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Without Listings, Zillow and Company Will Perish

Syndication SEO Real EstateThe decisions made by Abbott Realty Group, Edina, and some local boards across the country have sent shock waves across the real estate landscape. And while some of the industry giants such as Jay Thompson and Kris Berg have already discussed in length what syndicating to aggregators means to the industry as a whole, this post is not about the merits/flaws of sending listing data to aggregators but rather to discuss the SEO ramifications of syndicating. As Drew firmly argued in his post “for any given search term entered into Google, their algorithms strive to return the result with the highest PageRank, focused on the exact keyword searched” and even if large brokerages stopped syndicating their listings “you’d see zero SEO impact on the aggregators”.

I’m not as SEO savvy as Drew clearly is, but even to an SEO newbie it would seem that that taking listings (i.e. content) away from the big aggregators (for the sake of brevity, we’ll refer to them as ZRT) would have a SIGNIFICANT effect on how they rank. First, let’s debate Drew’s point that internal Page Rank is the key metric that algorithms weight in delivering search engine results page (SERP). According to SEOMoz’s CEO Rand Fishin, “Do things with higher PageRank tend to rank better then things with lower PageRank,” the answer would be yes, but only barely. In fact, the correlation is around 0.11, 0.12. It is pretty darn low…” and goes on to conclude “PageRank is probably a very small part of the algorithm.” But keep correlation is not synonymous with causation. So instead of focusing on PR, which many SEO experts would argue has little if any effect, let’s talk about factors that DO help in the SERP’s.

Again, as I’m not a SEO savvy agent, I prefer to rely on what industry leaders see as algorithmic metrics that can have positive/negative effects on how well a page/site ranks. SEOMoz biannually conducts what many in the SEO community view as the most comprehensive study of ranking factors by polling SEO industry leaders such as Aaron Wall, Jill Whalen, Justin Briggs, etc. (it really is a Who’s Who list of the best minds in SEO). Take a brief moment and look at the 2011 Search Engine Ranking Factors and watch the video introduction – warning, this is a rich-data set of very insightful information and will easily kill a couple of hours of your day.

For example, as has been said by many, link-building is a crucial part to a successful SEO strategy but it is by no means the only factor. Looking at the overall 2011 Broad Algorithm, link-based factors account for 42% (declining from 46% in the previous edition), but keyword-based factors such as domain-level keyword usage and page level keyword agnostic features account for over 37%. Can ZRT put as much emphasis on keywords (i.e. Austin Real Estate, Manhattan Condos) on a page and domain level as can be done by dedicated local sites? Of course not, a Seattle condos site can dedicate itself completely/entirely to covering Seattle condos from a hyper-local perspective that simply cannot be replicated by the ZRT’s of the world. Google et al are moving from algorithms heavily based on links to ones in which sites with unique, relevant, insightful content will be rewarded. Google’s Panda/Farmer Update was an indication of their intent and it could be reasonably argued that it is only the first step in that direction.

In addition, what I found most interesting is that under Future of Search, the factor most likely to increase in algorithmic weight was “Analysis of a Site/Page’s Perceived Value to Users’. This could be measured by click-through-rate, bounce rate, time on page, etc. Now, I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed but I fail to see how a person looking for properties to buy would find value searching on a site that does NOT list properties for sale. Oh, yes, ZRT can provide property tax data (nothing unique about that, many locally-based sites already integrate that with other listing information), other automated valuation models (Zestimates are super accurate, right?), mortgage rates (can ZRT do a better job than dedicated mortgage sites such as BankRate.com?) and other fluff to attract visitors. If you are looking to buy shoes, do you go to a website that doesn’t have shoes for sale?

So for those who want to give the ZRT’s of the world the SEO equivalent of a whooping, stop syndicating your listings and stop naively linking to them. Can ZRT dominate without any content? Let’s find out.

About Alex Cortez

Maui Realtor specializing in Honua Kai Condos For Sale, Wailea Real Estate and Wailea Condos for sale.

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  • http://www.drewmeyersinsights.com/ Drew Meyers

    Moving toward “Analysis of a Site/Page’s Perceived Value to Users” as most important ranking algorithm…

    In theory, this sounds good. But I’m unclear what they are going to do in future that they aren’t already doing to try to figure that out? Isn’t this already what PageRank attempts to do? Give a rough indicator of perceived value? If there is valuable content somewhere, people will quote/cite/reference/share it. I hear ya on CTR and bounce rate — but even bounce rate is not always bad. It can be good if it means the user got exactly what they wanted, very quickly.

    You think Zillow’s bounce rate will increase if they only have 70% of listings instead of 90%? How is a consumer going to know based on looking at a results page for Seattle (http://www.zillow.com/homes/for_sale/Seattle-WA/) what % of the listings it contains to make them bounce sooner? My gut is they would look at a bunch of listings, and if they didn’t find listings they liked – then maybe they’d go do a few more searches and try to find an agent site.

    I’m with you on the specifics of ranking. It’s difficult to explain this issue to the common person without a SEO background. PageRank is a simpler way to help a newbie understand it.

    • http://www.intownelite.com/ Mike McGee

      “You think Zillow’s bounce rate will increase if they only have 70% of listings instead of 90%?”

      Perhaps not since, as you say, consumers may not notice at first. (Especially since Zillow obfuscates actual market conditions by continuing to display off-market listings as active. My own neighborhood, for example, has 9 active listings. Zillow shows 33. Of course, this gives Zillow more possible landing pages, and gives the consumer the impression that they have “all” the listings, even though it’s misleading and inaccurate data. Nice.) 

      But I digress. What if ZRT had only 10% of the listings in a given market? The consumer will surely notice that. Never happen? Don’t be so sure. So far what we’ve seen is individual brokers pulling their listings from syndication. That’s a tough move, because your competitors may not follow.

      But in some markets, the MLS’s syndicate the listings via ListHub, P2, etc. Wait until MLS’s start pulling out of syndication. All of a sudden ZRT has no listings in that market. Prospective home buyers in that market quickly realize ZRT doesn’t have what they’re seeking. Bounce.

      The sites of local agents / brokers quickly become more successful, and as other MLS boards notice this, a domino effect propagates across the country. 

      Far fetched? We shall see.

      • http://www.drewmeyersinsights.com/ Drew Meyers

        Yes, if they only had 10% of listings in a given market – consumers would notice pretty quickly. I do believe that is a far fetched scenario — but of course I’ve been wrong before.

    • http://www.mauirealestatesearch.com/ Alex Cortez

       To address a couple of these questions:

      “Isn’t this already what PageRank attempts to do? Give a rough indicator of perceived value?”

      Summarily, No! Page Rank is not meant to calculate how valuable the content is, it is a metric of ‘importance’ based on incoming links. You can have a 5 page site with dribble, garbage content be a PR6 without any merit based on its content. Here’s a good read from Danny Sullivan: http://searchengineland.com/what-is-google-pagerank-a-guide-for-searchers-webmasters-11068

      “You think Zillow’s bounce rate will increase if they only have 70% of listings instead of 90%?”

      First, it could be the same bounce rate (or even lower), but if the traffic is decimated by search engines then bounce rate becomes a moot point.

      “How is a consumer going to know based on looking at a results page…what % of the listings it contains to make them bounce sooner?”

      Buyers who are actively looking for homes have signed up for listing alerts at one point or another and know what’s coming on the market. And when a potential buyer doesn’t get the information they want, they quickly look elsewhere.

  • Anonymous

    They have way more real estate content than any broker, any mls, any franchise – they are super sites. They should out rank nearly every site. Their only weekness is that they get the data late – and are not the first to publish listings. Usually that is a RETS site – and the biggest boy wins there too.

    Having said that – few websites rely on SEO for a significant volume of visits. We monitor dozens of broker sites with traffic between 600 and 70,000 daily visits. They rock it for SEO – and it means very little for them in terms of overall traffic volume. The same is true for ZRT – people type in their domain name or they google their brand.

    I believe that SEO is important and should be factored into the fundamentals of any website design and build. But even great SEO is not going to make a broker or agent site outperform ZRT in traffic volume. There are only a handful of sites in America that have more traffic than the portals in the market areas they serve – Shorewest in Milwaukee; Howard Hanna in Pittsburgh and Cleveland; Edina in Minneapolis. 

    We can only measure down to the DMA – demographic market area – kind of a Nielsen thing. So it is possible that Alain Pinel has more traffic in Los Altos; or Chase International has more traffic in Incline Village, or that Corcoran has more traffic in Manhattan. But those are isolated – when you figure the full area – the large sites usually dominate.

    There is a huge advantage to being national. I suspect that Realogy, Keller Williams, and RE/Max are figuring that out.

    • http://www.intownelite.com/ Mike McGee

      “They have way more real estate content…”
      Of course they do, by definition, they are aggregators. But that content is all given to them by agents/brokers. I’m not sure agents/brokers will continue find that to be a beneficial arrangement ad infinitum. 

      “Usually that is a RETS site – and the biggest boy wins there too.”

      Maybe in terms of total traffic. But little guys can beat the big guys in their niche markets, I see it all the time.
      “But even great SEO is not going to make a broker or agent site outperform ZRT in traffic volume.”

      And I don’t think any broker/agent would even attempt that. We compete locally, not nationally. Apples & oranges.

      • http://www.drewmeyersinsights.com/ Drew Meyers

        Everyone in this industry seems to forget the fact that Zillow had 4 million uniques prior to having a SINGLE listing on their website. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again — listings are VERY important to Zillow, but they are certainly not everything.

        It’s my understanding they still get the majority of their traffic from people typing “Zillow.com” into their browser — not from SEO. They’ve built a brand that consumers know and trust. THAT’s no small accomplishment.

        • http://www.intownelite.com/ Mike McGee

          And maybe they’ll still have that traffic without listings, so good for them! But without listings they will begin to lose the SEO battle for terms such as “[community name] homes for sale” and address searches for on-market listings. Win-win.

        • http://www.honuakaicondo.net/ Alex Cortez

          “Everyone in this industry seems to forget the fact that Zillow had 4
          million uniques prior to having a SINGLE listing on their website.”

          No, not really. But previous performance is not the best indicator of future performance.

          I remember a day not too long ago when most people I knew would go to MySpace (yup, by typing the url into their browser, not through SE’s).

          Is the value proposition of the aggregators strong enough to a home buyer that they would continue to visit ZRT even if there weren’t any listings?

      • Anonymous

        I think that you are correct, Mike. But my suggestion is that even locally, with few exceptions (Shorewest, HowardHanna, and Edina), Hitwise data shows that ZRT are also winning in niche markets too.

        The end game here is finding a path for brokers and publishers to build co-petitive and symbiotic relationships. Howard Hanna just did that. Now we need to see if it works. I can guarantee you this – they put a lot of skin in the game and they are expecting positive results.

    • http://www.mauirealestatesearch.com/ Alex Cortez

       A few follow-up comments on Victor’s statement:

      “they are super sites. They should out rank nearly every site.”

      I’m not sure why they ‘should’ (feel free to expand on the merits), but fact is they don’t.

      “few websites rely on SEO for a significant volume of visits.”

      Real estate is one of the most competitive markets on the web, there are agents/brokerages across nearly every market of North America making a nice living based on their online presence (driven by their SEO efforts). I can’t speak for anyone else, but based the comments/content on this blog, this site is geared primarily agents who ‘get’ who vital SEO is to their continued success.

      “But even great SEO is not going to make a broker or agent site outperform ZRT in traffic volume.”

      A real estate agent in Austin (pick a city, wherever it may be) isn’t trying to get more traffic volume than ZRT. I can’t speak for anyone else but myself when I say this: my goal isn’t to get more traffic than ZRT, my goal is to get leads!!! Real estate is practice hyper-locally, I want to increase my share within MY market and ZRT’s national traffic volume is irrelevant to me.

  • http://twitter.com/BradAndersohn BradAndersohn

    Aloha Alex, Brad from Zillow here, (also Kama’aina formerly from Kaneohe and Lanikai)

    I shared this same thought earlier today with an agent that felt “listings” were the only reason Zillow existed.  If fact, Zillow was a top trafficked site for two years before we showed listings and rentals on the site.

    Zillow
    is honored with promoting and exposing consumers
    homes to potential buyers on our site through syndication or whatever
    means agents and brokers choose, but I also would
    like to point out that Zillow also hosts
    100,000,000+ other homes not for sale on our site and “Perish” is not an
    option or a plan for our company. 

    30,000,000+ people visited the site last month and many were not just
    looking at listings. Consumers come to Zillow to find out about mortgage
    information, see what’s sold in the neighborhood or around the country,
    check out demographics, photos, use calculators,
    get home improvement tips, seek advice and join discussions etc. The list goes on and on…And
    yes, thousands even come to find an agent or lender just to write a
    review on their services and in many cases, hire them to help with a
    loan or buy/sell their homes. 

    Zillow provides a wide variety of tools and services for both buyer, seller,
    and agents.  We are not a one size fits all, but we do provide and
    accommodate both consumers and industry professionals and continue to
    grow in both areas.  Just look at what we added to agents profiles and launched today to help them manage their contacts.  Perish?  Not a chance!!

    Take a look at these published articles, this will give a greater insight and more details on some of the facts: http://www.zillow.com/blog/category/professionals  Thanks for letting me speak out on your post.

    PS. Maybe next time I stop over to visit some Ohana in Maui, we could discuss this further at Mama’s Fish House?  It’s a personal favorite of mine.  :-)

  • http://brandonrealestateblog.com/ Danny Nappi

    I agree as the saying going real estate is local and so is the same with SEO.. You can build a local niche site within your area and outrank the ZTR’s of the world. I think brokers and agents need to worry about how they can rank their own site instead of worrying about the ZTR’s . Figure out a way to beat them not try to sabotage them. Hey they got to the top and built a brand with some ingenuity give them some credit for that and they even used Realtors to do it.

    • http://www.honuakaicondo.net/ Alex

      Agreed, they deserve credit for getting to the top of the SERP’s. And the point of my post was not to go into the merits/flaws of the aggregators (much brighter people than me have discussed that, so I’ll leave that to them) but rather to counter Drew’s point that (from an SEO perspective) pulling listings would have ZERO effect on ZRT’s SERP’s.

      • http://brandonrealestateblog.com/ Danny Nappi

        I don’t disagree with you Alex it will have little impact but will have some not zero in my opinion, as without listings they have less indexed pages and will certainly lose some longtail traffic just as if I were to pull my idx feed from my website I would lose traffic, as far as ranking for broad terms like city real estate/ zip code search etc pulling listings I agree would have  zero or little impact. 

        Great article and good points.

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