How You're Helping Zillow and Trulia to Outrank You
Making it to the first page of Google is no easy feat. You can optimize your site, make sure your content is of the highest quality, and adhere to Google's standards, and still never make it for one reason or another. Usually, it's a matter of other sites simply doing something better than you. Maybe they've built more backlinks. Maybe they're better at marketing. That's the nature of any business—fair competition. But what if you were unknowingly helping another site to outrank you?
Sadly, this is the case for many independent real estate agents out there. You think you're doing everything right, and even going above and beyond, but you're still getting beaten by larger brands. It may be that you're contributing to their success, and your lack of visibility. How? Through a simple device called a widget, which uses your website to drive traffic and boost the rankings of two major names in the real estate space, Zillow and Trulia.
Predatory Linking Practices
Those two sites need no introduction. You know who they are. You may also know that try as you might, you can't overtake them in the SERPs. In fact, the longer they're around, the further your site seems to fall in the results. Maybe you even thought you'd try to take advantage of their name recognition, and add one, two, or a few of their widgets to your site. Little did you know that by doing so, you were giving Zillow and Trulia even more firepower to outrank your site.
It's a brilliant scheme, really. Both sites provide a full range of widgets for agents to use on their independent real estate sites. These widgets offer a wide range of features including mortgage calculators, maps, photo slideshows, home value estimators, and even a contact form. What site can't benefit from a widget, right? And by offering tools like maps and mortgage calculators, you're just helping your customers find even more information than might normally be available via IDX.
The problem is, the minute you put one of those widgets on your site, you are agreeing to help a competitor rank better than you, and to drive traffic to their site. Let's take a closer look at one of the widgets provided by Zillow—the home value estimator.
To get the widget, you first fill out <a href="http://www.zillow.com/webtools/widgets/SingleHomeValue.htm">a simple form with a default address. You'll naturally want to fill this out before placing the form on your site so that the code generated is for your city and not the default, Whittier neighborhood in Minneapolis, Minn.—unless, of course, you're located in Minneapolis. For the purposes of this example, we'll use San Antonio, TX:
Just copy the generated code and paste it into your site and voilà! You can offer your customers a home value estimator tool. Now let's examine that code. Most of it is pretty standard, all meant to create the field a potential customer would fill out in order to find out how much their home, or a home they want to buy, is worth. But at the very end is where it gets interesting. The last portion of the code reads as follows:
<a href="http://www.zillow.com/san-antonio-tx/" target="_blank" style="font-weight:normal;font-style:normal;font-size:10px;padding:0;width:144px;color:#666666;text-decoration:none;line-height:1.2em;" scen="s1">Homes for Sale in <span class="region">San Antonio</span></a>
This tiny bit of code contains three areas of concern:
The home value estmator form widget, like every other widget Zillow offers, contains a link back to Zillow.com. It's right at the beginning: http://www.zillow.com/san-antonio-tx/, and you’ll see that link appears at the bottom of the widget you install on your site, just under where users are prompted to enter an address. Well, you think, that's only right considering they're providing me with this free widget. One little link won't hurt anything.
But there's something you must understand. A link coming into a site—more commonly called a backlink—gives that site a boost in authority and rank. The more backlinks a site has, the better it looks to Google and the other search engines.
The logic behind it is that few people, if anyone, will link to a poor quality site. So the more people linking to a site, the higher quality it must be, and Google moves it up in the SERPs. Unfortunately, it's flawed logic, because some companies, like Zillow, have found ways to create their own backlinks by including them in little widgets like this.
Multiply that one backlink in your one widget by the thousands of other real estate agents who are using these widgets on thousands of sites. Every backlink is a boost to Zillow's rank, and an anchor on independent agents' sites competing to be found.
The Inclusion of the City
As an independent real estate agent, you most likely work in a relatively small area, whether it's the little town you live in, or the San Antonio metro area, which is small relative to the country. But sites like Zillow and Trulia are accessible to anyone anywhere in the country, including those people who may be moving to your local area.
By including a backlink to its own listings in your city, Zillow is basically horning in on your local search action. And it's not just the link itself, but the text that is linked, which is called anchor text. When this text is optimized, it helps to target specific searches. In this backlink, the optimized anchor text is: "Homes for sale in San Antonio," meaning it's meant to target people searching for that specific item with those specific words. Per Google's own Keyword Research tool, approximately 880 people search for the exact phrase "Homes for sale in San Antonio" every month:
So first, you've helped boost Zillow's position in the SERPs so that it's ranking well above your local San Antonio website. Then you gave them optimized anchor text to help their site pop up when someone searches for "Homes for sale in San Antonio," which has a decent search volume, especially for such a localized area. But there's one more thing that should concern you, if not just outright make you angry.
Microformat Data Markup
Take another look at that code, and pay special attention to this one little bit: <span class="region">San Antonio</span> The first part of it tells a search engine like Google that a certain parameter is being identified as a region—in this case, San Antonio. Google loves microformats.
When Google finds a microformat attached to a link like this, it may respond by displaying a bit more information in the snippet, which is the descriptive bit of information that follows each link in a SERP. Using this particular microformat may prompt Google to display a map alongside the search result, thereby drawing the searcher's eye, and further encouraging them to click the link.
So even if your site appeared directly below Zillow on the SERP for "Homes for sale in San Antonio," (and incidentally, as of this writing, Zillow ranks #3 in Google for that search phrase after homes.com and trulia.com), it's more likely that the person searching will click on Zillow's result because there's a colorful map attached to it, drowning out your small, text-only link.
By now, you should be suitably upset that you have been helping your competitors boost their rankings above yours. In fact, you may be angry enough that you think, Forget them! I'll just use the widget, but I'm going to remove that bit of code that will include the backlink! Not so fast.
Pay close attention to numbers 2, 6, and 7. Number 2 says you may not modify the widget, which includes removing that last bit of code that creates a backlink to Zillow.com. More importantly, it says you can't prevent the search engines from "scoring the link," which basically means counting it toward Zillow's authority and ranking. Essentially, by using this widget and accepting these terms of service, you are agreeing to boost Zillow in the SERPs.
Number 6 says Zillow can, at any time, change the content returned by the widget you place on your site, so at some point, your customers may not get the information they're looking for. And by agreeing to number 7, you're allowing Zillow to monitor your site to make sure you're in compliance with these terms, so if you thought you'd go ahead and adjust that code anyway, they basically tell you they're watching for that.
Think about this for a moment—how often do you really read the terms of service for anything? Be honest. Before you download software, make a purchase from iTunes, or install a widget on your site, do you take the time to read the rules? If you're like most people, the answer is no. You're in a hurry. You don't have time. You just want to install the widget and get on with your business. Zillow is counting on that.
Trulia also offers widgets, and also requires you to agree to terms of service. All their widgets also include backlinks, so by using them, you're helping Trulia to outrank you in the search engine results.
The next question in your mind is most likely, How can they do this? Isn't it against Google guidelines or something?
The short answer is no, but as with many things related to the Internet and Google, the full answer isn't quite that simple.
In the interview, Cutts explained Google's stance on widget spam. If a link in the widget is hidden, it's spam. If the link goes to a third-party site that is completely irrelevant to the widget's purpose, or to the site that provided the widget, it's spam. Zillow does neither of these things. Their widget links are clearly visible, they go back to Zillow, and they're relevant to the widget's purpose.
Here's where it gets tricky. In the Webmaster Central post, Cutts said:
...I discourage people from putting keyword-rich anchortext [sic] into their widgets...
By including phrases like "Homes for sale in San Antonio," Zillow is most definitely using keyword-rich anchor text in their widgets. Granted, it's relevant, but by not including any reference to "Zillow," the possibility exists that visitors to your site may assume that link will take them to more local listings from your site. Instead, they'll be sent to Zillow. The anchor text is potentially misleading.
Is that a lot of assumption? Sure. But the best way to prevent incorrect assumptions is to be transparent in what you're doing, and Zillow's widgets, while not completely in the spam camp, are still toeing that line, and leaving room for interpretation by not being totally transparent.
The first and best action you can take is to immediately and completely remove any Zillow and Trulia widgets from your independent real estate website.
Need a widget? You can find tons of free ones that don't link to your competitors. Want to offer a mortgage calculator to your customers? Talk to a developer about creating a custom, branded one for you.
You may incur some expense, but how much money do you think you're losing by sending your customers to the two 800-pound gorillas in the real estate space rather than offering your customers your own tools and information?
As for Zillow and Trulia, and their predatory linking practices, it will be up to Google to decide whether the two sites have violated the search engine's rules. In the meantime, they'll do just fine without your help.
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I think that now that Zillow is buying Trulia, but promising to run both Zillow and Trulia as SEPARATE brands, they will now be one step closer to locking real estate agents out of the top 3 spots on Google PPC. zillow already spends a pile of money to bid up and dominate a lot of keyowrds, and ow they can run two sets of ads and dominate two.
James Jordan, Realtor
This explains more about the 800 lb gorillas that are confusing the local real estate markets.
Matt Cutts explaining how portals like Zillow and Trulia are having agents promote their widget spam unknowingly. http://searchengineland.com/googles-matt-cutts-i-recommend-nofollowing-links-on-widgets-169487#comment-999656849
Thank you for putting this out there. It is totally true, I advertise on Zillow, which sucks but sellers demand it. That said, they called to offer me a free tool via a widget. After I told the rep oh, so you can have a link from my local site to yours? Hell no. He just sat there stunned and added, I guess you are right. I also asked if I could have an anchor text link from Zillow to me since I was an advertiser there, answer, no. Thanks for the post!
Although I wouldn't personally put one of these widgets on my site- because it may lead people away from your website- but as far as "draining your juice" this is a silly myth. I won't link to an article I wrote recently, but just Google: "Are widgets draining your Google juice?" The algorithm is a little more sophisticated than this and it's changed daily...
Nice Article! Has anybody found a nice Home Valuation Plugin for Wordpress?
Bravo. Having outbound links to your competition on your website is like Pizza Hut offering coupons to Domino's. The national portals are smart to supply the widgets, but agents should be more aware of what's wrapped up in those freebies.
Roberta Michelson Murphy
Congratulations on a great job of probing this thorny issue, Jeff. Agents everywhere have unwittingly given away both rank and authority. And if it is linking spam, it should be reported. Guess we need to beware of Geeks bearing gifts? Not Real Geeks...but you know what I mean.
As of today I have pulled my listings from Trulia. I was checking them out only to realize they were displaying another agents phone number clearly labeled Listing Agent. I demanded my listings be deleted. If more agents started demanding this instead of paying them we could be rid of these two sites in a matter of months. They have no product without our listings.
I have been screaming this for years! Thanks for getting the word out in a clear fashion so agents can change this predatory practice. Work on your own SEO, just for you!
Deborah Matteson Solano
Thank you for your explanation. I have been using Diverse Solutions IDXPress as a widget on several of my real estate websites. I believe Diverse Solutions are now owned by Zillow. I am going to check those widgets. I think the back links have been coming back to me.... but I have dropped so low in the rankings since Penguin came out that I don't think that is true. I'm going to check. What do you think about the IDX Press widgets?
This is a MUST Real for ALL Realtors and Mortgage Loan Officers
This is a great reference on how industry sites like Zillow and Trulia are taking market share away from local agents. The distribution of their tools/widgets that enables a back-link is a large piece that enables these sites ability to build domain and local search authority. In addition, when agents engage in conversations they further support the relevancy of these back-links from locally relevant content they are submitting through different sections of these sites that is interconnected across their domains through strategically created information architecture content groups. i.e. profiles, Q&A, etc. A combination of the widget back-links and the social signals you provide with your content sends the needed value signal to Google that they are more locally relevant then a local agents site. While these sites widgets and tools provide easy functionality for our sites there are options, while not free, that allow us to subscribe to white label widgets or custom develop that will provide value to your visitors without supporting your competition. RealGeeks has also provided the ability to create external search widgets which would enable us to execute the same back-link strategy. I will be taking advantage of this down the road for my locally relevant domains that will support the authority of my main RealGeeks site. This will create opportunity to locally target content and create potential link-bait opportunities that I control.
Sheryl Marks Brown
Good point - many agents aren't aware of how these big groups totally use us. My beef personally, is that agents do all the work gathering data for the MLS (think about it), then these groups use that very valuable data to get people to their site, and then come back and charge us for leads! If they didn't have access to the MLS data, our sites would be more valuable.
Excellent article. We have been trying to educate our real estate clients how these sites are hurting them and setting them back. This doesnt even talk about how they are using their listings to generate leads and sell them to their competitors. I have no idea why local MLS's allow this to continue.
Lake Realty Lake Norman NC
I do not have any of these widgets but based on the search engine results, these sites are taking advantage of the value of backlinks. I would like our Realtor Association with their big lobbying budget to push the search engines to give less emphasis to non "brick and mortar business" when delivering results. We keep hearing that "content is king" but these types sites are mainly real estate listing sites and do not have local information. Supposedly real estate is a local business. The search engines you could do a better job of sending search results that contain that local information. Keep at it.
Kind of scary how they screw people and have no remorse.
I dont know why I never thought of this, thank you for sharing. Next step, REMOVE the widgets
How many calls do we get from folks asking about "listings" on these sites only to find out it sold months ago. I had a customer (buyer) who called wondering why his house was listed on one of these guys...he has been in the house for over a year. He was alerted because one of his neighbors mentioned he was sad to see him go! Google wants natural link buildings and agents have been more that willing to comply without knowing what they are doing. They are adding value to these data mine sites at the expense of their own business. Then Z and T want to sell the leads back to agents from info they received form the agents in the first place!. At some point, we can only hope that "G" figures out that the info they provide is second hand and is often outdated. Agents and brokerages who take the plunge to develop a site that has up to the hour information should be rewarded. For now, the only thing we as agents can do is NOT send link juice to these guys....and don't get me started on their valuation models...:) Great post Jeff Manson :)
I always wondered if whatever leads you received also went to another source such as those who paid for a trulia or zillow zip code
Donnelly Group Real Estate of Annapolis
Wow. Thanks for the insight. There should be some google rules against this. Thanks for sharing.
I'm checking my websites now for sneaky backlinks to my competition
James Patrick Sanson
Also, for some or many of you are not aware that zillow is offering websites for $10 and free to its premier agents. These websites are really nice, but you are once again making the website have no value, because it is giving backlinks to zillow, which will clearly out rank you. Also, diversesolutions.com is also Zillow. I wrote a blog on this awhile back, and I am glad to see somebody spending the money to get this out there to be read by more and more realtors.
Thank you for writing this! So many do not understand this.