This is a guest blog post by Darren Jamieson.
Did you know that franchise websites are more susceptible to link penalties from Google than most other industries? One of the things which makes franchises great as a concept (different business owners working autonomously on a shared brand) is also what makes promoting the brand online so perilous – you never know what mistakes made by one franchisee could adversely affect the brand as a whole.
Whether or not you keep a close eye on the changes going on within Google, it’s quite possible you may have noticed a big about-face of late in Internet marketing circles. Where once SEO agencies would talk about building links to websites in order to increase their rankings in the search engines, they’re now talking about removing said links in order to do the same thing.
It may sound counterproductive, but that’s what Internet marketing, or SEO, has come to because of the changes Google has made.
To put it simply – in the good old days when anyone could do SEO (and just about anyone did), you could improve a website’s rankings by placing links to that website on other websites. If those aforementioned links contained keywords within the link, so much the better. The problem was that this got out of hand, and SEO agencies were building links in the millions, meaning the company with the deepest pockets was able to rank the highest, and the search results people were getting were becoming more and more irrelevant, in favor of websites that had, in effect, paid to be there.
Google didn’t like this. Even though the search giant’s original ranking algorithm was based around links – with the websites receiving the best links appearing higher in the search engines – it had created a rod for its own back. It had created a system which could be ‘gamed’ – and it wasn’t happy.
This is where the update to Google’s algorithm known as Penguin came in. You may have heard of Penguin if you’ve frequented Internet marketing forums, blogs or seminars. In a nutshell, Penguin looked to remove the positive impact of unnaturally built links – and almost overnight those SEO companies that relied on links found their clients’ rankings disappear, with their whole marketing strategy and business procedures in tatters.
Now, instead of ‘building’ links, many SEO companies spend their days ‘removing’ links in order to stop their clients falling foul of Penguin’s wrath and suffering in the rankings.
So how does this affect you as a franchisor?
Unfortunately, Penguin is not a precision instrument. It doesn’t look at websites which have had SEO done unethically in the past and punish them; it looks at linking patterns to websites and, whether or not you’ve had someone build links for your website, you could suffer as a consequence.
For example, if your website features links from business directory websites, article submission websites or press release websites, Google will consider that unnatural, as these are the sorts of websites used by SEO agencies. Sadly, these are also the sorts of websites used by a lot of franchise businesses to promote their franchises. Even if you’ve innocently set out to promote your business with press releases, perhaps about a product launch, a new franchisee launch, or if you’re expanding into new territories, the use of PR sites can negatively impact your performance in Google.
This can also be of particular detriment to franchisor websites when the franchisees do business with so many different companies across the country, and the franchisees’ clients innocently link back to the franchisor website. If the client websites are particularly low quality, or have engaged in unethical link building themselves, they’ll be passing on some negative vibes back to your website – which will affect your rankings.
Equally this can affect the whole brand even if just one of your franchisees has engaged in link buying; a service still offered by thousands of unethical Internet marketing companies taking money for something which, they promise, will bring more visitors and business but will, in fact, bring penalties and bans from Google.
We’re afraid to say that Google’s use of the broadsword that is Penguin has penalized a lot of people who had never even heard of SEO, let alone paid for it on their websites – whether they’re completely innocent or the victim of the overzealous efforts of a rogue franchisee.
There is a solution however, and you don’t even need to contact an SEO agency if you don’t want to (although you will need to be very careful with what I’m about to advise, as it can go wrong). There are several places online where you can track the websites that link to you, and even download a spreadsheet of the links; this will allow you to see whether you have websites such as directories, article submission sites, PR sites or worse – and there are a lot worse that could be linking to your website.
The sites you can use include:
By signing up to each of these, you’re able to analyze your own website and see those that link to it. You can use any of them, or all of them – it’s probably best to use all of them, as they each use different ways of crawling the Internet, and can produce different results.
Once you have the links you’re fairly sure are not helping your website’s rankings, you can disavow them in Google using the Link Disavow tool https://www.google.com/webmasters/tools/disavow-links-main. You need to have created a Google Webmaster Tools account in order to use this feature, and it’s completely free.
What this tool does, essentially, is allow you tell Google what links pointing at your website you don’t want, so it can ignore them when calculating where your website ranks in its index. As mentioned earlier however, you must be very careful using this tool because any link you add to your disavow file will be ignored by Google, and will impact your rankings – so only add the links you’re sure are bad ones. Google even offers an example of what your disavow file should look like here: https://support.google.com/webmasters/answer/2648487?hl=en
Once this has been done, you may need to wait for Google’s next Penguin update before your rankings change. This could be several months. Remember though, whether or not you’ve had SEO on your website, there is a very good chance your site does have links pointing to it that are negatively affecting its rankings, especially if you allow your franchisees to engage in their own online marketing activities, and it’s better to know than to be unaware of any problems.
To save ending on all of this gloom and doom, the best news for franchisors is that, as Google moves away from links as a ranking metric, it has moved more towards brands – such as the brand mentions of franchises. Where once a link to your website was the be all and end all, now the mention of your brand is just as important (whether or not it links to your website). This means that, wherever someone is talking about your brand online, Google gives a little ‘tick’ for you in its algorithm somewhere. The more you’re being talked about, the stronger your brand becomes in Google’s eyes. All of this means that big brands will get stronger and rank better, so long as they don’t have a toxic link profile of course.
Darren Jamieson is the Technical Director of Engage Web, a digital marketing agency specializing in the franchise sector. Engage Web has developed a bespoke digital marketing model for franchises, FranchiseXcel, which has helped franchises grow online within the UK, USA, Canada and Australia.