Trulia’s Web-ranking strategies catch heat

Company's SEO strategies debated among industry insiders

Web-ranking strategies employed by real estate search and marketing site Trulia.com have stirred up debate, with some real estate professionals saying the techniques are in competition with the Google ranking of partner sites that Trulia relies on as sources of its property listings information.

Galen Ward, co-founder for Seattle-based Estately.com, a real estate brokerage company that works on a referral basis to connect consumers with other brokerage companies, called out Trulia’s search-engine optimization activities in a blog post at the BloodHound Blog, a real estate blog site.

Trulia has posted a response at its corporate blog that describes the intent and purpose of its search-engine optimization strategies, and maintains that its methods are good for both the company and its customers.

Ward described a process through which "Trulia becomes the original source for properties in the eyes of Google" through technical maneuvers that cloak the original source of property information. Without these efforts, which are referred to as "temporary redirects" and "nofollows," Ward says that "Google might rank the original source higher in the search results."

While Trulia does send traffic to broker Web sites when consumers click for detailed information about properties, Ward charges that the linking practices do not assist the broker in improving in Google’s search rankings because Trulia’s practices cause Google to miss the original Web site that is the source of the information.

"Why would brokers who share their listings allow this? My best guess is that they aren’t tech-savvy enough to identify that this could be a problem."

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The April 29 blog post has collected more than 100 comments in the past week, with discussion ranging from the business reasons for Trulia’s tactics to the site’s rankings competition with its partner broker sites.

In an interview with Inman News today, Ward said he reviewed the online discussion on the topic, including Trulia’s response, and, "I am not sure I was swayed from my original statement."

While some people commenting noted that other real estate sites, like Realtor.com and Yahoo Real Estate, apparently employ similar SEO techniques, those sites are MLS-based and are bound by rules that Trulia is not, Ward said. Realtor.com, for example, is operated by Move Inc. through a contract with the National Association of Realtors, and receives data from many Realtor-affiliated MLSs.

Also, Ward said that he would be surprised whether many of Trulia’s brokers are aware of the company’s practices in directing traffic to broker Web sites through links that effectively ignored by Google’s ranking algorithms.

"It looks sneaky," Ward said of Trulia’s practices, adding, "I don’t think (Trulia) is going to change unless they get a lot of pressure from brokers on this."

Pete Flint, CEO and co-founder for Trulia, noted in a blog post that Trulia does not plan to change its linking practices. "In sum — we don’t remove the ‘nofollows’ because it could negatively impact our ranking and it probably won’t help yours. Obviously not a smart business move for us today."

The post also acknowledges that Trulia "sometimes … will be competing with broker or agent sites for consumer visits."

Flint told Inman News today that there is "certainly a lot of confusion about ‘nofollows’ and SEO … and a certain amount of misunderstanding," and that the discussion about Trulia’s practices has been healthy.

"Our business model is to generate traffic to broker sites. We’re one of the largest sources of traffic to broker sites."

There are many factors that Google considers in page rankings, Flint said, and "Google is a blackbox — it’s a complete blackbox, so we don’t know exactly what to do to get to the top of search engines."

And it’s no secret that online real estate companies, as well as agents and brokers are competing for the best possible ranking in Google searches.

"Getting ranked highly in search engines is really, really key to what everyone’s thinking about. Do we think about how to get highly ranked in the search engines? Absolutely. Everyone’s thinking about it," he said.

While Ward characterized Trulia’s methods as "sneaky," Flint said they were nothing of the sort. The company’s strategies "are absolutely transparent," and he said he could not quantify how much it would help the company’s broker partners if Trulia changed its linking practices.

"The amount of traffic we send to broker’s Web sites is huge relative to other sites in the industry. We haven’t changed our policies in two and a half years," he said. Also, local real estate sites can and do rank higher in some instances than Trulia does for property searches at Google, Flint said.

Meanwhile, Ward said he doesn’t expect a change in Trulia’s linking practices would impact Trulia’s rankings that much, as it may just mean that broker sites would rank higher in some instances than Trulia’s site. "It would be minor in the long-run," he said.

Kevin Boer, broker-owner for 3 Oceans Real Estate in Menlo Park, Calif., and a real estate consultant who counts Trulia as a past client, said the discussion about Trulia’s SEO practices "is probably a tempest in a teapot," and "for the most part, the SEO of most broker and agent Web sites is so bad … that it’s not clear that any additional incoming links from Trulia or anybody else is going to help."

Boer, who acknowledged that he is not an SEO expert, said, "I think the brokerages are getting a lot of benefit from their relationship with Trulia," and that brokers that pay attention to SEO can work to boost their site’s own Google rankings.

"The takeaway for me would be: Brokers, agents, wake up. Why are you paying absolutely no attention whatsoever to search-engine optimization? If you paid as much attention (to this) as with the size of the font on open house signs, you might be doing better," Boer said.

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