Local citations are dead; long live local citations!

August 31, 2016
seounity

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In June, we published a large statistical study on how Google’s local algorithm works. The study data suggested that citations did not appear to correlate with good local rankings.

Seems like just yesterday local search guru David Mihm called out that local citations were in fact the new link. The TL;DR was that Google was likely using mentions of a business’s information on “local documents,” which Google’s patents defined as documents that are:

associated with a particular geographic area […]. A document that relates to a business listing, for example, can be considered a local document because it is associated with the particular address of the business. […] A document … may mention a business at the location, the address of the business, and/or a telephone number associated with the business.

In the early days of Google Places/+Local/My Business, it was likely helpful for Google to use local citations as a partial proxy for links, as most local businesses had few or no backlinks. This started a gold rush for local citation work with lots of competitors. Here is but a partial list of the likely thousands of companies that offer local citation-related services (in alpha order):

  • Advice Local (Full disclosure: The CEO bought me drinks once.)
  • Brandify (So did these guys.)
  • BrightLocal (No drinks but plenty of RTs.)
  • Location3 (You don’t want to know what the CEO bought me.)
  • Milestone (A former LSG client — Hi Benu!)
  • MozLocal (We actually pay these guys money.)
  • SIMPartners (We trade snark at conferences.)
  • SweetIQ (Sweet guys. Canadian.)
  • RioSEO (I watched an hour or two of the Olympics.)
  • WhiteSpark (Another Canadian. Nuff said.)
  • Yext (A current client.)

Hell, even that guy at Local SEO Guide got in on the game.

And on and on and on. The business is booming. I imagine, as an industry, every month there are thousands of hours and millions of dollars spent by Local marketer types (along with several entire villages in the Philippines) just doing citation work.

There’s clearly a lot of money at stake. For example, check out this Google Instant Answer (though it’s worth noting that Yext does more than just citations):

Yext 2015 Revenue

Yext likely manages something like only one percent of all US local businesses alone. So the market is YUGE.

That said, competition has come into play. We are definitely seeing pricing vary all over the map, but it is generally heading in the downward direction. Of course, it’s hard to compare pricing across vendors because each has a different way of doing things and a different set of services.

For example, Yext has a fully automated solution to control citations in its network of 60 or so big and small local search sites; MozLocal focuses on automatically getting your data into the aggregators and several of the big local search sites and reporting. Advice Local takes a manual approach to updating, claiming and fixing citations on hundreds of big and small local listings sites in combination with using publisher APIs where available. And so on.

But is all of this money and activity actually worth it?

In the early days of Local SEO, local citations worked almost like magic. In areas with low local competition, like the Australian outback, they still do. But in competitive markets, our study showed that citations may be less effective than previously believed. So are local citations dead? Maybe not.

In 2014, we did a test where we fixed citation issues of around 1,300 locations of a national chain and saw fairly remarkable results: Local pack rankings increased more than 20 percent! But how do we square the results of one study that shows fixing citations works and one that shows they don’t seem to matter?

The answer is that in our 1,300-location test, we found that if a location was already ranking in the local pack for a keyword, fixing its citations had no demonstrable effect on changing the location’s pack rankings.

This suggested to us that citations are a foundational part of a local SEO program — if your citations are borked, it may be affecting your ability to compete in local packs. But citation work is not a competitive advantage in competitive markets. This makes sense, as pretty much every business out there should have a bunch of citations. So fix your citations fast and move on to higher-value work, like getting links.

Over the years, Google’s definition of a “local document” has most certainly evolved. And as usual, local SEO practitioners will have to continue to track that evolution so they can focus on what’s most important for their clients’ success.

Given how complicated and screwed-up local data can be, until Skynet puts local brands out of their misery, there will be plenty of work for those who choose to tangle with the local citation hairball. Long live local citations!


Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.


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