Two of the biggest online estate agents in the UK, Rightmove and Zoopla, have built monopoly businesses off the back of search engine traffic in the real estate sector. For every search query looking to buy or rent in the UK, Rightmove and Zoopla are there on the top of the results (alongside OnTheMarket and newer competitors). Between this and brand recognition, RightMove and Zoopla are able to suck up most UK real estate demand online for renters and buyers.

SEMRush, an SEO research tool, estimates rightmove gets over 30 million web visits a month, largely from search traffic looking to buy, sell or let in towns, cities and postcodes

For a given search of a town, RightMove comes first, followed by a national estate agency Savills

Getting to this scale requires considerable expertise across a number of domains – technology, marketing, product and data. I will not discuss the efforts of RightMove in this post, because they are probably a team of 20/30 people thinking about this full time. This blog is aimed at medium and small businesses who are getting started in search, rather than enterprise-level companies (RightMove, for example, is listed on the London Stock Exchange).

Property SEO: getting the basics right

The first point I will make is that the basic principles of SEO are the same - you have web pages – hopefully many of them, because the more the better – and then you let search engines know about those pages. Good so far?

Not only that, but you have put the right tags on each page, in the right place etc. This is what every beginner SEO resource on the internet encourages, and we assume you have already done this. To recap briefly:

  • You have put in place a page title tag (eg <title>Properties For Sale in Oxford</title>);
  • You have put in place a page meta description tag;
  • You have put in place relevant header 1 and header 2 tags;
  • The page loads quickly, so large things like images are ‘lazy loaded’, and if you have a complicated setup, such as a javascript web framework making database calls asynchronously, you have done all the usual extra steps for single-page-application SEO;
  • The page works on a mobile;
  • You’ve set up a Google Business Profile (particularly relevant for ‘local’ businesses);

If you don't know what any of this means – I suspect (unfortunately) your time will be better spent elsewhere, speak to Self Studio and we'll take a look for you.

Submitting a sitemap

Assuming you have a separate page for each property you have available to let / buy / sell, you need to let Google and other search engines know about these web pages.

While Google’s search crawlers are powerful, and its AI efforts with the multi-modal Gemini are impressive, Google is not magic: for smaller sites in my experience it surprisingly often does not know your pages exist. 

And for estate agents in particular, given every new instruction to let or to sell results in a new web page being created, often you have a large number of new pages being generated every week or month. Letting search engines know about these pages is usually done via a sitemap, and internal linking practices.

RightMove lets search engines know about new property listings (inter alia) through its sitemap – although at their scale they have to use a different approach to most medium and small businesses

Sitemaps are usually XML files that contain a list of pages (URLs) for your website. At scale these need to be spliced into different indices called sitemap indexes. For a small, local estate agent you are unlikely to run into this problem in the early years, for you can put up to 50,000 web pages into a given sitemap.

RightMove on the other hand has at least 15 million pages – so has to be strategic about how it structures its sitemaps and directories. In the example below, Rightmove has designed multiple sitemaps, with each sitemap containing all properties in a given postcode slice – and each slice being the first two characters of a postcode. Practically speaking: there is a sitemap for all properties beginning with AB (my guess is Aberdeen?), AL (St Albans), and so on.

Next, instead of linking to specific property pages / listings (which a normal business would do), RightMove’s scale is so large that they can only, at best, link to directory pages which in turn link to specific properties (see previous photo).

As soon as a new web page is created (e.g. a new property is listed online), this should be pushed to your sitemap, and Google Search Console should know about your sitemap.

How do you generate a sitemap? You use code that generates it for you. Whatever your website is ‘built with’ – or whoever built it if it is custom-made – will be able to implement a sitemap easily using best practices as defined by Google. Most 'out of the box' site builders support sitemaps automatically, no sweat. Just submit it to Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools.

Internal linking: why are my website pages are ‘discovered but not indexed’ in Search Console?

Sitemaps will not in themselves usually cut it: Google will probably sit on the pages you tell them about, via your sitemap, for months without adding the pages to their index, or doing so slowly. In Google Search Console they categorise the pages as ‘discovered but not indexed’.‍

While there are different causes for this, and officially Google says this is because of unavailable server resource on your end – ‘it was expected to overwhelm your site’ – one thing you can do is ‘boost’ the perceived priority of a given page structure by sending links, from other sections of your website, to other pages.

RightMove does this in part with its footer pointing to popular areas (its footer points to special directory pages listing properties in London, Edinburgh – which in turn link to more pages).

Deciding on a sensible internal linking structure essentially boils down to: how much time and resource do we want to put into this? 

As a common example, you may not have a directory specific page for all your covered postcodes and towns in your current website CMS (or whatever system you are using). It may be worth building this directory structure out.

But that may take a lot of developer time, depending how the website was built. Is it some legacy thing built in PHP that falls apart because its written in spaghetti code? Or something written in typescript with many attached microservices?

Given you may not be able to compete for postcode traffic anyway, depending on how competitive that area is in Google search – which requires some keyword research (and so on) – you can see that answering this question in the abstract is a bit silly. Having said that, here are some thoughts:

  • If you can create programmatically some sensible directory structures - eg properties to RENT in LOCATION, properties to BUY in LOCATION, and then push them to your sitemap, then do it;
  • On these directory pages, you can link to the most recently listed properties – so Google and other crawlers can ‘discover’ these pages just through ‘a few clicks from the homepage’. Aim for 2 clicks or less to get to the most recent properties. If you’re going deeper than this, you probably need an SEO specialist. The relevant terms to use in your research are ‘crawl budget’ and ‘click depth’;
  • Link to popular areas of the site via your website navigation and the footer;
  • Ensure your server is rendering the pages quickly. If each page is a database call, which is how WordPress works, switch to a server-side rendering system where your pages are pre-generated and so can load lightning fast;
  • In short: Google’s crawler will go to your homepage and click every link it can access. But it will not do this infinitely because Google does not have unlimited processing power for every website on the web. Therefore it will stop crawling at one point. To make it ‘easy’ for Google’s crawlers to discover your key and newly listed properties, make sure all the pages load fast, are non-blocking, and are accessible within a few clicks from the homepage;

What else should real estate companies & estate agents consider for SEO?

Backlinks – where other websites link to your website – act as a vote of confidence that your site is ‘good’. Backlinks are a large part of ranking for SEO.

One effective strategy for letting agents to get good local links is by running PR campaigns. If you’re an estate agent or property developer of any sort, you have quite compelling access to ‘frontline’ data that official reports and data sources lag behind by months (eg banks mortgage rate data, ONS statistics). Create local press releases to describe the situation occurring in, eg, Oxford - 'Oxford Rental Inquiries Surge by 20%', 'Property Offers down by 20%' etc – this almost always works for local newspaper. Geography is specialised and less competitive. Importantly, given most estate agents are local, it will help you rank for local SEO, which I won't discuss here.

Technology stacks

Many modern real estate and agency websites have all sorts of filter systems and are written in different software languages. I'll briefly touch on this.

Filter / toggle systems

Say I want to filter for 3 bedroom semi-detached homes. This sort of 'filtering' system built into many property portals has SEO implications; it's the same thing e-commerce companies have to face. It may or may not be worth investigating how to best approach this, depending on how important SEO is for your property agency. In short, these might be separate pages and could be good to rank on Google for – if they are low competition and useful for the user. But it is possible to make things worse, because search filters allow for unlimited customisation, and at some point you’re generating more or less identical (junk/low value) pages for Google, which is not good. People have different opinions on how to best go about this. Usually it is best to start with Google’s stated best practice for e-commerce websites –  because the challenges over in estate agency listings are analogous.

Single Page Applications

This applies if your codebase has been written in a ‘modern’ javascript framework such as React, Next, Vue and many others that have cropped up in the 2010s. Plenty ofdevelopers tend to build portals in these frameworks at the time of writing. These frameworks work different to normal websites. While they can be understood by Google, they aren't quite performant out of the box: it is worth doing an audit to make sure your developer has implemented things right. Because developers write code and don’t think about SEO things – that is the ‘marketing / product person’s job to tell me if they want something unusual’ – often the websites built are not understood by search crawlers for all sorts of reasons. Even for a website as basic as my hobby project Flamenco With Rafael, when I asked the developer team at Self to implement an internal link to the blog, the web framework used did not by default put anchor tags in the URLs. We had buttons that were clickable by humans but not readable or understandable by search engines. Good thing I caught it.

Wrapping up – SEO for Estate Agents

Get the basics right, then consider your sector-specific nuances. Estate agents usually have ‘many page’ websites, so make sure Google and others know about your web pages, and that they can actualy crawl them, by thinking about sitemaps, page speed and internal linking, followed by some campaign to get backlinks (local press is the obvious one).

…reading over what I’ve written and what I’ve missed out – I can see why in-house knowledge for such a niche thing doesn’t come by often. So if you need help on doing SEO for your estate agency, do get in contact.