Can a Citation Campaign Cause a Drop in Google Local Rankings?

A customer of ours sent us a question about citations. They have been building citations recently and cleaning up NAP inconsistencies. But they have seen a significant drop in rankings.

I’ve never heard of ‘good’ citation building having a negative effect on rankings – have you?

Also what’s your theory on speed of building citations and if you build too rapidly do you see Google treating this similarly to building links too quickly?


These are  great questions because they touch on virtually every aspect of local ranking and logical thinking.  Rather than just reply via email I decided to respond publicly so that all could join the discussion. Can a citation building campaign have a negative effect on rankings? Can you build citations too fast? The short answer is NO. For the longer answer read on.

As is often said in the SEO field (to the point of cliche) correlation is NOT causation. Certainly correlation of a good data set to certain events can lead to more understanding of a situation but a single instance is a particularly weak data set. Humans have a tendency to see patterns and relationships where none exist. Search involves a particularly complex set of variables many of which we don’t even know. 

Firstly let’s look at citations in isolation. The path of a citation into the Google cluster for a local business is often long and circuitous. An entry is made at a local directory; Google must scrape that deep interior page of the local directory and add the changed data into their main index; Google then must rebuild their Maps index from the recently scraped data and then rerank the listings inside of the Google local index. Google’s local index build occurs roughly every 6 weeks although the schedule is not fixed and it could be from 4 to 8 weeks. Many local directories take time to update their listings once an edit has been made and the page that the listing is on is of such low page rank that it may take weeks or months for Google to scrape it into their main index.

Thus a direct entry to a local directory could take anywhere from 3 weeks to 3 months to make it into the cluster. In addition if you added the listing to a major list supplier like InfoUSA or Localeze you have to add the time for them to vet the listing and provide a feed to Google. In the case of InfoUSA this could be as long as 3 months. Add the time delay for submissions from a company like UBL and you could easily see a 8 month timeframe before all citations have made their way into Google’s index. Thus not only do they often take a long time, they would come into your business cluster at a very erractic rate.

Secondly, citations, like directories before them, have become less important in the Google’s Blended ranking algo.

Thirdly, Google’s local penalties have become more aggressive and often roll through the index in waves. Within the last quarter we have seen increased penalties for service area businesses that show addresses inappropriately, there have been massive review take downs affecting rankings and old penalties like excessive geo-cramming still exist. Without looking at the listing we have no idea if that is a possible cause for a drop in rankings.

Fourthly, ranking is dynamic process, it is not just you and Google. Competitors are changing as well.

Fifth, Google still has troubles with dupes and merges. Given that your client has NAP inconsistencies there could be a duplicate listing that is splitting the strength of the cluster.

And last but by no means least, Google’s local search ranking algo has become increasingly complex and the predominant blended results use both organic and location ranking factors in various combinations. All of the recent Google organic algo changes and updates including Panda, Penguin and unnatural links could be affecting the listing.

So to even to begin to answer the question we would need to know where the listing ranked prior to the drop, how much it dropped, whether the drop was local or organic, what competitors were doing and what the quality of the listing is.

Search results are a multifaceted and complex animal. Just because a person takes an action A and sees an outcome C doesn’t mean that there is a causal relation. They could be related but in this case it strains credulity to think that they are.

Please consider leaving a comment as your input will help me (& everyone else) better understand and learn about local.
Can a Citation Campaign Cause a Drop in Google Local Rankings? by

59 thoughts on “Can a Citation Campaign Cause a Drop in Google Local Rankings?”

  1. Just something else to consider, with the # of Google algo updates like Panda/Penguin/Venice and the constant refreshes that occur, it’s also possible the client’s domain may be getting penalized coincidentally at the same time their doing some citation cleanup. Not sure how likely, but definitely a possibility. As you said, Mike, Correlation is NOT Causation!

  2. Mike, this is a really interesting topic! I agree with almost everything that you mentioned, but here is what I would add to such an answer:

    “Yes, it IS possible that both the citation campaign caused a drop AND it is also possible that the citation campaign didn’t have any effect whatsoever. Why it might have caused the drop? Because as you mentioned you have been fighting with NAP inconsistency. This means that you were editing listings that had likely been “supporting” the rankings of the Google+ Local listing. Thus, it is possible that during the past business data index update to Google Maps your rankings dropped, and they won’t regain at least until the next index update (4-8 weeks). Why the citation campaign might have not any effect? Because of the exactly same index update cycle and because of exactly what Mike mentioned in the article. If your competitors did some local SEO on their website in the period while you were doing citation building, and they did citation building a couple of months earlier than you, they’d most likely be outranking you at least for the next 1-2 months (until the next index update).”

    In fact, while working on a serious NAP clean-up we saw some serious drop in rankings for a few weeks before the listings with the new data were re-indexed. It is definitely a painful process, but in the long run, it pays off.

  3. Good topic, and something I’ve wondered myself. With Google penalizing sites for links from low quality sources in its organic algo, would Google apply the same philosophy of penalization for low quality citation sources? Is there such a think as a low quality or nefarious citation source?

    These are good questions to ask, but there are so many factors as described here, that it’s near impossible to make an accurate assessment without a lot of case studies. That being said, the organic factors in blended results and related penalties are more significant than citation count/quality from my recent observations.

  4. I’m not surprised of course but Mike that was really nicely answered, and thorough. Also, might add that if their citation building and NAP clean-up campaign was just recently implemented then it’s highly unlikely that it had anything to do with the ranking drops. Assuming that the ranking drops occurred in the G+ local listings then it is also likely that, as you mention, once the next reindexing cycle is done that their efforts would boost ranking back up to at the very least where they were previously but more likley to ranking higher than they had been if the campaign was done properly.

  5. Awesome post Mike and you really did cover all the bases.

    Local is like a giant complicated puzzle. You can add some pieces (new citations) but then other factors can happen at around the same time, like getting dinged on the organic side for links OR competitors adding MORE new puzzle pieces than you did. Then when you add in the time delay between action and reaction, it can make it really hard to know exactly what’s causing ranking drops OR increases for that matter.

    Off to share this post. It’s a good one! Thanks and great to see you blogging again!

  6. In our experiences as of late, we haven’t noticed much of a shift in local results. I’m based in Canada, so it might be different in the US, but I would say it’s been 3 months since any of our clients (or competitors) have moved. It appears as though, since the big ‘G’ has been rolling out these Google Plus / Local updates they’re leery of shifting anyones rankings.

    I do 100% agree though with the correlation is not causation theme. It’s unfortuante though as Local SEM and SEO ‘consultants’ that we can’t give a definitive answer to our customers as to whats going on. Only time will tell.

  7. I speculate that given the amount of data that Google and other testimonial sites have they are able to come to an average number of testimonials that a company receives without the company requesting user testimonials.
    If the mere fact that a company is requesting testimonials is considered manipulative to Google then the number of reviews gathered in one month from a company actively garnering reviews, although from valid sources, may be considered as manipulation, and the reviews posted could be blocked and the company could be “dinged” because they gained too many reviews in a given time period compared to the average number of reviews most businesses receive naturally.
    A company not taking action to garner reviews has considerably less reviews and gains reviews at a slower rate compared to a company who has installed an active system to garner reviews. These numbers have to stand out in the data; then it’s a matter of asking, “Is a requested review as legitimate as a review done by someone without prompting?”.
    If testimonial sites do not want any manipulation by the company such as even asking for reviews, then it’s possible that by garnering reviews the company may set itself back or have reviews blocked because they are garnering reviews faster than naturally occurring reviews.
    I can imagine that it is possible that by garnering reviews we risk having an unnatural rate of reviews thereby looking like we are manipulating the reviews, even though the reviews are from legitimate sources.

  8. “Within the last quarter we have seen increased penalties for service area businesses that don’t show addresses”

    Just for clarification, don’t you mean penalties for service area businesses that DO show their addresses?

  9. Great article on the complexity Mike, but two points of clarification. UBL times its submissions to the schedules of the data aggregators so there is no way there is any time added past a day or two turnaround by UBL. Our agency clients are very familiar with this schedule.
    But UBL and some others in the space are moving more towards direct technical submissions with publishers (APIs, FTP) and direct claiming – all of which is done is days, not months. We have over 20 publishers now on our Direct program.
    But for the broadest syndication – where it hits hundreds of downstream search, mobile and social sites, it definitely can take many months to disperse and/or flush the system of bad data. We all have t manage expectations on this.

  10. @Justin
    Yes, as I noted above, these organic penalties could affect Blended results. The first 1, 2 or 3 results on virtually every blended result are a function of both organic and local rank. A precipitous drop in organic rank will minimally push the result out of the 3 and perhaps out of the top 7.

    @Nyagoslav
    Certainly anything that causes disruption to the cluster. It could be that the NAP changes, as you pointed out, temporarily removed citations from the cluster.

    @Charles
    I don’t think there actual penalties I just think that low quality sites are not counted. You can see these sorts of citations drop from the index all the time. It has the same affect.

    @Tom
    Exactly

    @Linda
    Thanks

    @Andrew
    Yes I would agree that Google has not played with the local ranking algo to any great extent. They do however rebuild their citations index every 4-8 weeks so reranking can occur. The fact that you haven’t seen many ranking losses indicates that you have done a good job positioning your clients.

    @Marc
    Certainly review accumulation rate is likely a reason for reviews to be taken down.

    @Randy
    Thanks for catching the error. It’s been corrected.

    @Doyal
    I understand that your submissions are timed to the cycles of the aggregators the question is how frequent are those cycles? If, as in the past, you only submit once per month, and you miss that cycle by one day, then it will add 29 days to the cycle.

    I am happy that many companies are moving toward API submission and near real time updates. It is a change that has been long in coming but will offer lots of benefits going forward.

  11. Nice write up Mike!

    I would only ask… did the company use any other spammy tactics, like linking to the new citation pages through other sites?

    If so, it’s possible they all did get picked up rather quickly, and Google saw them as what we call a batch of links, and they had a bounce, and not an upward bounce.

    This is why SEO is so fun, we all get to guess “who did it”. I say Mr. Batch in the library.

  12. Mike, I am the client that Myles is talking about, So to give you a better idea on what has happened. My client is a lawyer in san diego we have had him ranking very strong within the top 3 local map listings for over a year.

    He has had very few citations about 22, they all had the correct data on them just a few of them had wrong phone number so we updated those and then added about 60 on top of that, as soon as we added those 60 and they went live he has vanished on google local listings.

    Keep in mind he was ranking for over 10 high vol keywords, now none although his organic side for those same keywords he contuines to rank very strong on page one for organic.

    So I am a bit baffled on what has happened. Any insight you could give me would be super, sorry about this post gram errors as I just woke up one min ago…

    thanks

  13. @abby

    Still not enough information to start the investigation.

    Would need to see the listing, know whether he is using call forwarding or virtual offices, time frames, etc

  14. Fantastic Post, and very important particularly with how we communicate with clients.

    When talking with clients (new and old), I’ve found that the local SEO puzzle box needs explaining and clarifying, and usually repeating. And yes, “Correlation is NOT Causation” as is said often in the SEO world. It’s easy for clients to take a “knee jerk” reaction to an action and assume that it’s the root cause of a problem. In reality, there’s lots of other factors at play. However, I think we shouldn’t assume that clients are always aware of this.

  15. Here’s a patent about Google’s “Rank Transition Function”…it’s a pretty interesting concept.

    “If there’s a suspicion that spamming might be going on, but not enough to positively identify it, the page involved might be subjected to fluctuations and extreme changes in ranking to try to get a spammer to attempt some kind of corrective action. If that corrective action helps in a spam determination, then the page, “site, domain, and/or contributing links” might be designated as spam.”

    http://www.seobythesea.com/2012/08/google-rank-modifying-spammers-patent/

    -

  16. @ Adam, I do not think this has anything whatsoever to dow ith google local, this is more organic, and is not on topic what we are talking about, On top of that this new thing everyone is talking about is not so new, google filed for this back in January 5, 2010, I am sure they have already put this to works a while ago in one of the updates…

    None of else know any of this for certian but my guess its already been put to use in google.com

  17. @Abby

    There appear to be two unrelated issues that are leading to a loss of rank in Maps.

    1)You are geo stuffing the description in the Places Dashboard. Your excessive use of the word San Diego will likely lead to rank suppression

    2)More importantly, on or about August 24th there was a duplicate merge request made in MapMaker. And it appears that the more strong listing was merged into the less strong one. This will resolve itself after about 6 weeks (from the merge date) as the citations get correctly reallocated.

    3)In addition at least on the search phrase “bankruptcy lawyer San Diego” the site is ranked somewhere between 10 and 13th on the organic side. When the local listing does return to its “natural” spot, I don’t think that the organic ranking is high enough to push the listing into the top of the pack.

    I would change the description in the Dashboard to remove the geo terms and sit and wait to see what happens in Local. If it gets into the top 3 or 4 in Maps it still should show a pin. There are other less likely possibilities but I would not even consider them until after mid to late October.

    The net out is that this is in no way caused by the citation gathering.

  18. thanks for the comment Mike, but where do you see the geo stuffing? Within google places? I only see one part that has the word san diego in it..

  19. Abby

    From the owner: “San Diego bankruptcy lawyer and bankruptcy law firm specializing in helping you get out of debt San Diego.”

    The use of geography this many times in a description can lead to a ~10 position loss of rank. I would remove ALL references to San Diego.

  20. @Abby, to say it has Nothing whatsoever to do with local is not correct because of local incorporates Blended results…meaning the local algo is a blend of traditional organic SEO and the old local algo (citations, categories etc).

    The patent was filed in 2010 but granted to Google just last week…You are right… I am sure that this has been put into place because the patent specifically mentions manipulative links and Penguin has caused things like link building to be hyper sensitive activities of late. I’m just saying it could be one of the many possibilities

  21. @Adam true, I am sure they have already set it into google.com, but yeah I know blended results, But we are having a problem not really droped in rankings its more like the local places page is MIA all together…

  22. Mike, we have a client who is a locksmith. Prior to all these updates, he used a UPS store as his address and has that listed on his site + tons of directories. We updated his address in G+ Local to his home address and he doesn’t really want this published anywhere. Do you think it would be a good idea to go remove the addresses from all the listings that list the UPS store (for those that we can remove)? It seems home-based businesses are going to have a slight disadvantage since there are some major players (like Info USA) who won’t allow you to list without an address.

  23. @Joy

    He needs to “man up” and list his home address at Localeze. Either he is public facing or he isn’t. If he says no then tell him to go into another line of work then.

  24. I had the same experience as Nyagoslav referenced. A clean up of inconsistent citations along with a process of adding new citations led to some “blips” with pac rankings over time, including periods when the PAC represented just the local/NAP/Places/Maps data and not the merged data with seo and during times when the PAC seemed to represent merged data.

    Now I can’t speak with certainty on the issue, nor do I know the precise circumstances of the questioner.

    Did they remove citations with inconsistent NAP data. They report they did. How many, how significant, –all questions we don’t know.

    Further we have no idea what competitors have done as Mike pointed out.

    Outside of google nobody I know has a fix on these google algo’s.

    Frankly I question if the Googler engineers completely understand the process.

    Any Googler’s want to jump in??? :D

  25. @ Mike

    Is there anything you reccomend other than Localeze for Canadians? It won’t let you pick a province, only lets you pick states.

    The Local Citation Finder isn’t what I’m after as it ‘finds’ citations, it doesn’t really manage them centrally.

    And last but not least, Get Listed’s Canadian database has been down for months and months.

    There’s nothing like doing local SEO the old fashioned way, but it would be nice to have some software to help with larger clients.

  26. Secondly, citations, like directories before them, have become less important in the Google’s Blended ranking algo.

    In your estimation, what factors have been given the added ranking value that has been taken away from citations? I would guess on-site factors and inbound links (to domain, G+ URL, landing URL). Any other thoughts?

  27. Andrew, brightlocal.com is what i use, not sure if it supports CA or not. but worth a shot..

  28. So what we think here at Local Site submit is that most of the ranking drops poeple are seeing are due to a few things:

    #1 Over optimization of your anchor text in link buidling is one ofthe biggest culprits (Penguin Panda). We have seen several sites drop to page 10 or beyond but then after we sprinkle in more Branded anchor text links the sites have almost all came back.. not to the first page where they once where but at least page 2.

    #2 Penalties in Places – Most of the penalties we are seeing in places we think is due to the over optimization of keywords in the Business name and description and categories. This is a tough one because we still see competitors and even some of our clients sites ranking well like “Costa Mesa Carpet Cleaning” or whatever….It seems like its just a matter of time before most tof these overoptimized listings get taken down. It also seems that listings that ARE NOT CLAIMED run a much lower risk of getting penalized.

    COMMENT ON CITATION BUILDING – It has always been my philosophy that more is better. It has almost been my philosophy to get the citations built as fast as possible. Our Local Site Submit service was built out of frustration with UBL and Localeze where you had to depend on their data partners schedule as to when they take the data. So that means it could take up to a year for some sites to get the data from Localeze for instance. And then there is the issue with reporting. You never really know which sites the citation is placed on.

    One last thing I beleive in as that citations can be placed on all types of sites. Going with the more is better theory, we post citations on photo sharing sites, blogs, video sharing sites, social bookmark sites and other types of sites in addition to local directories. The formula has worked to see good ranking increae. However, you definately need to couple citation building with a solid basic SEO (on and off site) plan.

  29. Mike can you please remove the direct links to my clients plus page, as i dont want them to be seen by others.. thanks a bunch for all your input, helps me big time.

  30. number 14 can you please remove that link, thanks bud, I am going to bookmark your blog, your one wise googler…

  31. Super post, Mike.

    Abby – Looks like you are still using geoterms in the description:

    Bankruptcy attorney Mark Aalam is an experienced attorney specializing in bankruptcy and debt relief. He is the founder of Bankruptcy Legal Center in San Diego

    As Mike mentioned, you should remove ALL geo terms…do not use San Diego in the description at all. Google wants location to be apparent from other elements of the page, such as the address and map – not from the description.

  32. @MiriamEllis

    Are you referring to excessive use of geoterms in the descrption as Mike referred to, or are you speaking about not using a geoterm in the description at all?

  33. @Andrew

    We don’t really know what the threshold for excessive geo phrasing in the description is. I have assumed that any keyword repetition of more than 3 words throughout the whole of the Places Dashboard was enough to get you dinged.

    My attitude on geo phrasing is that Google KNOWS where you are, the searcher knows where you are so risking its use has no benefit, That all being said I think using it once is not likely to cause a ding.

  34. @abby

    The comments and writing in this blog are for the public record. I won’t remove approved comments if they relate to the conversation unless someone’s life was endangered or physically threatened by leaving them up.

  35. @Matt G

    Ranking is a multivariate process and the algo scales across a range of “field conditions”. While we know from Google’s statement at the time of Venice that they are including more web signals, the biggest issue is that there is an ever growing body of of online content and links that Google can use in addition to citations. It is not so much as things having been added or taken away in the algo as the additional information now available can be utilized by Google to understand a business’s prominence. These factors have always been in the algo but the data wasn’t always available.

    This has the affect of lowering the impact of citations in some markets, geographies and industries (but not all). Stop back next week for some additional thoughts on this topic.

  36. Great post Mike as I think it really shows how long it can take for citations to really get found and indexed….and then hopefully applied to your rankings.

    Thanks again.

  37. Mike, I spoke to my client and he told me one more factor that may or may not play into this, so he was ranking on the B or C spot for all the local keywords, then he removed the suite number off of the address line 2 and put it on address line 1.. Then it sent a new post card out he was still ranking strong but he claims the second he put in the google pin is when he has disapiered from google places.

    Do you have any thoughts on this?

  38. @Abby

    Absolutely that would contribute.

    So now you have 3 conditions, all of which affect either the perceived accuracy or the quality of the cluster by Google. So there are 4 things that “correlate” with the drop. Which one or ones explain it? Pick one or more but none should be the citation creation. I happen to think that it was a combination of the pin, the dupe removal and the spam (why spam now and now before? because the reverification precipitated a new look see at the listing).

    Once all are corrected (ie spam fixed, listings merged and reverified with Pin) it will then be 1-8 weeks (we don’t know where we are in the cluster data cycle) from the last event for the cluster to reassume it’s “natural” spot. If the rebuild of the index just occurred then it will be on the longer side, if the rebuild was 5 weeks ago and it occurs on Monday, then you can see a rebound then.

    Only choice is to add 6 weeks to the date of last action and wait and see.

  39. @Abby said: “then he removed the suite number off of the address line 2 and put it on address line 1.”

    Abby there are several reports in the Google forum of folks having a serious drop when they change Suite from line 1 to line 2. And that’s changing it in the RIGHT direction – to comply with guidelines.

    Your clients change is in violation of the guidelines. My guess is that listings that have always had suite on line one are not penalized for the new guideline that says suite must go on line 2. But if you move it from line 2 to 1 maybe there would be.

    But again in the cases above, they moved suite in the right direction, but just moving suite was enough to cause a ranking drop. (And caused lost reviews too.)

    Here’s one guy, that like your client moved Suite from line 2 to line 1 and dropped from page 1 to page 4. (But he has other problems that could have contributed as well, including another violation.)
    (There’s a typo in that post. He said moved from line 1 to 1. I researched to see which way he actually changed it and he meant moved from line 2 to 1.)

  40. Mike – I was trying to get the point across that since we see and manage so many listings that we are able to see things that “fix” or help a listing. And this information is valuable to your followers.

    I wont mention our service again….

  41. Super post & comments! There is a wealth of info here, real world tips from the trenches… love the dialogue Mike: everything a great blog post should be. Thanks to all who contributed :-)

  42. Mike, as are at 30 days today from the time you said something was changed on mapmaker, but we are not at 40 days exactly from the time our clients local listing flat lined, the one and only thing that was done was citations built.

    and the only other thing that was done was changing the ste: to # like all the other citations had and have on them, so once we did that it asked for the post card pin to be sent out, and soon as we changed that we got ranking back, then as soon as we put the pin in, we lost all rankings again..

    see this link image to see the flat line starting times.

    http://sespot.com/flatlined.JPG
    AUG 14TH Flat lined
    SEPT 7th got our rankings back when we changed the STE to #815
    SEPT 10th got the postcard pin confirmed it
    SEPT 11th LOST ALL RANKINGS SINCE…

    Just trying to grasp that these little things could upset google that much to wipe him off the places area.

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