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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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.
I totally agree.. Agents wouldn't link to another Realtor in their market.. Not sure why they would to these portals... It is helping a competitor rank in the search engines, driving potential users to their sites.. Then they can sell traffic back using our listings for their content.. It's just crazy!!! The big problem is that most agents are not aware of what they are doing. That is what these guys are counting on :-(
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.
Thanks Roberta!!! I knew what you meant ;-)
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 completey agree and sending them money for the leads is just as bad as the link juice.
A stunning level of readable detail about how REALTORS help Zillow and Truliala. Well Done! Is there anyway Z & T can help non-paying agents....meaning IS THE REVERSE TRUE? Can an agent post a (free) profile on Z or T and get Business, Blog, etc. links *back* from Z or T? PS I have first hand experience with bad listing data from Trulia given to me by a client. Property listed as active had been under contract for over 3 weeks!
Hi Christian, I work for Trulia and you are correct that the reverse is true. Linking to your website from your Trulia profile or from our voices platform will create backlinks from Trulia, to your site. Both services are available to non-paying agents.
Is the link from Trulia nofollow or dofollow?
Todd, while Trulia may allow agents to include links in their submitted content, Trulia automates the inclusion of the rel="nofollow tag to all links included with submitted content that prevents any SE authority value from being passed to an agents own domain; I suspect Trulia would not tolerate a 'nofollow' tag in their widgets code on agents sites ;)
Good points. Trulia does "nofollow" their links, but Zillow does not. Technically, you can get some backlink juice from a Zillow profile. That's just their game plan. It's all fair, it just depends on whose strategy you want to opt into. Too many people don't realize there is a systematic strategy for SEO happening all the time.
@[710545241:2048:Todd Carpenter]@[100001678359778:2048:Christian Marquez] The links from Trulia by design have no-follows on them so they do not pass the juice.. Having that tag essentially is Trulia telling the search engines they don't trust your site.. They are very SEO smart when it comes to that.. They hoard all their link equity for themselves while sucking as much from agents as possible.. Agents don't know any better... This is a good read about the subject: http://ericbramlett.com/trulia-awareness/
Noah and Walid, Both Trulia's profiles and Trulia's blog posts on voices offer followed links.
Todd, I sampled 15 different profile pages across the country and not a single one had an outbound link on the page. When you look at a blog post it is an SEO's architects dream with 'nofollow's that are setup to sculpted domain authority and funnel crawlers to pages/domains that Trulia controls. Even if you do allow out bound links on the blog posts, Trulia is gating the crawlers from even seeing the individual posts. view-source:http://www.trulia.com/voices/blogs/ This blog home page has 127 instances of 'nofollows' that blocks all individual posts from being indexed. This section of Trulia's site is designed to funnel traffic and not enable the indexing of pages that are produced by agents content. By design a 'follow' link on a blog post to an agents site has no SE value if it is not seen by the robots.
IDallas Real Estate.com
This is a great reference on how 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 that 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 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.
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.
Getting and staying on page 1 is harder especially when everyone is gunning for placement. Months ago I spoke with a sales rep from Zillow regarding adding a badge to my site - as its one of the check off items to do have a Zillow profile at 100% complete. I told him I don't want to add a Zillow badge and his response was "why not?" with my response being "because I don't want to help you out rank me". He laughed and completely understood. It is that easy to help the competition and where they then have leverage over individual brokers for advertising. Empower yourself and your website!
One Wave Designs
Organic SEO copywriting
Great post, also very true... considering all the limitations attached to their widgets. Spend the $ and get a developer to build one for you. Simple.
This is great information Jane. I'm glad I took the time to read it. My personal interest is pretty selfish I must admit. The less money Zillow and Trulia have, the fewer sales calls I will receive from them during business hours. LOL. They already received money from me. I'm a Trulia agent f some sort and I have a couple $10 websites from Zillow, but apparently it's not enough. They won't be happy until I am asking my clients to make my checks out to them. LOL. Unfortunately, at this point I think they are probably unstoppable.
Those crappy $10 sites you have are also clutter with links back to Zillow and helping them outrank you as well... They are gaming agents from all angles :-(
widget spam passing Panda... who knew?
@Jeff - Really. Wow these people are way smarter than me. That and the fact that I stop for meals and restroom breaks is really working against me I think. I should just lay down in the middle of the road and give up ... if the internet has a road. If it does it's probably littered with widgets and backlinks and pretty bumpy so maybe I shouldn't lie down after all. <sigh>. @Penny - I know -- who knew?!
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!
Ingenious. Wow...help them rank well, direct traffic to their sites from agent sites, help them generate leads from those various agent sites, so they can in turn sell the leads back to agents. I received a call yesterday, again, being offered leads from Zillow for several hundred dollars a month. I suppose those leads would have been from my competitors huh. Never used their widgets...never will. Thank you for the insight. Aloha
This has been going on for 4-5 years now. Choices are now to : 1- Not participate on their marketplaces. 2- Build your own widgets. 3- Hope Google devalue or penalize their exact keywords widget links and make it easier for agents to rank locally because Z&T will pushed down the serps. Funny enough if you use the html code from this infographic on your page you are giving a link to this site. It's called link baiting . :)
Great article! It’s bad enough that Zillow and Trulia post our listings and out rank us. Now many agents are giving them a boost in the SERPS! Let’s hope Google will intervene and stop this predatory linking behavior.
"It’s bad enough that Zillow and Trulia post our listings and out rank us. Now many agents are giving them a boost in the SERPS! Let’s hope Google will intervene and stop this predatory linking behavior." If you want to outrank Z/T on listings, put in the work and make it happen. It's not that hard. Not sure why you think you deserve to outrank them without putting in work. And google intervening? please...agents are putting these widgets on their own sites on their own accord. What is google going to do? require that z/t can't put links in widgets that contain their content? um...yea...
Drew Meyers You know and I know this is happening because most agents are not aware of what they are actually doing... and that's exactly what they are counting on too... Use (realtors) our listings as content... then get local agents to boost their authority in the SERPs with their widget spam and cheap crappy $10 sites... so they can then sell leads and traffic to us. Pretty disgusting.. actually.. I know you don't think so... since you are an ex-employee and share holder... any website provider, real estate coach, so called real estate social guru or marketing person that suggests they do these things is not really looking out for the agents best interest... and are probably getting money from ZTR in one way or another.. Long time SEO expert Greg Boser (President of Blueglass) commented over on this on Google+ post: https://plus.google.com/u/0/110263460160370936113/posts/Ly5AbnqdhZu?cfem=1 Quote: "What makes it worse is the fact that it goes beyond widgets. I've spent a lot of time over the years working with smaller companies trying to get re-included for engaging in the exact type of thing you find when looking at the backlinks of a page like zillow.com/agent-websites/ Thousands of crappy Hello World template pages with awesome targeted anchor text in the footer of every page."
What I'd like to see is them get affected by the keyword spamming being implemented in their widgets, which could likely happen. The widgets, WP sites, etc aren't going to end as they are legitimate link building practices that are widely used. Over-optimization has been a big focus in the latest algo updates and it wouldn't surprise me if this was being abused they might take the brunt of such things in the future.
Drew Meyers Not so fast Drew. Outranking the big boys for "Dallas Real Estate Agent" is not possible. The big box sites have tens of thousands of back links from VERY RELEVANT SITES (agent sites which are trying to rank and have very targeted keywords on the page). I wouldn't be surprised to learn you're not a real estate agent/broker.
Jan Erik Callne
Good article! I just talked to my broker about this today, that Trulia and Zillow are coming up at the top on the first page of Google. This is doing buyers an injustice because they're not getting real local information and many listings a re stale/sold... To top it off you get bombarded with phone calls form Zillow and Trulia sales reps trying to sell you advertising! It's interesting after the Panda and Penguin algorithm changes to give searchers relative quality information about what they're searching for is really not the case when it comes to local real estate info. Google are so full of themselves, they don't get what they're doing tor local relative search results especially when it comes to real estate and community information!
Put in the time and money to beat them at the SEO game if you're unhappy about it. It can be done, but its not going to be easy
Nice to see that once again someone is riding our skirt tails. National Association of Realtors should be ashamed...where is Realtor.com the site that we all pay for as part of our dues doing in regards to this?
Ginger Funderburk Osborne
Good information, thank you!
I dont know why I never thought of this, thank you for sharing. Next step, REMOVE the widgets
Great info. This is something I was somewhat aware of, but didn't understand the extent of it.
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.
You are right. This should be done by your local MLS. Thats how you can gain ground quickly.
Great article and definitely something for every realtor to think about. When you do a search for real estate or realtors in your area and you get results that start with trulia and zillow, these are really just directory sites. Potential buyers then have to go search again on these sites rather than just getting search results that are actually a good representation of realtors or real estate in the area. It just doesn't seem like the method Google is using to rank these sites is returning the best results.
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.
wow great information thank you
Kind of scary how they screw people and have no remorse.
Thank you for writing this! So many do not understand this.