I have with my site provider is that they submit basic keywords plus those we’ve added. We can’t de-select from their basic keywords to exclude those that aren’t appropriate for our market. I’ve complained to no avail.

    Ines’ comment is the greatest!

  11. Jay Thompson

    July 18, 2008 at 8:33 am

    @Chuck G – That link to the PropertyMinder post is amazing. That a real estate website provider could be so out of touch is mind-boggling.

    @Elaine – I’m not sure I understand what you mean by your provider is submitting keywords. Are you referring to keyword meta tags? If so, I wouldn’t stress too much. Most search engines ignore them as they are so prone to abuse. Your on-page content / keywords are far more important. Send me your sites URL and I’ll be happy to take a look at it and see if there is something easy you could do to help.

    @Mack – good point. I tell anyone that will listen that the first thing you need to do with a template based site is gut the canned content.

  12. Jennifer in Louisville

    July 18, 2008 at 8:44 am

    Good SEO results can absolutely be obtained by a templated site. [Now, a framed site is a different animal altogether – and it would be virtually impossible to obtain good SEO results in a very competitive larger market.] If you work it, it can produce for you.

    That being said, its not all about SEO. The other side of the coin that needs to be looked at is your customer experience (read:conversion of those leads to actual customers). Can a templated website provide a good customer experience? Sure, absolutely. But those persons that seem to enjoy the most success at least quasi-custom those templated websites to make it more suitable for their needs.

  13. Matt Thomson

    July 18, 2008 at 8:49 am

    I spent $4k to have a “semi-custom” site made for me a few years back. I don’t get any more traffic to it than I get to my free template site that KW provides their agents. KW’s templates are fully customizable, not the standard here’s your picture and bio on our site that many companies offer, but it’s still a template.
    My blogs generate my traffic, and I drive them to my static sites from there. Wish I hadn’t paid for my “custom” site. Free is nice.

  14. Bob

    July 18, 2008 at 8:57 am

    Want good organic search placement? Then you need to have fresh content. A site that sits for months on end with nothing done to it will drop in search placement over time, and I don’t care how Web 2.0 it is. This is one of the reasons that blogs “SEO well” — they are constantly updated with new, and hopefully good, content. A blog with a well-worn keyboard behind it will almost SEO itself.,/blockquote>

    The fresh content mantra is a myth.

    [Now, a framed site is a different animal altogether – and it would be virtually impossible to obtain good SEO results in a very competitive larger market.]

    An even bigger myth. With a framed site, I owned the majority of the search terms for my major market as recently as June 2007 when I sold the domain. It was one of the top 100 domain sales worldwide in 2007 and it’s rankings in Google contributed to it value. You just have to know what you are doing.

  15. Benn Rosales

    July 18, 2008 at 9:07 am

    Mariana wrote this fantastic piece on stripping down template sites in order to get maximum results

    it’s worth checking out:

  16. Ken Smith

    July 18, 2008 at 9:47 am

    Know that this is not the popular opinion with bloggers but fresh content is overrated for search engine rankings. Writing lots of fresh content everyday will not in itself cause you to rank better.

    What fresh content will give you is an increasing large amount of terms that you might get found for. When blogging you tend to hit terms (longtail) that you would never have targeted when writing static pages. It also naturally brings in traffic from those that have subscribed to your feed.

    As for templates, they can and will rank if people invest the time into making them do so. The biggest issue I have with them is they all look the same and the designs in general are very outdated looking.

  17. Charleston real estate blog

    July 18, 2008 at 9:55 am

    I’ll echo Jay with this, It is *exactly* what you do with your site that matters. And most agents do not, template or custom.

    I have a P2 template site for 5 years and stripped all the template content but it wasn’t until blogs were offered and integrated that my site really took off. 500+ posts in the last 1 1/2 year that consistently add fresh content gives you seo benefits, long tail or short.

  18. Frank Jewett

    July 18, 2008 at 10:17 am

    Jay and Chuck, I appreciate your thoughts on PropertyMinder. I personally thought the design was thud heavy, meaning they loaded it up with as much “content” as possible to try to justify the price.

    The problem is that the more information you have, the harder it is to find it. If visitors can’t find information quickly, they don’t think “I could spend days sifting through this treasure”, they leave.

    And yes, I saw the PM post about blogging yesterday. I was waiting for an opportune moment to drop that into the conversation here. Perhaps Jay could use that post as a foil for his next Ag post. 🙂

  19. Vance Shutes

    July 18, 2008 at 11:11 am


    First off, I LOVE the photo! ROFL

    It was here on Ag that I read a great quote, which rests above me desk:


    Whether template or custom site, if you don’t work, it won’t. It’s that simple.

  20. Vicki Moore

    July 18, 2008 at 11:17 am

    Chuck – I read that Property Minder article about blogging too. I was amazed at how ridiculous the whole thing was. I use them for IDX.

    I had a Property Minder template for several years. It was one of those things when one agent in the office got it, we all followed along like a bunch of lemmings. Recently when I wanted a new platform I somehow ended up on Point 2 – you know how surfing is. I found out that that was what Jay uses so I jumped on the lemming wagon again. I can’t believe how little I’ve done to the site and how much better the results have been – better than any other site I’ve had. I’ve gone from no results to some results. A little more work, a little more result – I can live with that.

  21. teresa boardman

    July 18, 2008 at 11:34 am

    I have an ancient template site that I have not bothered replacing. It works well for me. They find the blog, and sue the template site.

  22. Shailesh Ghimire

    July 18, 2008 at 12:25 pm

    As long as the template has some customizable features to upload your own image for example, I don’t see why I should really spend money on a customized template. Working the blog/website is the most important element – as every other commenter has pretty much discussed here.

  23. Ginger Wilcox

    July 18, 2008 at 2:58 pm

    I have a template site that is pretty, but it stinks in terms of effectiveness. My blog is far, far more effective. I have been seriously considering dumping the web site. Do I need a traditional web site when I have a blog? Should I dump it for a better template site like P2?

  24. Elaine Reese

    July 18, 2008 at 7:24 pm

    Jay, yes, it’s really the meta tags which I keep reading are no longer used much by the search engines. Like others have said, I did away with all the canned content and I made sure to pick a design that doesn’t use frames. It has a PR3 and gets decent business Notice I said BUSINESS, not traffic! (what good is traffic if you don’t get any clients from it?)

    Of course, my blog is the big hitter for business. BTW, per your request, my web site is just my name dot com. Your help would be welcomed.

  25. Glenn fm Naples

    July 19, 2008 at 7:53 am

    A few short years ago (2002), probably template sites were good for real estate agents first venturing with the Internet and likely it is true today, if the template allows the agent to add and update content. It gives them the experience of working on a site with little understanding of the coding and if the company supplying the template has a forum, it gives the individual to exchange ideas and thoughts.

    A web site is never finished – the content should be updated as required. I do find it surprising (my site included) when you read something about a neighborhood and you can tell it is out-dated. Hence, a blog allows for updating with current information to supplement the static pages.

  26. Jim Gatos

    July 19, 2008 at 9:40 am

    I wouldn’t even be asking most of those “custom website” designers about blogs; they either try to discourage you because they don’t have one, or they try to sell you an overpriced propreitory blog if they do. Two readers signed up this week on my blog as new buyers wanting to search for properties and I have a self hosted wordpress blog. I did what you guys are telling me to do and it seems to be working..

    Keep your independence and don’t start blogs on ActiveRain, and your IDX provider. Even Typepad, it scared me after I tried it for a couple of days..

  27. Sue

    July 22, 2008 at 8:25 pm

    Both my sites are templates. #1 is an oldie and I know most don’t like it, but its served me well over the years. My REW template has attained good presence for my towns. I do try to work the on site blog regularly and keep the content fresh. I am of the belief that its good for SEO and even if it isn’t, there should be up to date content and new info on the site for clients.

  28. Steve Simon

    August 29, 2008 at 9:37 pm

    Templates and SEO may or may not have anything to do with one another.

    Conversion may or may not have anything to do with templates.

    Content will most certainly determine your level of SEO, and your rates of conversion…

    As far as SEO:
    A free wordpress theme, with a static page set to the landing page and engaging content in posts written and updated regularly will win everytime over a glitzy site with no real content.

    As far as conversion (having the visitor take action) I think maybe the $40, 000 site would be a nice thing to have 🙂 But again I have seen some very compelling calls to action on free wordpress themes (and Dreamweaver out of the box sites)…

    If you really want to learn about this subject (and for free!) I suggest you start hanging around the google webmaster help group and read a few thousand posts!

    You will find that as far as Google is concerned if you want to have only one goal, let it be the creation of compelling useful content for your site.

    Over and over this is the one truth that shines through.
    Save your site development dollars and create solid content.

    This doesn’t mean you should disregrad things like valid code, alt tags for images, having two domain calls without a preference (www and no www) and 200 other important things; but first is content!

  29. Gordon Baker

    October 2, 2008 at 8:24 pm

    Whether it is a custom website or template; it you don’t work with the site, change content, customize title tags, target your audience, anything will fail. Any success I’ve had has come from updating content, targeting my market, and providing the information they want.

  30. galtlinedesign

    May 20, 2010 at 2:24 am

    If you want to follow the leader template is just fine, but if you want to be a leader you should have a system that gives you the flexibility to add your own features. Template or Custom make sure you can add your own ideas into the mix . There are a few solutions on the market that offer full custom solutions that don’t break the bank. An added benefit is building on a nice CMS such as Joomla or WordPress. Expand through custom plugins, and components, or build your own. Be in control of you online presence and build into the future.

  31. Matt Brooks

    June 28, 2010 at 6:14 pm

    I know I am a little late to the discussion on this, but I think that now in 2010, a template CMS is the way to go for anyone in the business. To be successful in these tough times agents should strive to have a complete working knowledge of their CMS. It might be difficult at first, but the results will be worth it!

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