Template Sites – The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

By
Real Estate Technology with Zillow

One of my favorite bloggers, Real Estate Tomato, just penned a blog about duplicate content.  As is quite typical of the Tomato’s efforts, it was well written, chocked full of info and has already generated several comments.

Many of the comments center around “template sites”.  Maureen Francis & Dmitry Koublitsky (another great AR blogger) ask, “So there really is no such thing as a decent template site, right?  I don't mind creating my own content, but do I have to have a completely custom site in order to get somewhere?”

Since the Tomato somehow read my mind and shamelessly stole the idea I was working on, I shall attempt to answer Maureen & Dimity’s question here.

The short answer is there are decent template sites and you do not have to have a custom site to get somewhere. The long answer follows…

The Good: 

  • Template sites are cheap.  Compared to a custom site, template sites are a bargain. You can spend thousands of dollars (tens of thousands if you really want to) on a custom web site.  There are dozens of template site providers with products ranging from free to $150/month—and everything in between.
  • Template sites are easy to edit.  Most template providers provide “WYSIWYG” editors. (What you See is What You Get). You don’t HAVE to know HTML, CSS, AJAX or any of those cryptic, confusing and scary “programming” languages (though knowing a little HTML is a big plus).  Most custom sites will require you to know HTML, unless you pay for a WYSIWYG “back end”.  And yes, even with a custom site, you’ll need to add content to it, unless you pay a LOT for someone to do it for you.
  • Template sites can have a great support network. Some of the larger providers have user forums that can be a huge asset.  Point 2 and Advanced Access both provide forums and the large user bases mean there are many opportunities for learning and sharing.
  • Template sites can have unique features. Point 2 Agent has “Handshake Listings” – sharing user’s listings across multiple sites. They also use the power of a large user base to get listings syndicated on large national sites such as Yahoo, Google Base, Trulia, and more.

The Bad:

  • “Template sites all look the same”.  This comment comes up all the time.  And yes, there are only a limited number of “styles” that most template providers have. I can tell immediately if a site is an Advance Access, Superlative, Point 2, or homes.com site to name a few. But with the right provider, you can customize the appearance of a template site. I know for a fact there is not a Point 2 site in existence with a menu structure like ThompsonsRealty.com because I did it myself.  Search engines don’t really care what color your site is, nor do they care if the buttons are all the same shape. What search engines care about is content. Which leads us to…
  • Template sites are a lot of work.  By their very definition, template sites contain similar (actually identical) content.  The “boilerplate” site you first get with a template provider will have the same content as every other site they have. You MUST change this boilerplate language if you want to separate your site from all the others. Custom sites are not exempt from this either. A stagnant, never changing site--custom or not--will eventually suffer in the search engines.
  • You don’t “own” a template site. True, but if you change the content, you own that. And you should NEVER use a provider that owns your URL. I’ve changed providers before. It’s a pain, but you can move your content from one provider to another, so this isn’t as big a negative as some people make it out to be.

The Ugly:

  • If there is one possible major drawback to template providers it’s that you can get caught up in a “provider penalty”. Recently many Advanced Access sites took a pounding in Google.  Point 2 sites have been hammered by Yahoo.  Sometimes the search engines seem to decide if they penalize one, they penalize them all.  On the other hand, this can work the other way as well.  And even fully customized sites are often at the mercy of the search engines.

So to make what’s turned out to be a very long story short, you CAN have a great web presence with a template site.  I’ve seen many template sites at the top of Google for very competitive search terms. Yes, it takes work. Yes, you need to edit and add to the boilerplate site, but it’s entirely possible to turn a template site into a lead generating (hence income producing) machine.

Comments (28)

Jay Thompson
Zillow - Seattle, WA

Sherri - Your RSS experience with AA is *exactly* why it's really important to check out all the features of a template provider before you commit. Of course, you've got to KNOW you want a feature, and with something like RSS, it's entirely possible one wouldn't even know they wanted it. (Does that make sense?)

Every template provider implements things a little differently. Point 2 allows various types of RSS feeds to be integrated that ARE viewable by the search engines. Visitors can even get RSS feeds of listings, which is very cool. (though underutilized--for now).

It is however, very tedious to implement custom forms on a P2 site. Not impossible like a lot of people think, but tedious. (for those P2'ers out there, it CAN be done. See this for an example)

I wonder if Real Estate Tomato would be offended if I renamed my blog to Real Estate Persimmon? 

Aug 25, 2006 02:14 AM
Geri Sonkin
Douglas Elliman Real Estate 516-457-7103 - Merrick, NY
Long Island Real Estate & Staging Expert

As far as AA goes, the penalty much like that of Point2 was with Yahoo.  Google, aside from distant but painful memories of the "Florida" update has not been affected.  My AA site shows up on page one for all my major search terms . . . and has for a very, very long time.

Now to appease the SEO gods, "poo, poo, poo!"

Aug 25, 2006 03:41 AM
Christopher Smith
TREGO REALTY - Cedar Rapids, IA
Jay and Francy, great post and information, thanks for sharing.  I have a P2A site at www.christophersmithrealtor.com and have done my darndest to make it different from the other P2A websites, especially those of my own colleagues at Skogman Realty.  I know that I'm limited with the free site, but as business improves, I can move up to bigger and better sites!  Have a great weekend!
Aug 25, 2006 06:00 AM
Max Chirkov
Phoenix Homes Team - Scottsdale, AZ

Jay, I also think you're mistaken as far as Google penalizing Advanced Access template sites. Yes, there is an issue with Yahoo - the same as P2A sites.

 In regards to limited styles - well, template sites always will be limited in styles because there is no way for online marketing company like AA or P2A to create that many completely different templates (AA has over 30K clients). And even when you took advantage of all the tools they give you and filled it up with your own and original content you still can make your design pretty unique, at least within AA (this is my custom CSS homepage on AA site c21myrtlebeach.com)

Sorry, RE Tomato, I don't have good experience with Z57.. may be it changed since then, but 2 years ago I wasn't happy with them at all. I had to get FTP access and do everything myself from scratch and forbid the agent to use online back-end since it was overwriting all my work by default.

Template based web sites are good if you have limited experience and webdev skills. You really need to look into flexibility, options and customer support. 

Aug 25, 2006 02:45 PM
Real Estate Tomato
Real Estate Tomato - Cottonwood, CA
Real Estate Website Design Done Beautifully

Jay and Francy... you wouldn't dare... :)

Max-  I agree, for the agent that can roll up their sleeves and get into FTP'ing, graphic design, dreamweaver etc, the template sites are not a good match.  

But, if you are looking for a versatile, affordable, out-of-the-box solution, with wysiwyg editing and all the expected tools programs like Z, AA, and the rest are a great match.

--

Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate 

Aug 25, 2006 08:08 PM
Elaine Reese, REALTOR® in central Ohio
Real Living HER, Powell Ohio - Powell, OH

I have had a template site with Homeseekers for about 8 years. I'm constantly changing and upgrading it to make it appeal to users & to make it sticky. I don't know how my numbers compare to others, but it does more than pay for itself with new business.

My question is on the comments about Yahoo deleting sites that use directories. I recently added two directory links, plus, the Active Rain link to the bottom of my site. Does that mean that Yahoo will no longer list my site for specific keyword searches??

I'm still trying to learn about search engine placement, so any help on this will be appreciated.

Aug 26, 2006 05:47 AM
Max Chirkov
Phoenix Homes Team - Scottsdale, AZ

Elaine, there is no sertain answer to your question. Search Engines don't want you to do anything that you wouldn't usually do if they didn't exist. They want you to act naturally about your site - link to sources that you think would be useful to your visitors. As far as Yahoo deleting web sites for linking.. Yahoo didn't delete any sites in the matters mentioned above, but they did applied a penalty that probably devalues all the linking  that has been done on those site. There is a speculation that the problem is in a network that appeared after years of linking to each other and biggest part of them involve the same template based web sites - that's why AA and P2A got hit, as they were viewed as a link network for their clients. Which of course wasn't at the beginning.

Aug 26, 2006 06:01 AM
Deleted Account
Delete - Cedar Rapids, IA
I have Point2 for my website template.  I haven't had a chance to change all of the standard verbage, but was wondering how you were able to customize so much on your site?  Did you build the web pages outside of the site?  Do you pay for the professional or platinum version?  Thanks!
Sep 06, 2006 09:34 AM
Jay Thompson
Zillow - Seattle, WA

Jennifer -

I do have a Premium P2 site, but there is very little that's on my site that can't be done with the free level (Other than the number of pages - I have WAY more than the 15 pages the free level provides).

I did it all myself within the P2 system. Well, the drop down menus and the custom forms on my site require files to be hosted on a server outside P2, but that can also be done with the free version.

The upgrade from Standard (free) to Professional ($39/month) is WELL worth it. The Pro level allows 250 pages, and adds features like propsect management with drip emails.  The only reason I went from Pro to Premium is I was running into my 250 page limit (Premium allows unlimited pages).  But 250 pages is a LOT, and is far more than most real estate sites have.

P2 is *very* customizable. But it does take a significant amount of time. The return in lead capture is well worth it though, in my opinion.

For more about what the various levels of P2 offer, see HERE.

Sep 06, 2006 11:56 AM
S. Leanne Paynter ☼ Broward County, FL
United Realty Group, Inc. - Davie, FL
Davie, Plantation, Cooper City & Weston Specialist

You wrote: "If there is one possible major drawback to template providers it’s that you can get caught up in a “provider penalty”. Recently many Advanced Access sites took a pounding in Google."

A couple of years ago one of my sites (the only template one I had) was at the top of the search engines. Then, almost overnight, Google must've decided to punish the template provider because the site couldn't be found anywhere, using any search terms.  It was an iHouse2000 site.  The template provider may or may not have been actually "punished" but I didn't want to risk that that was the reason AND continue paying the monthly fee, so I dropped them.  The problem is, that the search engines actually punish the domain name, not the provider per se, so you may never be able to recover.

Sep 21, 2006 06:53 AM
Laurie Manny
Long Beach CA Real Estate - Long Beach, CA

1)  Yahoo should be shot for punishing the entire AA network.  Not all of us participated in the link exchanges that became such a problem.  I didn't, but was punished anyway.  Am still being punished and am not a happy lil camper over it. Perhaps Yahoo needs to look a little closer and only punish the actual offenders. And yes AA hired a big gun to "fix" the Yahoo problem quite some time ago.  So why the heck isn't it fixed yet?

2)Jay said;

"Template sites all look the same".  This comment comes up all the time.  And yes, there are only a limited number of "styles" that most template providers have. I can tell immediately if a site is an Advance Access, Superlative, Point 2, or homes.com site to name a few. But with the right provider, you can customize the appearance of a template site.

Are you aware that AA offers an Under Construction page where you can design your own custom homepage?  I did.  http://www.lauriemanny.com  I didn't like the fact that everybody's sites had the same few templates either and was getting tired of people copying mine.

 

 

Dec 17, 2006 07:07 PM
Beth Larsen
RE/MAX Sedona - Sedona, AZ
Sedona Arizona

Hi Jay,

 I've admired your organized, tidy looking menus. Once I get further down the "to do" list for my site, I may have to ask for direction!

 

Orange. I just had one...

Jan 06, 2007 06:28 AM
Jim Kimmons
RealtySoft.com Chief Evangelist - Taos, NM

My Point2 site now holding Yahoo positions one and five for most competitive keyword string, "taos real estate".  Apparently any penalty is not Point2-wide or is over.

I also don't worry too much about the similarity with another site's style, unless they're a direct competitor.  Visitors are finding me via search to locate real estate in Taos, NM.  They really don't seem to care how my site looks within reason, as long as they find the information they want.

Jan 06, 2007 09:44 AM
Anonymous
Keling Dun

Hi all:

 As a newbie, I am impressed with some of the customized free site some people did here. I think I will

start to mess around with the free level, get it customized to some level and be comfortable, and then

upgrade to the professional level.

One question, how to change the domain from xxx.point2agent.com to www.yourname.com doman?

Do you buy a domain from yahoo and then link to the p2a?  Buy I know it's not a simple link since I click

on some of the site and the xxx.yourname.com shows up at the address bar, not t he p2a.

 

Thanks

Keling Dun

Jan 23, 2007 02:37 AM
#22
Beth Larsen
RE/MAX Sedona - Sedona, AZ
Sedona Arizona

Hi Keling,

The first thing you need to do is buy a domain name (www.whatever.com) from whomever you please. P2A sells them, and there are also many other vendors. I happen to have been using http://www.GoDaddy.com for a number of years. I like their service, they have a very easy to use web interface to manage your accounts and they have very reasonable rates. I'm sure P2A does a good job, too.

Once you have your domain name, log in to your P2A website Online Office and go to the Domains and eMail tab, then Domain store. There you can find instructions to either purchase a domain from P2A, or to point one you already own (change the domain name servers to P2A as the website host).

Very easy. It does take some time for the new domain to show up as live once you start the process (has to propagate across the web, approximately 1-2 days - doesn't matter who you buy it from, this is the case).

Jan 26, 2007 05:24 AM
Anonymous
I have had great luck with templates

Whenever I need to create a new web site. I own 51. I always start with a template.

I have a link on my web site www.webtoolsforrealtors.com

The linked site usually charges about $63.00.

Jun 15, 2008 05:30 AM
#24
Anonymous
darren

Has anyone tried Superlative websites

Sep 05, 2008 12:42 PM
#25
Anonymous
Jay Thompson

Wow, I was surprised to see a comment on a post I wrote over two years ago!

Yes, I tried Superlative for a year. At the time (2004) it was a horrible site for doing very fundamental SEO tasks (such as setting the page titles independently on each page). Their downtime was awful (once, the back end was broken for over two weeks).

The sites used to render horribly in Firefox. At the time I was told "no one uses Firefox".

Well, they do now. And last I saw some of their templates still look bad in Firefox.

Maybe these things have changed. They do make pretty sites, but there is a LOT more to a successful website other than being pretty.

Personally, I'll never use them again.

Sep 05, 2008 06:00 PM
#26
Laurie Manny
Long Beach CA Real Estate - Long Beach, CA

All the website companies basically suck.  Get yourself a blog, populate it, slap a static front page on it and wham.............you have a website that matters.  www.lauriemanny.com - thats what I did.  Got sick and tired of the BS the website providers were doling out.  Took my old URL, moved it and dumped the site.  3 months into it now and am raging all over the top of the engines in the neighborhoods with breakout results on the shorttail.  It doesn't get better than that for a secondary site. 

Sep 05, 2008 07:50 PM
Greg Dallaire
Dallaire Realty - Green Bay, WI
Green Bay Homes

Very informative post.  I've started using Point 2 Agent Professional and i'm really impressed with the internal infrastructure.  It's still a template but a great one at that.  Like you said make sure you updated your pages that have there prefilled pages.

Sep 09, 2008 04:11 PM