Authorship and Canonical Links on Real Estate Listings
by Eric Stegemann
on May 7, 2013
Listed in Websites and SEO

This week, there have been multiple conversations about how Realtors / Brokerages should force Zillow, Trulia, and to use both authorship and canonical linking tags on listings.  I want to take a minute and explain first what these are, and why this is a really big deal that should be carefully considered before acting.  Please consider passing this post on via social media channels or using the email link below to other Realtors, MLS execs, etc.

What is Google Authorship?

A few years back, some very smart people at Google recognized something: they had all of these great posts but no way of knowing really who wrote them and if you liked the writer or not.  Heavily optimized content was more valuable than good clean writing and sites like eHow starting gaining millions of pageviews for mundane topics.  Google realized that when you’re looking for good content, you want to know who the person is that wrote it and build an affinity with that individual.  So they created something that was originally called AgentRank (now called Google Authorship ).  The idea was simple, figure out a way to tie an individual post to the person that wrote it.  Soon after  Google+ was launched they then had a way to tie in the content with the person that wrote it.  Have a special tag on each post you write link back to your Google+ page with a special tag rel=”author”

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The correct way to display that is some HTML on your pages that look like this:

Just to make sure people weren’t saying you wrote the post when you really didn’t, Google also implemented an authentication that required you to provide a link to the site you write on via your Google+ profile page.  The benefit is that your posts then appear differently in Google and Google builds an affinity between the content you read and the writer that writes it.  Have you ever seen a Google result that looked like this?

Realtor Google Author Result


That’s Google Authorship in action.

What Are Canonical Links?

To understand canonical links, you have to understand that content posted in two places is bad.  We see this all of the time with other real estate website vendors.  They sell agents on the content library of 1000 posts they have available.  This is known as duplicate content or cross-site duplicate content.  Another thing we see often is systems that push posts down to your site that are the same across all of their sites or just change a few words, such as putting your city name into the post.  Google recognizes this and in most caes will not index this content.  If enough content on your site is copied from other sources, it can derank your entire site as being spammy.  This process is called Content Spinning.

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Google knew that there were cases where you might want to have content in two places on your site legitimately though and has given you a way to tell them what’s more important.

Simply put, canonical links provide Google with a way to see where content originated.  For example, let’s say I write a post on my site, but I post it both on my page about Maine and my page about Bangor, Maine.  So that Google understands which page you want to get the credit, you can place a link back to that page on the page you don’t want to get the credit.

Realtor Canonical Link

However, this can also be used across sites.  So for example, you can place your content on another domain and provide a canonical link back to the source and your original site will get the credit.  It’s a great way to make sure you’re getting all of the Google juice you deserve for your unique content.  Here’s an example of the link you’d put on the page you didn’t want to get the value with the link there being where you do want to get the credit:


Authorship On Syndication Sites

There are voices out there calling for Zillow, Trulia, and to provide an authorship tag on each listing to the broker that provided it.  That way it indicated to Google who provided the information.  But to understand this is to know there are two major issues with it:

  1. Each broker or individual Realtor would have to go to their Google+ page and provide links in the contributor section to Zillow, Trulia, and  Otherwise Google would not pick up this information due to the authentication I mentioned was necessary above.  I don’t see many people doing this.
  2. If anything, due to poor SEO management of most Realtors’ sites, this will do nothing but help Zillow, Trulia, and rank HIGHER.   What this would effectively do is anyone in a Realtor’s circle will see ZTR listings before their own site since most agents don’t have authorship setup on their own sites and Google sees more domain authroity in the big sites instead of the individual real estate agent sites.  So this method would do nothing but help them instead of helping the Realtor.

Canonical Links On Syndication Sites

The much bigger issue here though is a canonical link on these sites.  By forcing ZTR to post a canonical link from their sites back to the broker’s website who has the listing, the syndicators would lose large volumes of traffic overnight.

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As I mentioned above, by placing the canonical link on a page, Google effectively doesn’t pay attention to it and instead gives credit to the originating site.  Where does this leave ZTR?  Well, my best guess is that between 40-50% of their traffic comes from organic real estate SEO.  That means overnight, businesses that rely on ad revenue as their primary generator of cash would lose 50% of their income with no reduction in expenses.

Zillow Canonical Link

In a market, Zillow charges say $1000 a month because they get 50,000 pageviews for that ad (a Cost Per Thousand or CPM of $50).  If, suddenly their ads were shown 50% less, they’d have to lower their rates by 50%.  Something else to know here though is that the $50 CPM premium that Zillow commands is because the people viewing those ads are all interested in real estate (general CPM for broad casting is $10-20 or less).  So if they aren’t getting people interested in listings anymore they’d have to lower their CPM down as well.  So not only did impressions go down for the ad, but the dollar per impression went down!  Perhaps, I’m seeing this wrong, but this appears to be a doomsday scenario for these sites.  And in fact, it might be the one way that NAR could get out of their agreement with Move, Inc. for the use of if unique users go below 500,000.

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(Tangent: Did you know that Move, Inc has an evergreen agreement to operate  NAR can’t cancel the agreement unless 1 of 4 things happen: Directly from Move, Inc’s 10K -“Although the® operating agreement is a perpetual agreement, the NAR may terminate it for a variety of reasons. These include: the acquisition of us or RealSelect by another party without the NAR’s consent;if traffic on the® site falls below 500,000 unique users per month;a substantial decrease in the number of property listings on our® site; and a breach of any of our other obligations under the agreement that we do not cure within 30 days of being notified by the NAR of the breach.” )

Move, Inc, Trulia, and Zillow are all publicly traded companies.  They have an obligation to their shareholders to do what’s in the company’s best interest and that means fighting this tooth and nail.  I see only a few options if these rules are passed:  Getting the DOJ involved with NAR / MLSs again and claiming anti-competitive practices from the MLS or attacking the Realtor business model.  And while mobile is definitely gaining traction for these sites, SEO still plays a part.  Clients are out looking for homes, type in an address, and ZTR pops up.  This is part of the huge rise in mobile stats that they have experienced.   More importantly, these companies have already considered these scenarios, they know what to do if this happens.  You’re not as smart as Spencer and Pete while having a 10k disclosure statement about the risks of the business without having a contingency plan.

And so, while I am a Realtor, and know and believe that Realtors own the listings that are displayed on these sites, I just point out that this is worth a group discussion instead of arbitrary rules being passed.

Eric works with real estate technology companies and brokerages across the country to see what's next for the future of the industry and directs our internal development projects here at TRIBUS.

  1. TheRECoach (@TheRECoach)

    Eric, are you suggesting that a move like this (Trying to take back the credit, they gave up years ago, blindly) would or could result in ZTR going broke and disappearing? and would that be a “bad” thing? if so, why?


    Posted on 5.7.13 at 10.21 am
    1. Eric Stegemann

      Eric: I’m suggesting that billion dollar companies don’t go quiet into the night. As of right now $Z is valued at 2.08 Billion dollars. They also don’t pivot out of real estate. They fight, they get angry.

      I think it could become both a business model and legal battle, and especially with the DOJ oversight, I believe it would be a decision that could negatively effect the way most Realtors do business.

      Posted on 5.7.13 at 10.26 am
  2. Kathleen Buckley

    Eric, I’m not sure why you believe that canonical links could negatively affect the way most Realtors do business. Real estate agents and their brokerages generate extremely valuable content and data, we then pay others to aggregate the data, then we give away valuable listing leads. You point out there are simple steps agents/brokers would need to take. The savvy professionals will take those steps. Simple.

    Posted on 5.7.13 at 11.02 am
    1. Eric Stegemann

      Kathleen, I agree that they give away the data. You’re 100% accurate. But the reason that ZTR display this on their sites is entirely because they want to sell ads next to them. Without being able to get traffic they can’t sell ads.
      If you do canonical links back to the listing broker, these sites will lose traffic. There is no question about it. But to be clear on a point, there is an extra step in the process than what your comment stated:
      Canonical link back to the broker->Lower traffic & revenues to the syndicators->then protecting themselves by attacking the way Realtors do business.

      Canonical links in and of themselves would help active listing Realtors. It’s the fact that you doing this would so badly injure these sites, that they’d need to take action to protect shareholders. They would attack either by convince the DOJ that MLSs shouldn’t be allowed to do this or by attacking our business model.

      Posted on 5.7.13 at 11.10 am
  3. Todd Carpenter

    Eric, Zillow and Trulia are not governed by NAR, or any MLS. Just because an MLS starts publishing conical tags doesn’t mean ZRT has to use them. In fact, they have agreements in place that state the opposite. They don’t have to call the DOJ. They just have to politely decline. So long as the vast majority of listing agents are more motivated by selling a house than to use the listing as bait to generate leads, ZRT has no reason to comply. Don’t believe me? See: various people complaining about nofollow linking policies by ZRT over the last five years.

    Posted on 5.7.13 at 11.43 am
    1. Eric Stegemann

      I totally agree with you. However, the words that I’ve been hearing / reading the past few weeks have been stating that they would force them if they wanted the data from a Realtor / Broker / MLS. I’m not sure how that would be implemented, but what does ZTR do when all listing require that? Do they decline everything?

      And I will say cheers to Trulia for turning off the nofollows. Z/T you guys should do the same.

      Posted on 5.7.13 at 11.53 am
      1. Todd Carpenter (@tcar)

        You’re making an assumption that there is critical mass in forcing the issue with ZRT. There’s simply no indication of that.

        Posted on 5.7.13 at 1.00 pm
  4. Laz

    I got to this post searching about what I have found to be a very deceptive practice by zillow , just go to any listing on zillow and at the bottom on the home details page you will see a “Listing provided by” link at the bottom, but when you check the google cache of that url it won’t show that part , that means that if it doesnt appear on google cache google doent see and consequently zzillow is not giving credit to anybody on the search engines.
    Try any listing url and compare the page you see on your browser with the cache and correct me if Im wrong

    Posted on 8.15.13 at 6.59 pm
  5. OnlineRE

    The entire RE listing syndication industry (Zillow, Trulia, Realtor…and many more) is built upon a one giant lie. They get most of their traffic from search engines. Search engines try hard to rank only the original source of content…so ZRT (and company) do everything they can to lead Google’s algo to believe THEY are the original source. They try hard to hide this reality by spending major cash on industry PR and running a constant spin cycle…but when it comes to what counts (google) they flagrantly dodge the truth. They could easily provide a followed and cawlable link back to the listing agent’s site. They don’t, because they know that doing so would make it clear who the original source is…and they know Google would prefer to rank the original source – not a giant site full of copied listings.

    Need proof this is more than just happen chance? The smoking gun is exactly what the previous commenter pointed out. Look at any listing on ZRT. Scroll to the bottom and you will find what appears to be a proper original source citation pointing back to the listing agent. “See, we tell everyone where we got the listing info”…not so much. Now find that listing via a google search, and when the page loads don’t scroll…instead view the page source (code) and you will see that the source info doesn’t even load on the page until the user scrolls. The only reason to code their landing pages this way is to hide the original source citation from Google’s crawlers (googlebot). Google never sees that info because they intentionally hide it from crawlers. Scandalous. Even the sites that do provide a link bury it behind multiple no followed 302 redirects…all with the sole purpose of making sure googlebot can never read that information.

    They know exactly what they are doing, and it’s unbelievable they’ve been allowed to do it for so long.

    More than just not going out of their way to give credit to the true source of the content, they actively and aggressively use code hacks and crawl blocking techniques to thwart any opportunity google might have to learn where that listing actually came from. They claim your content as their own, and google’s algo is left to assume the smaller realtor’s site is a duplicate copy thereof. As a result, they rank for your content and then they sell the traffic it generates back to you. It’s truly unbelievable.

    Consider a news site that copied all of its content from the wall street journal…hid the source and made sure google never knew where it was coming from…claimed the content as their own and actively manipulated google to ensure google thought the WSJ was actually copying their content…then ranked their site using the WSJ’s original (stolen) content…and then sold the readers back to WSJ for a profit. Thats exactly what is happening…and 99% of Realtors and Brokers are just too technology ignorant to even realize whats happening. Sad.

    Posted on 12.3.14 at 11.00 pm
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