We're All Just Link Farmers Now…

For a long time, we have all brooded and marveled at how the entire Internet has been deformed by the enormous mass of Google at its center. Just last Friday, Google seemed to conclude that the size of the Web is no larger than the size of its index.

Websites aren’t built anymore for people to use, but for Google to index. As the New York Times noted earlier this month, every Google-optimized site is, in a way, a temple that reinforces Google’s power, built according to rules that Google, like some benign but distant god, has only vaguely outlined.

And let’s face it, without these rules, thBlack Holee Web would be a far less organized, interconnected place: Google favors websites built according to simple principles, whose pages can be updated by its audience, which get lots of links from other sites.

But any system can be exploited, and some popular sites have prospered in part by gaming the system: flooding the index with pages and creating fake links.

Sometimes at Redfin we try to figure out whether to spend our time building a good site for our customers, or for Google. Mostly we try to convince ourselves these are one and the same thing.

For example, we spent a few months re-mapping millions of URLs so they better describe the page they represent (such as http://www.redfin.com/WA/Seattle/2416-24th-Ave-E-98112/home/138344), a Google-driven feature that our users may appreciate but probably not as much as townhouse or parking filters.

And even though we’ve just scratched the surface of how we need to optimize our site for Google, we’ve recently begun to wonder — yes, this is heresy — if drawing lots of random visitors from Google should really be our goal.

Redfin isn’t like ad-driven sites, which make money from visitors regardless of whether they come from Google through some random carom or hear about the site from a friend and plunge in up to their eyeballs.

We don’t get paid until a customer uses our site to buy a house, which usually involves hundreds of visits over half a dozen months (hence our Freakish Depth strategy).

If Google sends the wrong people our way, our traffic may go through the roof but our business grows more slowly. Which is exactly what has been happening (that is, we’re growing, but not as fast as our traffic). So we’ve begun to wonder if Google’s visitors ever stick around long enough to become Redfin addicts.

So we formed a theory, that as the percentage of visitors coming from Google increased (excluding folks searching on “Redfin” and similar terms), more would bounce off. The table below maps some key stats through the first half of 2008; the “bounce rate” on the last row is how many visits end with only one page being visited.

Month January February March April May June
Growth in Unique Visitors 29% 14% 18% 12% 18% 17%
% Redfin’s Visits from Google 14.6% 14.4% 16.6% 18.7% 20.3% 21.2%
Bounce Rate, All Visits 3.50% 3.59% 2.52% 3.33% 2.44% 2.48%

As you can see, as more visits come from Google, fewer of them bounce off. Which basically tells us that Google not only sends more people our way, but sends people our way who apparently decide they’ve come to the right place. What a great search engine! So much for our theory that traffic from Google is lower quality.

In fact, when we survey Redfin’s visitors, 15% say they come to us via a Google search on a non-Redfin term, vs 18% of the people who ultimately buy a home through us. Which is just to say that I should have never doubted Google (traffic stats courtesy of, you guessed it, Google Analytics).

Discussion

  • Robert

    Glenn
    This is totally unrelated to this post but I wanted to thank you for your post comparing SV to Seattle. http://blog.redfin.com/blog/2008/02/the_next_silicon_valley.html The company I’ve founded has started the funding process and have been told that in order to move forward we need to move out west. We are East coast based. As I see it we have 2 options, silicon valley, or Seattle. Going by cost alone SV makes no sense. Add in all the other intangibles and SV quickly falls down the list of desirable places to live. Yeah we would like money, but not so much so that I want to be unhappy with my living environment. Your post has helped solidify our resolve to bypass SV and move to Seattle. So I wanted to thank you for that.

    Just wondering if you had any advice for a tech start up relocating to Seattle and dealing with the funding process? I’m a first time fund raiser to any advice is greatly appreciated.

  • Bryce

    Interesting exposure of your (or your customers’) bias towards buying vs. selling via Redfin.

  • http://blog.redfin.com/blog/author/glenn%20kelman Glenn Kelman

    We do tend to have more customers who are buyers Bryce…

    Robert, since most tech is a competitive, high-margin business, I would focus on revenues not costs. Where can you build a better (not a cheaper) company? For some, the answer is Seattle. For others, it’s elsewhere.

  • http://www.mahindrauniverse.com Priyanka

    What an interesting post! I was not expecting to be directed to the corporate blog of a real estate company when I read the title on my Google Alerts :)
    I think for us in Social Media our lives have so much of Google in it.

    ~Priyanka
    http://www.mahindrauniverse.com

  • http://www.condoauthority.com JT

    Interesting post. We are also working on getting more organic traffic from Google (like everyone else with a website) by such things as reworking our URLs. I’m glad to hear that this investment will pay off.

    One thing that does seem to frustrate me with Google is that they reward sites with a simple architecture over sites that might have better content with a more functional architecture.

    Our website has good functionality allowing users to use an interactive flash map and see their results on a Google map. Of course the search engines don’t deal with flash well. What’s frustrating though is that sites that are just lists of communities and never updated receive higher rankings because they are older and easy to crawl. Our content is updated daily and we actually provide a search mechanism, but Google doesn’t seem to appreciate this.

    http://www.condoauthority.com is the site

  • http://www.alexloddengaard.com Alex Loddengaard

    I hope this means you’re not mad at me anymore ;). Hello from Berlin!

  • http://blog.redfin.com/blog/author/glenn%20kelman Glenn Kelman

    Hi Alex. I was never mad! Hope you’re enjoying Berlin…

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