How REA buries agents in search results

This article was originally posted on Business2.

Google doesn’t like duplicate content. People suspected of using it to manipulate search results are punished, often by their site being banished from a high rank in a search.

Duplicate content is often legitimate and Google understands this. Take property listings for example. Jane Smith is a real estate agent. She uses MyDesktop to upload a new listing to her site. As part of the MyDesktop service her listing is uploaded to reiwa.com, domain.com.au and realestate.com.au, all via an XML feed.

It makes sense for Jane to pay for this service. She enters her listing details once but gets exposure on a number of sites. But that’s not the end of the story.

Jane is interested in more than selling her listing. She also wants to attract new listings. To do so she wants to be found in a Google search and this is where duplicate content becomes an issue.

When Google finds duplicate content they look for instructions from the webmaster about how they want a page indexed. These instructions are found within the page meta tags and help the search engine deliver the most relevant results to the end-user.

However, when Google finds legitimate duplicate content – a property listing on multiple sites for example – without these instructions they are faced with a choice: Which page of content do they deliver in the search results? Their response is to “… always show the version we think is most appropriate for users in each given search, which may or may not be the version you’d prefer.” What that means to Jane is the original content, the page she created when posting the listing on her website, may well not be what a web searcher finds. And she’s trying to build a database of subscribers to her e-newsletter that’s bad news.

Let’s look at a real-life example. I conducted a Google search using the phrase “2brm unit for sale Victoria Park”. It’s a search term that might be conducted by either a buyer or seller. The first page of the search results contained no results from real estate agents. All were from listing portals or site scrapers. Starting to see my point?

The one that caught my eye, though, was from realestate.com.au (REA), the first entry in the search results. It included a link to a listing profile page, which contained the very same information as the original listing page on the agent’s site (when these properties are marked by the agent as sold these links may stop working). In this instance Google has determined that, of the two pages of identical property description, the one from REA was the most relevant. The agent has missed out on a visitor to their website and a chance to add to their email database.

Google’s recommendation about syndicated content, and that’s what agents are doing with their listing data, is this:

Syndicate carefully: If you syndicate your content on other sites…it is helpful to ensure that each site on which your content is syndicated includes a link back to your original article. You can also ask those who use your syndicated material to use the noindex meta tag to prevent search engines from indexing their version of the content.

In other words Google wants to index the original content, but they need help.

Let’s look at Google’s suggestion in two parts as it pertains to the above example.

First, REA does provide a link to the agent’s website, just not from the listing page and not to the original listing page (article) as recommended by Google. There’s no way for Google to know which piece of content was the duplicate. Furthermore, when they do provide a link to the agent’s site (from within the agent’s profile page) it’s hidden by a rel=”nofollow” tag. What this means is that the link is ignored by the search engines. The agent gets no Google love from the REA link and no boost in the performance of their site in a Google search. It’s all one way traffic in favour of the portal.

Second, REA don’t add the noindex meta tag to the duplicate page. If they did the page wouldn’t be indexed and therefore wouldn’t display in the search results.

Agents who think that the reason for a web presence is just to advertise property will have no problem with the portal’s behaviour. Buyers are finding their properties and that’s all that matters. But agents who want to build a brand using the Internet will have a different viewpoint. These agents provide content to REA to advertise their listings not so the portal can dominate search results.

I concede there’s more to SEO than just dealing with duplicate content. Even if it wasn’t an issue some agents manage their websites so badly they will never be found in the first page of a search. But agents who take pride in their website and their brand are right to be peeved at REA’s ethics. And they’re also right to look to the membership organisations to which they belong to step up and help them compete.

It’s high time for agents to demand a fair go.

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About Peter Fletcher

Speaker, trainer, and consultant helping real estate agents sort out their online communication strategy.

@peterfletcher - Google+

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