Actively managing local citations – business listings and mentions across the web – used to be a key focus of local SEO and helped propel Yext to an IPO two years ago. Citations were historically seen as a critical local ranking factor. But things have changed.
Some local SEOs now dismiss citations as almost meaningless. However, others argue that judicious focus on citations on key sites continues to matter. Regardless, the consensus now appears to be that citations are declining in importance.
After numerous informal conversations about citations, I decided to get some on-the-record comments from leading local SEOs: Miriam Ellis, local SEO SME for Moz, Joy Hawkins, owner of the Local Search Forum and Sterling Sky in Canada, Andrew Shotland, CEO and founder of LocalSEOGuide.com, Darren Shaw, founder of Whitespark, and Mike Blumenthal, founder of GatherUp.
The discussion below isn’t exhaustive, but it captures the range of opinion in the community on the topic. Taken together, the thoughts reflect fading focus on citations. I’ve organized the comments according to the degree of importance placed on citations. Miriam Ellis has the most “positive” things to say about citations, while Joy Hawkins places the least emphasis of the group on citation building.
Miriam Ellis, Moz
It’s quite true that our industry’s perception of the role of citations has evolved over the past couple of decades and, happily, our understanding today is more nuanced than it was just a few years ago. My personal take on the practical value of citations is as follows.
Every location-based business needs to own as much of its branded and core keyword SERPs as possible. Taking maximum control of both structured and unstructured citations is one of the most obvious and sensible ways to achieve a high degree of ownership. Whether it’s structured, like a traditional TripAdvisor listing, or unstructured, like a mention of your business in local online news ranking in the first 3-5 pages of Google, these are identifiable business assets.
It’s my personal belief that the citations that matter most for your business are the ones that rank highest for your business by geographic market.
Because all forms of citations are points of encounter for consumers, businesses need to manage them for accuracy and persuasiveness. I have a file made up entirely of negative reviews from customers panning businesses because they encountered inaccurate business hours on listings and were inconvenienced by driving to closed locations. Citation accuracy equals customer service. Scaling this type of accuracy for multi-location enterprises remains a core local search marketing task best supported via software.
No business can afford to have its reputation tank because it’s neglecting basic accuracy. And of course, citations that contain reviews are reputation assets that must never be neglected!
Our industry still hasn’t conducted large enough studies to prove exactly what impact citations have on rankings, and so I don’t consider that a weighty selling point of management. There have been numerous small studies, but a modern, big data study over a lengthy time frame would be great to see. It would need to take so many factors into account (competition, linked unstructured citations, duration, etc.). In the meantime, citations continue to have obvious practical value as business assets, which I’ve briefly touched on above but could expand on for pages!
Andrew Shotland, LocalSEOGuide
Our take on citations is that regardless of whether or not they help with Google rankings, we still unfortunately see Google ingest and trust the data from these services all too often. The more locations you manage, the more likely you are to see Google change the phone number, address, category or even business name based on sketchy third-party data.
You can’t boil the ocean of course, but to the extent it’s cheap and easy to make sure sites like MyHuckleberry and IBuiltThisLocalDirectoryFor10Dollars.com have the right NAP info, it’s insurance against getting that “WTF happened?!” email from a client when Google decides that an auto dealer is actually a massage parlor.
Darren Shaw, Whitespark
Citations used to be the key tactic to drive local search rankings. Local search has evolved and they are definitely less important now, but I am not ready to completely throw them out of my toolkit.
This discussion was partly sparked by the recent local rankings case study I presented at Mozcon. In that example, I didn’t see a significant impact on rankings from the citation work, but I would need to do more testing before coming to any firm conclusions. There are some unanswered questions about my case study and citations:
- I only gave it one month to measure the citations impact. Then I started adding reviews and links. Perhaps if I had waited longer I would have started to see ranking increases from the citations.
- I did the citation work first, because the current thinking is that citations are a foundational tactic. The idea is that you’ll have a harder time ranking if you don’t have them. Perhaps if I had left citations to be the last tactic I worked on, we would have seen more of a boost from the citations. If I had built the site, gotten some reviews, gotten some links, and THEN built the citations, would the citations have been the missing piece of the puzzle to finally get everything to click?
I think there is more testing required before we collectively give up on citations. We are starting on some of these tests at Whitespark, and we’ll keep the community posted.
Mike Blumenthal, GatherUp
Originally the role of structured citations (i.e., listings at the many local directories) had three purposes:
- To guarantee that Google would “rebuild” the world based on their local data cluster accurately
- Send traffic from secondary generalized directories
- Help ranking at Google particularly in the early absence of other signals like links and reviews
None of those reasons apply any longer:
- The Knowledge Graph architecture guarantees listing integrity for the most part
- Those secondary general sites no long send any traffic
- These citations in and of themselves have virtually no ranking impact in the US
If a business has their data correct on their website and can get their data straightened away at Google, Facebook and maybe Yelp, there is no need for a citation campaign and certainly no need for a recurring cost to do so. Then what function or role do citations continue to play?
In terms of discovery and keyword searches, their value is very limited if not quite zero but in terms of recovery searches (i.e., someone looking your address), given the fragmentation there, they continue to play a role.
For example, Apple Maps is broadly used in the US for driving directions, it is imperative that you have a presence there. It is critical that a user can find your location on Uber and Lyft, who are relying on Google less and less so an accurate listing is critical there. And I would add that some segment of the population (maybe 10-15%) still use in-car GPS devices so it is important there as well.
That list of citation sites to get users to your door, Apple, Foursquare, Here, Tomtom and InfoGroup (to catch any inconsistencies around the web like Bing) are all one and done and do not require a long term annualized payment. And none of them contribute to ranking.
What does matter?
Google cares about local sites and web references that users engage with and occur on pages on some amount of prominence. So it isn’t just a matter of having a citation at Yelp or HealthGrades or Trip Advisor, but of having a listing that ranks well at those sites and can pass some authority to your local entity. The strongest industry vertical sites, in some industries, do send some traffic so a citation and content build out is relevant there.
But the idea of getting listed at 80 sites and paying for it annually is an idea whose time has passed. And the traditional idea of an unstructured citation, (i.e., being cited at an authoritative journal or news source even without a link) has merit. But that is more along the lines of PR than a citation campaign and it can have significant influence over the rank of a business.
Joy Hawkins, Sterling Sky
I often find that people are surprised to hear that my agency doesn’t focus much on citation building or “maintaining” as a strategy. We’ve found that time is better spent on other high-impact tactics.
We only bother with citation work if the client has recently moved locations. Even then, we notice that it doesn’t make a huge difference.
We had a client move last summer and after we updated the website and Google My Business listing we actually saw an increase in rankings due to their new location being closer to the center of the zip code (that’s where we were scanning ranking from). Additionally, their leads continued to rise month-over-month even though we hadn’t updated a single citation. We don’t ignore it completely; it’s just labelled here as a low-impact tactic so it’s not what we tackle first.