First: I’m not a real estate agent. I’m not a broker. I don’t work on a real estate website. I’m a digital marketing nerd. I’m going to say right up front, Zillow hired me to look at Redfin’s proposed change to how listings and links are displayed on all websites.
And yes, I know Zillow and Redfin have a kind of friendly, (but not too friendly) “love-you-and-all-that-but-lets-be-honest-we-don’t-always-get-along” relationship. I get it.
Take a look, they asked. The proposal will add some links, they said. It might affect Google, they said.
With all that in mind, I read Redfin’s policy proposal. When I was done, my eyes bugged out of my head. From a search engine standpoint, this proposal is bad.
It’s bad for the industry.
It’s bad for competition.
No matter what the intent, this is a terrible idea.
Search engine algorithms in 100(ish) words
First, Google dominates search. It controls around 85 percent of all search traffic. I’m going to use “Google” to mean “search engines” from here on.
Google’s algorithm examines three factors:
- Visibility: It has to be able to find you and index your content. It can’t rank what it can’t see.
- Relevance: Language and structure help Google determine the concepts for which a site should rank.
- Authority: Authority is about links. Links are “votes” that help search engines determine how important the indexed site is for these concepts.
The algorithms have hundreds (if not thousands) of factors, but they all fit into one of the above three “buckets.”
It’s about links, links, links
The Redfin proposal is all about the links. Under it, everyone will link from every property back to the listing broker. I did some quick math, and it looks like this:
- According to Stefan Swanepoel’s T360, Redfin did approximately 37,500 sides in 2017. If Redfin is the listing brokerage for even a third of those, Redfin has at least 12,500 active listings annually.
- A very quick survey showed the typical listing appears on 30-100 sites. Call it 30, to be safe.
- Some of these sites already link to Redfin.
- Redfin will conservatively acquire 375,000 links.
Three-hundred-seventy-five-thousand. That kind of mind-boggling link growth would significantly change the rankings — if Google let it.
Google penalizes link schemes
Google hates attempts to manipulate their rankings. It particularly hates “link schemes.”
Since 2003, it’s invested a great deal of time and effort in detecting and penalizing sites involved in link schemes. It punishes violators by banning them from the rankings, pushing them down in the rankings for specific terms or (best case) discounting the artificial links.
Google isn’t coy about it. It publishes quality guidelines that define manipulation. Their words, not mine:
That means you can’t force someone to link back to you in a search-friendly fashion as part of a contract.
Compare that to the Redfin proposal, part 12:
Require a link as part of a contract? Check.
Require a search-friendly link? Check.
I’ve seen many link schemes come and go. Folks usually try to hide the fact that they’re engaging in manipulative linking. They protest innocence.
Then there’s this proposal. I gotta give points for chutzpah. This policy outlines a link scheme, step-by-step. It says “this is to create search engine friendly links.” It says “You will do this or else.”
It is a blatant attempt at manipulative linking at breathtaking scale.
Google has no sense of humor
Google has zero sense of humor about this stuff. Participating sites will incur penalties. And participating sites include both the linking site and the link recipients.
There may be ironclad reasoning behind the linking requirements in this policy statement. There may be other industries up to similar shenanigans.
Google won’t care.
If this proposal becomes policy, someone somewhere is going to get penalized. And by “someone” “somewhere,” I mean lots of people everywhere.
That will include large and small sites, whether they get links or make them.
This will hurt smaller players (and everyone’s smaller)
There’s another problem: Even if the industry escapes search engine penalties (it won’t), this proposal will help one or two of the biggest listing brokers disproportionately grow their share of search rankings.
Everyone’s getting links, and at a glance, it seems like a win. Rising water floats all boats, yes?
No, because rankings aren’t a body of water. They’re a race. Someone’s going to rank No. 1, No. 2 and No. 200. One hundred links isn’t a win if the competition gets three hundred. Most brokers will lose.
Even large brokers with multiple sites, like NRT and Home Services of America lose, too. They’ll get links, but the “votes” generated will be split among their various sites. No matter what some search engine experts say, you can’t fully consolidate that authority. So most listing brokers won’t see the full value of the links they do earn.
If this becomes policy, most listings brokers will be permanently shut out of the rankings. Big brands like Redfin, with giant consolidated sites, will reap the rewards.
A big mistake
From the perspective of search engine optimization, there’s no upside to this proposal.
Many participating sites will get the Google smackdown, and we can’t predict when or where. A very few, select sites will gain a near-permanent competitive advantage.
Last week, NAR announced it’s delaying the vote on this proposal while it talks to Google about it.
Pulling back, talking to experts and rethinking the proposal is certainly a step in the right direction. But no one should think Google will “make a deal.” Nor will Google allow NAR to use the original proposal, which is a far-reaching link scheme for search engine optimization.
What Google will do, though, is help NAR understand why the proposal violates its rules and show how to ensure fair listing attribution and comply with search quality guidelines.
I’m glad. Brokers deserve attribution. By using Google’s established guidelines, they’ll get just that. Without playing a game of chicken with Google that the industry cannot win.
Ian Lurie is Founder and CEO of Portent, a Clearlink Digital Agency. He’s a whole-brained digital marketer who’s worked in everything from copywriting and messaging to analytics and SEO. Ian teaches his team, consults with clients, and writes and speaks on an array of marketing topics. You can send him a note on LinkedIn.