Beware of Free Tools! Check the Code

Free! It’s the most common word used on the worldwide web. It’s tied to almost everything: free access, free clothes, free subscribers, and, my personal favorite, free money. With all of these things flying off the shelves for free, how do these ingenious people stay in business while giving things away?
I was taught at an early age that nothing is free. As I’ve gotten older, this lesson has proved true again and again. One of the latest examples I’ve found and written about involves real estate media sites and their free tools, such as mortgage calculators, imagery, IDX feeds, and any other free tool. Large websites like Zillow, Trulia, and Realtor.com market and provide anyone interested with easily embedded tools. Simply copy and paste a piece of code to your website and — voila — a free helpful tool is yours to use. But is it free?

When I started looking further into these tools, the aforementioned lesson showed its face yet again. I looked at the code for the free mortgage calculator and found links to the website offering the tool. In my case, I think it was Trulia, circa 2010. Further investigation unveiled that while I was attempting to compete against Trulia, I was inadvertently helping Trulia to outrank me in search results. (Back links, link attributes, “no follow”, and why it’s important.)

While reading more on the subject, I’ve also found numerous methods aimed at making these links harder to find. I’ve found free tools linking to innocuous pages which, in turn, link to a “middle man” type of page housing something free. And if you guessed this “middle man” page was linked back, you’re right!

One person embedding a link would not have much impact, but tens of thousands of agents and web designers adding these back links, is one of the reasons it’s currently so difficult to compete with large media conglomerates. It’s understandable for some people to promote their relationship with large real estate websites because meeting new clients is essential, but, for the vast majority, creating a business website that facilitates growth is important.

Competing against Zillow, Trulia, and the likes is something I’ve found interesting and thoroughly researched. Circa 2010, we had two agents sign up for a share of the same zip code in Perdido Key, Florida. One of our only questions involved the sharing of new leads. We were repeatedly ensured the leads weren’t distributed to their other clients in that zip code, but we watched for an entire month as we received the same leads as others. Needless to say, we didn’t renew and actually started our own campaign as a result of this frustration.

I’ve developed my own method to search through code for links.  Open the piece of free code in a text editing program, like Wordpad or Notepad, select all text (Ctrl A on PC) and search for links (Ctrl F for FIND on PC) by running simple searches.  An example using a free tool from Zillow – open the code and search for things like “zillow.com”, “.com”, “zillow” or anything that would be included in a link.  Another idea would be searching for the html pieces of links, like “<a href=” or something similar.  Also, look for links on those “middle man” types of pages by repeating this search inside the page code.

We’re going to try and create a forum of sorts to determine future blog topics. Please comment or email us with suggestions and, providing we can keep the SPAM out, we’ll continue to try and help other web developers, real estate webmasters, and other people interested in collaborating on current real estate marketing. If you found this helpful, please share and check back for new information.


Excerpt meanings:

  1. “share of the same zip code” – This is how media sites charge their clients.  They offer portions of zip codes, and in turn, a percentage of the total number of leads produced for that zip code.
  2. Easily embedded tools – simply copy and paste a piece of code to your website.  Normally, adding functionality to a website requires some basic understanding of html.  With these tools, anyone can easily copy and paste and create working tools.
  3. “Ctrl A” is a keyboard shortcut to select everything on a page.  “Ctrl F” is for FIND and used to search within a page.  For a list of other keyboard shortcuts, visit Microsoft Keyboard Shortcuts  A basic understanding of keyboard shortcuts can really boost efficiency.
  4. “<a href=” is part of the html code for a basic link.  Html is like English or another language, but strictly for computers.  All websites work using this fundamental language.  Html is an acronym for hypertext markup language.

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