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Thursday, June 28, 2007

Google Spam Team Targets Real Estate Websites

By Marc Rasmussen (c) 2007

Originally published in SiteProNews, June 25, 2007

If you have any experience or background in SEO (search engine optimization) you know that Google likes website that have links pointing to it. A part of their search algorithm involves the popularity of the site determined by the number of other sites pointing to it via a link. With all else being equal Google will rank a website with quality links pointing to it higher than another website with no links. If you read Google's Webmaster Guidelines (Webmaster Central) the very first bit of advice they give you is:

* have other relevant sites link to yours.

Google loves links and they admit it. Webmasters figured this out and came up with all kinds of different techniques for getting links to their sites - link baiting, reciprocal links, ninja links, 3 way links, one way links, contextual links etc. The problem is a lot of the techniques are frowned upon by Google. They want you to get links the natural way and not to try to cheat the system.

Their guidelines say:

* Don't participate in link schemes designed to increase your site's ranking or PageRank. In particular, avoid links to web spammers or "bad neighborhoods" on the web, as your own ranking may be affected adversely by those links.
* Avoid tricks intended to improve search engine rankings. A good rule of thumb is whether you'd feel comfortable explaining what you've done to a website that competes with you. Another useful test is to ask, "Does this help my users? Would I do this if search engines didn't exist?

In one breath Google tells you to get links to your site and then in the other breath tells you not to participate in any link scheme designed to increase your site's ranking. How do you know what a link scheme is? What is acceptable? What is not acceptable? I guess you have to ask yourself "Does this help my users?" It definitely is not a black and white situation and has plenty for room for interpretation.

Google has a web spam team headed by Matt Cutts. Their job is to enforce these Google Webmaster Guidelines and crack down on link spam. When he talks people listen. He frequently speaks at search engine conferences around the world.

I could not find it anywhere (didn't really look long) but heard that Matt Cutts in the past has mentioned that he does not like the reciprocal linking that Realtors engage in. Supposedly, he had mentioned this several times over the last few years but has not done anything about it.
Real estate agents trade links with other agents around the country and world with the argument that we refer business to each other so therefore it is a legitimate link exchange and not done for the sole purpose of pumping up our rankings. This may be true in some instances but for the most part it is bologna. I would venture to say that 95% of the agents who trade links do so to achieve higher rankings in the results. That was the only reason I did it. What was the likelihood that a visitor to my Sarasota, Florida website was there to find an agent in Albuquerque, New Mexico? The only reason I ever traded a link with an agent outside Florida was to get to number 1 in Google.

In the beginning, when I knew absolutely nothing, I was told to trade links with anyone and everyone. I did that for awhile. Then someone told me to only trade with people in the real estate industry. So, I changed it up and did that. The link exchanging worked. I wasn't number 1 but was on the first page for a couple key phrases.

Fast forward a little bit, I changed to a more search engine friendly website, traded links sporadically, added plenty of original content, included and updated a blog frequently. My overall goal was to become an authority site and build a valuable, useful website to people looking for anything real estate related in Sarasota, Florida. I simply wanted to make a website better than my competitors. Eventually, I became number 1 for the most sought after key phrases in my market and was on the first page for hundreds of phrases. I got there by having a better website than most. That is a great thing about the Google search engine. It generally does the best job of providing relevant results.

It dawned on me that reciprocal linking with hundreds of agents around the country was pretty useless to my visitors so I stopped doing it about a year or so ago. I did a couple contextual link exchanges with other agents in Florida. I figured that would be useful to someone looking for real estate in Florida but was not sure in what part of the state to look.
I had stopped paying attention to what was going on in the SEO world for awhile as I get paid to service buyers and sellers of real estate, not updating my website. I continued to post in my blog but that was the extent of it. So, I was out of the loop for 6 months or so.

A shot across the bow:

Advanced Access is an enormous real estate website provider with around 30,000 Realtor websites. I am not up to speed on the details but apparently many or all of the Advanced Access users were penalized by Yahoo. Many of the AA users would trade links with each other and it was possibly viewed by Yahoo as one big incestuous link farm.
Advanced Access hired Greg Boser, a search engine guru, to solve their problems with Yahoo. His recommendation to AA users was to erase all state pages containing excessive reciprocal links. He viewed them as useless spam. Not all of the AA users took his advice. Many of the customers resisted because of the hundreds of man hours they put into accumulating all of the links. Others were probably ranking well and did not want to rock the boat.
In April of 2007 many high ranking Advanced Access websites were suddenly missing from the Google search results. Was it an algorithm change? Probably not since the AA website were the only ones affected. Ultimately, the consensus was that the AA websites were manually given a penalty by Google. Of course, no one was 100% sure because you can't call Google on the phone or email them to get a definitive answer. Why would Google focus on only one website provider? Why the largest provider of real estate websites? Were they penalized for excessive reciprocal links? Probably. Evidently, Matt Cutts previously made warnings about it. Did the well connected internet guru, Greg Boser, have anything to do with the penalty? I don't know. Some people believe that. He supposedly knows Matt Cutts.

[ed. note I: Greg does know Matt Cutts. I do too. Greg most certainly could NOT ever get Matt to interfere for commercial reasons. Matt doesn't do that sort of thing, nor does Google. - jh]
In the Advanced Access forums one participant noticed that some AA websites were penalized while others were not. Almost all of the sites had state pages and excessive reciprocal links. Why were some chosen and other spared? How did Google determine which websites to hit and why? The forum participant noticed that just about everyone who voiced their opinions, beliefs and thoughts in the forums were hit with the penalties while the site owners who were not active went penalty free. Did Google hand pick the loudest website owners?
In May, just over 30 days later, most of the AA sites had their penalties dropped and were found again in Google.

Real Estate Webmasters is another large and very visible real estate website provider. Many of their customer sites rank exceptionally well in Google. They also host a very active forum for webmasters. If someone (or Google) wanted to send a message through the real estate community this is a great place to do it. I found it interesting that Greg Boser, the well connected internet guru, became very active in the Real Estate Webmasters forum on April 27th. Just a few weeks prior to many of their websites getting hit with a penalty.

On May 9th, a number of high ranking Real Estate Webmaster websites were suddenly missing from the Google search results. Sites from all over country had been hit with a Google penalty. I own one of those sites and was probably penalized for state pages and reciprocal linking. The damn thing is that I deleted all of my state pages and links on the 4th of May. Google most likely pinpointed me as a violator before the 4th and it took until the 9th to employ the penalty.
It is interesting that Google would hit customers of another large and potentially loud real estate website provider with an active forum. Is Google trying to send a message to the real estate community about excessive reciprocal links? Maybe. Probably. Greg Boser became active in the forums a couple of weeks prior to the penalty. Did he have something to do with it? I don't know. Possibly.

[ed. note II. Again, probably not. We will try to reach Greg for comment however we strongly doubt he was involved in having listings removed. It is possible he was warned or has received information regarding the penalty but extremely unlikely he was directly involved in its planning or execution. - jh]

Here we are 44 days later and almost all of the Real Estate Webmasters sites are still penalized. We all have deleted our state pages, reciprocal links, removed the URL's through the Google webmaster tools and have asked forgiveness via a re-inclusion request.

Is Google waiting for us to spread the word throughout the Realtor community about the no-no's of reciprocal linking? I don't know. Is it fair that a small group of us were targeted while others continue to fill their websites with spammy reciprocal links? No, but life is not fair.
Rand Fishkin at recently interviewed Matt Cutts. You can watch the interview here Watch the 2nd video and fast forward it to around the 5:30 mark. Matt acknowledges the Real Estate Webmaster thread discussing the recent penalties. He also mentions "a shot across the bow" technique of policing.

Isn't everyone employed by Google a genius? Couldn't they have come up with a better system to policing the real estate industry other than hurting a few mom and pop Realtors?
Lessons Learned:

* Don't try to game the Google search engine. They will eventually figure you out.
* Don't trade links with hundreds of Realtors around the country. Build links only for the benefit of your users, not your search engine rankings.
* Build a site with tons of unique content, provide lots of value to visitors and eventually links will come with time. I have received several one way links from the Sarasota Herald Tribune (my local newspaper) from articles they wrote about my website and blog. I imagine this is the way Google likes to see links built.
* Google isn't perfect.
* If you rely on Google search results to feed you and your family you better have some money stashed away in the event you get penalized. Fortunately, I did this.
* If you do make money off the web keep at least one eye on what is happening in the search engine world to stay competitive.
* I rank fairly well in MSN and really don't get that much traffic from it.
* Ranking very well in Google will bring tons of traffic to your website.
* Being penalized by Google sucks.

Marc Rasmussen is a realtor in Sarasota Florida. He publishes The Sarasota MLS website.



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