Real estate’s cyber-wars

Website ‘squatting’ has been on the rise, industry observers say

Aug.August 01, 2011 07:19 PM

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 Late last month, Heddings Property Group broker David Innocenzi logged on to domain registry GoDaddy.com to renew his ownership of TheInnocenziTeam.com. No such luck — it was already taken. He said agents from Prudential Douglas Elliman had purchased the domain name, and ostensibly set up the Innocenzi website so that it would redirect traffic to their own.

“It was a total shock,” Innocenzi said. “For maybe 30 seconds it was even flattering that someone would consider our domain worth taking over. [But] of course I was also extremely upset.”

If that story sounds familiar, it’s probably because Elliman itself made headlines in June when it sued Hamptons brokerage Saunders & Associates for doing almost exactly the same thing. In its complaint, Elliman called Saunders’ purchase of MichaelaKeszler.com and LoriBarbaria.com — which the firm allegedly set up to redirect to its own website — “nefarious, anti-competitive and illegal.” Michaela Keszler and Lori Barbaria are top producers in Elliman’s eastern Long Island branch, and the firm accused Saunders of “exploiting the identity and goodwill earned by its competitors.”

This so-called cyber-squatting — purchasing the URL of someone else’s name in order to profit from it in some way — isn’t exactly a new concept. Madonna, Julia Roberts and countless other brand names have been among the famous targets over the years. But with more and more New York real estate clients now coming from search engines rather than personal referrals, a variety of creative and occasionally underhanded tactics for driving web traffic are catching on in the industry.

“Desperate times call for desperate measures, and there’s huge competition for traffic on the web,” said Burke Smith, the founder of real estate web strategy firm YourNet Coach, who has worked with New York brokers like Elliman’s Jacky Teplitzky.

Smith advises clients that there’s much more value in optimizing their own sites for search engine traffic than in stealing traffic from rivals. But attempts to do the latter are common in real estate, both in New York and across the country, he said.

“Apparently, [domain-name-stealing] is a lot more prevalent than a lot of people realize,” said Douglas Heddings, who runs his eponymous brokerage as well as the real estate blog True Gotham. He and Innocenzi both declined to name the Elliman agents involved in the episode, but said that once confronted, they relinquished the URL immediately and claimed they hadn’t realized that their search-engine optimization strategist had purchased the domain name on their behalf. A spokesperson for Elliman said the firm had no knowledge of any such incident.

Saunders has also since given up the Elliman agents’ domain names, as well as that of the Corcoran Group’s Susan Breitenbach, who had threatened to sue earlier this year over Saunders’ ownership of SusanBreitenbach.com. Andrew Saunders, the firm’s founder and president, didn’t respond to a request for comment, though as of press time the Elliman suit was still pending. Elliman would not comment on the case because the litigation is ongoing.

Heddings said he believes much of the cyber-squatting that goes on is initiated by SEO consultants rather than real estate brokers.

“I really don’t believe that Andrew Saunders or anyone at Prudential Douglas Elliman would intentionally do this,” Heddings said. “You ask [consultants] to make sure your site is way up on the Google [rankings], but you don’t know what they’re doing behind the scenes to get that effect.”

As far as the legal ramifications of this type of behavior, Smith said, “it’s still unknown territory.” But Heddings suggested that trade organizations like the Real Estate Board of New York and the Manhattan Association of Realtors should step up to the plate to develop regulations within their codes of ethics in order to combat cyber-warfare in the industry. “We need to police [it] better,” he said.

The Internet is full of other murky practices, so it’s no wonder that the often cutthroat world of New York real estate is getting on board. Another, less egregious method of poaching web traffic from competitors is buying up advertising spots on their keyword searches. “It’s like if Pepsi buys the keyword ‘Coca-Cola,’ so anytime somebody searches for Coke, they see an ad for Pepsi,” Smith explained.

This is a tactic that some of the city’s real estate developers have apparently discovered. A recent Google search for “Setai New York” turned up paid advertisements for the Upper East Side’s 515 East 72nd Street, the condo formerly known as Miraval Living. Meanwhile, Manhattan Skyline’s 55 Thompson Street rental apartment building in Soho is advertising on searches for “The Corner at 200 West,” the Upper West Side rental around the same price point, and a search for “Azure New York City” produces paid advertisements for the Robert A.M. Stern-designed condos at 1280 Fifth Avenue in East Harlem at the top of the page.

But these paid advertisements don’t generate nearly as many clicks as web pages that show up in free search results, Smith explained. So brokers are better off buying a domain name for a geographical area or niche market. Saunders & Associates’ website, for example, is HamptonsRealEstate.com. “As popular as [Elliman powerbroker] Dolly Lenz is, she’s nowhere near as popular as searching for terms like ‘Upper East Side,'” Smith said.

While Smith isn’t a proponent of cyber-squatting, he emphasized that it’s important for top real estate brokers to buy their own domain names before someone else does.

“If a top producer isn’t smart enough to buy their own domain name, they don’t deserve it,” he quipped.

Elliman CEO Dottie Herman, for example, issued a statement to The Real Deal saying that she purchased DottieHerman.com “in order to protect my name both personally and professionally.”

It bears noting that of New York City’s top five brokers as ranked by The Real Deal in June, only Lenz actually owns and operates the URL that matches her name. The domains SerenaBoardman.com, ShlomiReuveni.com and PaulaDelNunzio.com are all up for grabs. Meanwhile, the domain name CarrieChiang.com is owned by Gawker’s editor in chief, Remy Stern, who told The Real Deal that he bought it along with several hundred other domain names — including JerrySpeyer.com, HowardLorber.com, PeterKalikow.com and JosephMoinian.com — when he ran the New York City personalities directory Cityfile.com. The URLs were then set up to redirect to each person’s profile on the Cityfile site, but they aren’t currently active because of a recent server change following Gawker’s acquisition of Cityfile in 2010, Stern said.

Brokers — and companies — may also want to consider purchasing not-so-flattering domain names before someone else grabs them.

GoDaddy.com records show that in February, Eric Gordon, creator of the listings platform RealPlus, registered both OLRTheySuckMore.com and OLR-TheySuckMore.com, an apparent reference to his top competitor in New York City, On-Line Residential.

Both of Gordon’s OLR-related websites are inactive, and when contacted by The Real Deal for an explanation, Gordon said he bought them as a joke, along with a few other domain names playing on the phrases “RealPlus” and “We Suck Less.”

“I was just having some fun one day,” Gordon said. “I have no intention of ever doing anything with them. In fact, I forgot that I had them.”

Gordon added he owns “hundreds” of domain names, including several joke URLs, though, ironically, RealPlus.com isn’t one of them — it’s taken. Gordon said he once offered $700 for the site, but was rebuffed as the current owner wanted $75,000 –well beyond what he’s willing to pay. RealPlus operates instead at RealPlusOnline.com.

CorcoranSucks.com, meanwhile, is currently registered to an undisclosed party but is inactive. Corcoran declined to comment for this story.

The bottom line, Smith said, is that online strategies intended to detract from competitors, rather than boost one’s own image, are unlikely to have any tangible financial impact. “If somebody is targeting somebody’s name, it’s really done more in a vindictive way, and not done to grow their business,” he said.

And ethics aside, playing dirty online almost always backfires with consumers, because it reflects poorly on the perpetrator, strategists said.

“The educated consumer is going to be offended by that behavior,” said Shaun Osher, the founder and CEO of boutique brokerage Core, which he said has worked “extensively” with SEO consultants. Osher added that he owns “quite a few domain names” but uses “very few of them.” He wasn’t sure whether ShaunOsher.com is one of them, but said that even if it isn’t, the domain is “really worthless to someone who is not Shaun Osher.”

“Look, David and [his wife and partner Sandra] Innocenzi — they are solid producers but they’re not Dolly Lenz, and they’re not Michael Shvo, and they’re not Sharon Baum,” Heddings said. “It just reeks of desperation.”


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