First, I realize that this article is controversial. There are many people that will disagree with what I'm about to write. Maybe even the majority of people that read this article will disagree with what I have to say- but when it comes to SEO (search engine optimization), if you are doing what the majority of people are doing (for SEO purposes), you're already doing it wrong.
In the social media circles, and on several real estate blogs, I often read about the conspiracy that free real estate widgets will drain your website's power and pass it on to the widget creator's website. (Widgets from Zillow or Trulia for example.)
The rumor going around the world-wide-water cooler is that if you use real estate widgets, you will actually help Zillow / Trulia / Realtor to out-rank your own site in Google!
How could this be? It seems so unfair.
Well let me ease your mind: it's not quite as it seems.
The logic behind the theory goes something like this: Contained in the Zillow (or Trulia or what-have-you) widget, there is a link back to Zillow. You can check out an example here. Therefore, if you use the free widgets, you are unknowingly leaking power (a.k.a. "Google Juice") from your own site, right back to Zillow- who then ironically outranks you in searches for listings in your local area.
I think this is hogwash. I don't believe in widget-drain; I think it's a myth. You are probably getting outranked by the "big boys" but it's not because of a widget conspiracy, in my humble opinion.
I even have nerd-friends who disagree with me on this topic; so you can disagree with me too. But I sincerely do not believe that the Zillow / Trulia widgets will harm your rankings and in fact, I think they will add to the "visitor experience" and usefulness of your site- which could actually help your rankings. If someone really loves your handy-dandy widgets (real estate related or not), they might leave a comment or a plus or a tweet.
Yes. You read it correctly. I believe that these widgets are far more likely to help your SEO than to harm it.
I propose that a real person giving a Google+ to your page has a greater influence on rankings than the supposed loss-of-juice that one may suffer because one has an outbound link on one's page.
Now let me be clear: there is another issue with widgets, which is that people may possibly leave your site when they see the Zillow widget and click on it. That is a major problem. However, that's not what this article is about. This article is about rankings and SEO, not traffic bounce.
Do Free Widgets Really Harm Your Rankings?
I believe that when Zillow created these widgets, the idea of having lots of links back to their site- to boost Google Page Rank- was definitely on the mind of the developers. I'm sure "getting all those links" was thought about in the development process. But like any SEO scheme, if there was even a scheme, the affects are short-lived, as algorithm changes are a constant.
But because Zillow and Trulia and Realtor.com usually rank highly in any type of local real estate search, the logic is proven in the minds of some. Major real estate sites offers widgets, we all fall for it and put them on our site, and the major real estate site laughs all the way to the bank. They tricked us!
Folks, I can't possibly stress this enough: Correlation does not equal causation.
The reason that Zillow outranks your website, first and foremost, is because they have thousands of pages of content that is constantly being updated. On one post I wrote for Zillow, I received 232 Facebook "likes" and over 200 Google plus-votes in about 48 hours. That's a lot of traffic.
My own website has only 23 likes. It took two years for me to get those 23 likes, and I received 10 times that amount in only 48 hours on Zillow! Do you understand why they are ranking better? Google knows that thousands of people love that site (even if Realtors hate it)- and visit it, and "like" it.
It's not because I'm a bad guy or because Zillow is sucking all of the power from my website, it's just that they have a much better website than I do. I write a blog post once per month if I'm lucky and Zillow.com is posting new content by the minute.
Literally, by the minute.
How can you keep up with that?
The Cold, Hard Truth
Google delivers Zillow results in your neighborhood because the Zillow website is just better than yours, overall.
I'm not saying that they have better local information than you, or that you're not the best agent in your town. Your feelings shouldn't be hurt in the slightest. It's just that Zillow is a publicly-held company and they have a website that they've invested millions of dollars into. You might have spent $2500, or you might have just made it yourself. Love Wall Street or hate Wall Street, you are equal to a corporation in the eyes of the U.S. Supreme Court and probably more importantly- to Google.
So does that mean it's hopeless for the individual person to compete with the corporation-person?
I don't think so.
1. Continue to build relevant local content to specifically engage your local audience on social media sites-- Google+, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest-- because that's where search engines get a lot of their signals. Encourage people to share your content by creating terrific content. If a thousand people in your local area "circle" you in Google+ and "plus" your website and link to your website, you will beat the big boys.
Very important sidebar: Do you have a strategy to specifically attract local people to your Google+ circles? Or do you just circle other ActiveRainers and Realtors?
2. Concentrate on highly targeted search phrases for your area. Write about very specific neighborhoods, things to do, and local news items (in your blog), as these are less competitive phrases. In addition, writing about local things- other than real estate- will show you are a local expert, not just a real estate expert. Do you write restaurant reviews in Google? (If not, you should start.) This is where you can beat "the big boys" every time. You are the local expert, so it's up to you to prove it to Google. It's hard work. It's very hard work. But it can be done.
3. Finally, look at the way the major websites (that outrank you) organize their content with parent pages, child pages, grandchild pages...and even great-grandchild pages.
...is a parent page.
...is a child page
...is a grandchild page.
Is your content organized as such? In a drill-down fashion? Are your pages nested? Do you have breadcrumbs that explain the nesting?
It would be better to imitate your competition than wildly theorize and complain about unknowns.
A couple of months back, I wrote a simple post on my website to see if I could get on page one for "Real Estate SEO Expert." To be honest, I didn't think I would do as well as I did, but that post now ranks #1 in Google for that very phrase. (At least, today it does.) When I wrote the post, I added a Zillow widget and a bunch of outbound links. Because, even according to Matt Cutts, for every outbound link you have- you are sending "juice" to other pages and draining it from your own page. Matt Cutts doesn't always tell the truth. If you want to learn more about this, just Google the above term and read my article. (I linked to it earlier in the article where I offer to show you an example of a real estate widget, so I don't want to link to it again in one post.)
You'll easily find my article though. An article that has been utterly drained of all of it's power by 8 or 9 outbound, do-follow links. In fact, the power is so drained, that the post is on page one of Google for: Real estate SEO, real estate SEO expert, Realtor SEO, SEO for Realtors, real estate SEO guru, real estate SEO company, etc., etc., etc.
Repeat after me: "Widget-drain is a myth; I just need better content. Widget-drain is a myth, my IDX system just stinks. Widget-drain is a myth, because we know that Google discounts repetitive keyword backlinks. Widget-drain is a myth because Google is way more sophisticated than that."
I'm not saying you should add the widgets or take them away. I'm saying that whatever your decision about widgets, that decision should be based on sound principles.
The image of the little girl drinking "Google" juice is provided with some rights reserved by Fruit Lush.