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2007-12-20 17:19:00

Real Estate Template Sites and Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

We've seen a lot of debate lately about template sites and their worthiness for search engine optimization (SEO)purposes. As someone who has worked with dozens of agents with a lot of site configurations, there is a lot to ponder here. It is not cut and dried by any means, but there are certain fundamentals that need to be available to the site owner. I have no direct marketing affiliation with any template system, so I can bring a very balanced view to this discussion.

With template sites, I've seen "under the hood" of several brands over the years. They come in all flavors and configurations. Every one of them seems to have different capabilities.

  • Some are quite restrictive, and use a single HTML title tag throughout the entire site, on every page.
  • Some strictly limit the number of pages that can be built.
  • Some template sites allow agents the ability to edit the title and description of each page, which is good.
  • Some provide the ability to insert HTML code in blocks, which then leaves the issue of adding good headline tags and other items, like image alt tags, to the agent or his designer.
  • Some template systems use HTML framesets, which can present substantial issues when it comes to search results. Searchers can end up on an "orphaned" page of the site that looks bare and unattractive, since the rest of the "framed structure" is not included with the page that ranks well in search.
  • I have seen a couple of systems that bury the whole content of site inside a 100% hidden frameset, with the actual content itself delivered from another domain entirely. That is probably the worst situation of all from a search perspective, and the agents don't even know it is happening to them.

Site navigation can be a problem as well. Sites that rely wholly on JavaScript-based navigation for "eye candy" mouse-over tricks, with no additional straightforward HTML links, can prevent a site from being indexed by the engines at all. A page that is not found cannot rank well.

As well, it can sometimes be very difficult to generate an effective and complete XML sitemap, which is used by Google, when using a template system. Some systems allow no means to even post such an essential sitemap file.

Some template systems allow the site owner to specify the actual page name (URL) of a page that they create. Most do not. Using keywords in the URL is a distinct SEO advantage that should be considered important.

A lot of template systems tout their "free content" for all agents, like mortgage advice, home staging, etc. This content, while useful to a site visitor, *might* well hinder their search results, since duplicate content penalties can come into play. Not always. Sometimes. Personally, I'd jettison any content that is used by hundreds of other agents, just to prevent such penalties from applying.

Some systems prevent any sort of FTP upload of pages or scripted tools that may be produced offline by a web designer or developer. That can be a huge handicap when trying to build links via reciprocation, where multiple pages are necessary to get it done the right way. As well, a lot of site designers are far more efficient offline, using Dreamweaver or some other HTML editing tool.

Forcing them to use a control panel-based editing solution is forcing them to charge you more for their work, with a lot less freedom, since it takes a lot more time to test and edit inside a control panel.

Frankly, the best optimized pages are the ones that strip away all the fancy navigation, and put the content toward the very top of the page code. Few template systems allow for that.

When it comes to site traffic stats, I really haven't seen a lot of the template system reports, but without site stats that are robust, and that include good search engine traffic reporting, your search engine optimization efforts can be very hard to gauge or tweak. Good stats reports drive subsequent SEO decisions.

Finally, there is the matter of "taking it with you". A lot of template systems make it rather difficult to move your hosting to another server or host, either with legal restrictions, or technical hurdles. That is to their advantage, and is used as a means to keep you beholden to them.

If you want to move your site, you have to find a way to extract your content, and then re-purpose it at your next host. You'd better hope hat your template host is the best now, and in the future.

I am very aware that template systems provide certain back end capabilities that make them attractive products to agents. They also tout "ease of use". The problem seems to be that the developers of these template systems often had no apparent clue about SEO issues when they designed it, and they limited their systems with respect to that issue.

Overall, I am aware that a couple of template sites do a fair job of providing the site owner with the tools that they need to properly optimize their site, in the basic form of unlimited page generation, flexible content coding using HTML input blocks, combined with meta tag editing. If you can get FTP upload in the mix, then that is a bonus. That is what to look for, at a minimum.

But even at that, the template does not "do it for you" with respect to SEO issues, as some systems claim. It takes customized keyword analysis, good planning, and subsequent unique content generation.That is absolutely the best way to optimize a site, combined with link
building. I don't know of any template system that can do that.

Any system that claims to do it in their sales pitch is playing very fast with the truth. Nevertheless, tens of thousands of agents use these systems, so what can be done immediately? Except for the most egregious situations where the template system has severe technical limits that hold the site
>back, most of these template systems can be configured by the site
>owner to compete for search traffic. It is just a lot easier and more
>effective with some than others. I'd demand to see actual results from
>a lot of their existing clients, and not just sales flim-flam.
>
>Often, these template marketers will use a few exceptional examples as
>a reference for good search results, often in small markets.
>Likewise, references from other agents in the various real estate
>forums who tout a particular system need to be reviewed carefully.
>The agents that are cheerleading for a particular system may well lack
>a full understanding of what is really helping them get to the top of
>the results.
>
>I see a lot of blind luck at play in low competition situations. It is
>still EASY to rank well in small markets, and even larger markets with
>older, well-linked sites. Many of the systems being touted on these
>various forums by agents who use them actually have severe fundamental
>flaws that will hold back the new site owner.
>
>Assigning SEO success to the template system itself, in glowing terms,
>may well be just misguiding other agents, especially those in more
>competitive situations. Word-of-mouth alone is not all it is cracked up
>to be in this situation, due to skewed competitive environments.
>Comparing search results in Peoria to Phoenix is not helpful. To make
>good decisions, it takes a genuine understanding of what works, and
>why. Again, fundamental knowledge rules the day.
>
>I'm not here to call out the best or worst template systems by name.
>I've not seem them all. I have described the parameters here, and the
>systems that comply with good SEO practices will reveal themselves, by
>comparison. Those that do not stand up to this scrutiny will have to
>consider that as a selling handicap, and address it internally or just
>ignore it.
>
>I will say that there are very few template systems that I have seen
>that would be on my own "short list" of capable vendors, when it comes
>to their system addressing and accommodating SEO issues. That is very
>disappointing, ten years after Google made search optimization such an
>important issue. I think that a lot of these systems are  being
>carefully glossed over with respect to this issue, due to a lack of
>development money on the part of the host. It would take *a lot* of
>programming work to fix it.
>
>It is important to note that a good custom real estate website designer
>does not live with ANY of the limitations described above.
>They, too, have back-end data solutions that they can deploy, while
>having full and unfettered ability to expand a site as needed, fully
>optimized, and with no technical handicaps when it comes to SEO issues
>that exist now or might exist at some point in the future.
>
>Sure, custom designers can appear to be more expensive in the short
>term, but if their solution produces results, in the form of closed
>sales, especially due to free search traffic, and if it does that
>consistently, then the cost of their service is worth every penny, and
>then some.
>All
>that, while other agents in the same markets may be trying to overcome
>the limits of a poorly-structured but low cost template site. To be
>fair, I have also seen custom-built sites that leave a lot to be
>desired, in all aspects.
>
>The custom site designer (or "template consultant", both of whom add
>substantial up-front cost) frees up the site owner from the dreaded
>learning curve, as well. Agents can sell real estate, while their
>designer does the site work in the background, using experience and
>skill to save the agent time and money. Site owners with a DIY attitude
>and a template site may let their sites languish indefinitely, due to
>the design hurdles.
>It is one thing to understand fundamental SEO concepts and discuss them
>in consultation with a good advisor. It is quite another to learn how
>to be an HTML code editor.
>
>Again, this is a buyer-beware market. Knowing what to ask, and asking
>it, is your best defense. Get references. Compare. Good advisors can
>show a history of success, and they charge fair rates. Good template
>systems, from an SEO perspective, also have clients that rank at the
>top for competitive terms, in competitive markets. Look for success
>among both old and new clients, and not just old well-established ones.
>
>Again, there is lot to consider. Site owners who choose bad template
>systems based on bad advise or it's low cost might find themselves
>relegated to the back pages of the search results indefinitely. With my
>understanding of the value of site traffic from free search results,
>based on actual cases from dozens of successful agents that already
>have it, that is certainly a trade off that I would not make, if I were
>a new agent or an agent looking for a new Web hosting solution. It is
>very easy to be penny wise and pound foolish in this aspect of your
>business.
>

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