Three questions about your website — Google’s “Farmer” algorithm update, with real estate as an example

Farmer City, Illinois
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I want to start by clearly stating that I have no idea about the inner workings of the new Google “Farmer” algorithm update. This post is meant to provide some observation ideas and specific examples that might be useful for businesses, such as real estate, which rely on search marketing but have so far not been as exciting for the press to write about as, say Demand Media or AOL.

Last night Google began pushing out their latest search ranking algorithm, which is being dubbed the “Farmer” algorithm update. This doesn’t signal a new agricultural focus for Google, it’s about decreasing results of what they consider to be low-quality content.

Anything that Google or any search engine does to increase the relevance and quality of results is good. It’s good for people who search. It’s good for people who make content online. It’s obviously good for Google because then more people use their site and they sell more ads.

This latest algorithm change is important for a few reasons:

  • Results for more than 10% of search queries are effected–this will be a noticeable update.
  • The stated update objectives make it clear that Google is using some method to determine content quality.

Real estate provides a useful non-advertising business model to look at how the change in the algorithm effects online strategy, I’m going to use that industry as an example. But you can probably use these questions to plan your website adjustments even if you aren’t in real estate.

Things to observe about the “Farmer” algorithm update

Let’s start with what we know about this Google update. Matt Cutts, the spam blocking team leader at Google, says that the purpose of this update is to lower rankings for “sites which are low-value add for users, copy content from other websites or sites that are just not very useful.”

Is your site low-value add?

Many websites, not just real estate websites, could potentially be considered “low-value add.” It’s hard to recognize this yourself because you probably think your site is very high value (especially if you paid to have it created). Take a serious look at all the competition for your search term and see how much overlap in terms of content there is.

For example, most real estate sites have a site architecture outline that looks like this:

  • home page
  • information for buyers
  • information for sellers
  • search the MLS (for houses to buy)
  • contact a Realtor or Agent.

This makes sense because these are primary business tasks of real estate–buying, selling, searching. If you’re in a different business, perhaps your industry has similarly well-defined business tasks.

The problem of low-value add comes in when you dive into the content on these pages. Especially when looking at the “information for buyers” and “information for sellers” it can be difficult to differentiate which site has the best content. These kinds of basic pages get short shrift in any industry.

If your “information for buyers” and “information for sellers” isn’t miles above the rest–remember the algorithm is just a piece of math and not a human, then you might be in trouble.

Over the next few weeks, watch the performance of pages that are part of your core business–not just your home page or total traffic.

Does your site copy content from other websites?

Copying content is more nuanced than it might seem at first glance. Obviously, stealing someone’s content isn’t right. What about syndication? Or what about standard product databases?

In real estate, the MLS database is like a product database for all the houses in an area. If you are a retailer and market the same products as other retailers, your product database would be like the MLS.

However, the rules for displaying information from the MLS are typically more complicated than any other kind of product database. According to policy, the data that is displayed in most MLS searches can’t be modified.

The end result is a large mass of content on websites that is essentially the same–the age old “duplicate content issue.” If you go to any real estate website which displays property from an MLS, they will have the same description, photos and so on as any other real estate website in the same MLS.

This is really more like syndication than copying–the whole purpose of the MLS is to have everyone showing the same data. However, to a machine it might look like there are five pages of original content on the site and 287,309 pages of duplicate content on the site. You can see how this could pose a problem, right?

Even if the non-search portions of a real estate site are completely unique and obviously high-value, the number of pages in those sections will be dwarfed by the number of pages generated by an MLS search. The percentage of pages on the site which are essentially duplicate content will be high.

In the past, duplicate content was simply hidden–there was no real rankings problem, just your content wouldn’t show at all. Will the new “Farmer” Google algorithm initiate an actual “duplicate content” penalty? Who knows.

I need to be sure to state clearly: I have no idea how having MLS listings on a site will impact search ranking in the “Farmer” algo update. But it’s something I will be watching closely for my clients I and would encourage you to do the same.

Is your site just not very useful?

Again, it’s hard for most people to evaluate their own site. Take the time to figure this out. After reviewing the previous items you’ll probably have a good sense from a structural perspective.

You may want to actively spend time to get more “voice of customer” data as well. Survey tools (like the 4q survey you may have been asked to fill out on this site) or just plain asking people is a way to figure out if your site is useful or not.

Another way to observe the usefulness of your site is to look at visitor behavior metrics in your site analytics: do people stick around awhile? do people look at a lot of different pages? do they accomplish goal tasks?

The problem is, that we don’t know what Google’s algorithm update calculates as “useful.” Google says the algorithm is not driven by social signals (such as their site blocking Chrome extension) so it is likely built into the algo somehow. I also believe them when they say it isn’t driven by social signals–it’s how they tend to operate.

Be sure to monitor how useful your site is.

Bonus: Will your real estate blog save me from the “Farmer” algorithm update?

If you have a blog attached to your website, for example, then this may help you with the new search algorithm. Having a blog could help, but only if:

  • Your blog content is original and not copied or syndicated from somewhere else.
  • Your blog content is high-value add (see item above).
  • Your blog content is useful (see item above).

The more blog posts you have that meet those criteria, the more your blog should help. Remember, Google is just trying to get more relevant content in front of searchers. If your blog is relevant, then it will help.

For those of you who are primarily curating content–finding other stuff online and bringing it to the attention of your audience–there may be issues with the new Google algorithm.

If you are reposting, verbatim, content from other websites–even if you’re doing this by hand and not through a web scraper–I think you may run afoul of the new algorithm.

If, on the other hand, you are posting your own assessment of content on other sites and providing a short quote and link to the original content, you will probably be alright.

Curators: be sure to pay attention to your search rankings in the coming weeks.

The timing of the “Farmer” algorithm update, impact on real estate

March sees a ramp-up time in real estate related online searching in much of the United States. This will continue for the next couple months until people start driving around more in the summer. One acute challenge for the real estate industry is that this update is happening right in the middle of this upswing in search traffic.

If your site is obviously high-value then this will be great for your business. Otherwise, you will need to begin reacting quickly. Typically search engine optimization takes several months to gain traction. There’s a bit of a time crunch here.

If you find that your site is slipping in the search rankings and you feel it’s related to this new algorithm update there are a few things to consider doing:

  1. Become aware of how much search does or does not impact your bottom line. How important is search to your business? You won’t find an answer to this in a blog post. You will find an answer to this in your site analytics and in conversations with your sales staff. If search is important then continue on to the other items in this list.
  2. Rectify any issues identified by going through the three questions of value-add, duplication and usefulness. This may not have an impact for you until later this summer, however.
  3. If you need search traffic earlier than this summer, begin implementing a more aggressive search advertising effort.
  4. If you need to make up the traffic generally and don’t care if it’s from search, begin implementing social initiatives more aggressively.

Google algorithm change’s impact on the broader real estate and technology marketplace


This article has been focused primarily on the potential impact of the Google “Farmer” algorithm update on local business–agent and broker sites in real estate. There are likely implications for the larger search aggregators like Trulia, Zillow and as well. And likely other aspects of real estate search as well. I’ll raise some of those questions in next Tuesday’s Inman column.

Feel free to put your thoughts/comments/concerns about this update into the comments. I’ll try to answer every question as best I can.

Join the Conversation


  1. “Will the new “Farmer” Google algorithm initiate an actual “duplicate content” penalty? Who knows.”

    Think in terms of “filter” vs “penalty”.

  2. Bob: Duplicate content is currently filtered. The thing I am interested in observing is whether a site with a high percentage of duplicate content (think MLS listings) will fare worse than a site a low percentage of duplicate content (real estate site without MLS listings). Matt’s comment specifically talks about lowering the ranking for sites, not filtering or blocking.

  3. Seems to me that this is going to greatly affect agents & brokerages that use “template” sites with “built-in, customizable” content pages…that nobody takes the time to customize much, if at all.

    Looks like those who put time & effort into producing thoughtful, original content in their own voice will reap the benefits – I better get to work!

  4. Also, for anyone wondering about MLS listings and whether they will hurt your ranking in the new algorithm. I address this in the Inman column, but someday that column will go behind a paywall so:

    I didn’t see compelling evidence that having MLS data on your site is harmful under the Google “Farmer” update. I did a study of four markets of widely varying size and geography and two fewer sites with MLS data showed in the top five rankings–not enough for me to get worked up over based on sample size etc.

  5. I have noticed increased organic traffic in all 6 websites I look after actively. I’ve taken screenshots of the Google Analtyics / Traffic Sources / Search Engines / Organic / Google report, for the period February 1 2011 to March 29 2011, with “compare to past” ticked, and they all show improvements, take a look
    My improvements in visit numbers are: +33%, +58%, +31%, +13%, +43% and +49%. These are really quite large increases in organic traffic, so I’m pretty happy with how it went!

  6. Tom: Great to hear it! Have you noticed any change in search position for your specific terms? I ask this because the sites you are monitoring appear to be primarily travel-related.

    Travel sites have definite seasons (Spring break in the US, for example, occurs during the time period you are measuring). You might want to check relative seasonal change this year versus relative seasonal change from previous years–just to check that it isn’t an increase in interest in travel topics that is causing your site visitor count to rise.

    SEO practitioners claiming credit for seasonal-related traffic improvements is rampant in many industries, like real estate. These same SEO practitioners rarely take credit for the downturn in traffic once the season ends though. 😉

    Either way though, Tom, congratulations on getting more visits. That’s always nice whether it’s from effort or season or luck.

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