Will Citations Stop Being Effective for Local Optimization in the Future?

Darren Shaw, creator of the Local Citation Finder, recently asked me this great question (I seem to be getting a few of these lately) via email:

I’ve heard people talking about how citations might not be a valuable ranking factor in the future. What do you think? Will they stop being effective for local optimization in the future?

Google’s local search algo is a complex multivariate, bi-modal algorithm that is continually evolving.  Thus predicting the future for any Google process is likely a fool’s errand. That being said, I will take the bait.

It might be better to ask what is the role of citations  in the current state of affairs and given how it is interwoven into the algo how it is it likely to change.

Google works at scale. In the case of local search, world wide scale. Any local algo needs to account for the great variation in information available and yet still be able to effectively rank businesses in any given market based on some sort of virtual proxy for business prominence. This has always been the case with the local algo and that is not likely to change.

Imagine if you will what Google can learn about a shoemaker in Kazakhstan versus a famous restaurant in Paris. Or closer to home what Google can see about a single plumber with no website in Utica, NY versus the Plaza Hotel in NYC. One has some entries in the yellow pages and the other has thousands of reviews, links, a complex website with a ton of information and an entry on Wikipedia. On the one hand there is little more than a few citation references and the other there is a trove of online information that can be mined.

This data set does not just change across industries and regions but over time as well. Businesses that were not web savvy in 2005 when the basic local algo was released have become so now. The ranking system needs to be flexible enough to deal with these spatial and temporal changes.

When you read Google’s Location Prominence and Local Authority patents you see different types of citations mentioned; everything from a basic listing at a reputable site to a link on the brand name. And you also see that Google will mine whatever data is available whether they need to buy a list from InfoUSA or scrape a local directory.

In 2008 when a number of us explored correlation with ranking we found the impact of citations and reviews to diminish in importance as a ranking factor as we explored markets that were more competitive and had more web based data available. In 2012 we still see that a solid, consistent citations effort can effectively improve the standing of a listing.  But we also saw the rollout of Venice in 2012 where Google acknowledged that traditional web signals would play an increasing role in the ranking of local results.

The outcome of that? To be ranked in the top third of local results a business has to do well with both web prominence AND location prominence. But even now you can see pinned listings in the lower 2/3’d of the blended local results that have no effective web presence and whose ranking is predicated on location prominence and nothing more than a lot of citations.

The algo has been dynamic and adaptive. It is a mistake to view any single ranking factor in isolation from all the others that we know (and don’t know) about. Citations are playing less of a role now because Google is able to get more and more signals about many businesses in other ways NOT because it has diminished importance in the algo. But we are also seeing the introductions of new signals like web prominence.

Given that there will be situations like the plumber in Utica and the shoemaker in Kazakhstan for years to come, it seems likely that citations as we have known them will continue to play a role.

I think that near future will look very similar to the recent past. In those geographies, industries and markets where things are getting more competitive citations will have less of an impact in and of themselves on ranking. In those instances where signals are thin and there is little for Google to go on, they will continue to play a significant role. We need to view them as a variable in an ever changing landscape.

The question that was asked was very narrowly framed. The reality is that citations have never been a stand alone tactic but were always best approached as part of a broad, holistic plan to make a brand more prominent on the web. That too will likely remain the same for some time to come.

Please consider leaving a comment as your input will help me (& everyone else) better understand and learn about local.
Will Citations Stop Being Effective for Local Optimization in the Future? by

22 thoughts on “Will Citations Stop Being Effective for Local Optimization in the Future?”

  1. My inner Spock says “fascinating.”

    I’ve wondered the same question myself a couple times but – like you – haven’t thought it likely that citations are going to be come significantly more or less important.

    If someone tried to convince me that “citations will be dead” (kind of like how SEO is “dead”), I’d ask: what would replace citations? Most businesses in Google’s local database don’t even have sites, so to say “Oh, it’ll just be website signals” seems far-fetched (if someone were to make that case). I don’t know if you’ve heard any thoughts from people as to what, specifically, would replace citations (particularly as a source of NAP info).

    As you say, the algo is “dynamic and adaptive.” Even if the importance of citations diminished in less- to moderately competitive markets, there’s nothing to say that citations wouldn’t come return as a major ranking factor. I just don’t see how they could be going anywhere.

    Thanks for posting this, Mike. Very interesting conversation.

  2. Obviously I, like you, think citations have some legs. But in a wired, mobile world I can imagine prominence signals that don’t require NAP existing on the web per se. Some are less futuristic then others, some are occuring now and some in the likely near future .

    In a broad sense transactional, locational and social signals could be proxies for a business prominence and would not need NAP but would need some other way of being tied to the location.

    – pre- transactional data from reservations & bookings
    – Driving directions
    – transactional data from Wallet, Offers
    – post transactional data from the likes of PunchD, Talkbin etc
    – social signals like check-ins, followers, engagement etc
    – locational information via cell phone that you entered a physical location

    I don’t think that these signals are in widespread but I could envision a future where the signals that Google has access to in order to assess prominence are not NAP based. But even then in certain geographies and industries NAP citations will play a role.

  3. Taking a slight departure from the topic at hand, I have several questions related to citations. I have several clients that have moved their business locations in the past year and where their new locations are only several miles from the previous address and still within close proximity to city centroid. Where both had top rankings in the highest volume category searches, they have now incurred significant loss of rank. What I have discovered is that both listings have lost the majority of citations associated with their respective business. So my question is, do you believe these citations will “re-associate” with the new NAP over time or are they lost forever? Since these businesses are the in-home service sector, the impact has been nothing short of devastating to lead generation. This issue has also plagued another business who had the unfortunate experience of the duplicate / merge data bug. Thoughts?

  4. @Jim

    In 2008 I wrote an An Internet Change of Address Guide where I noted that I would strongly suggest that you scour the internet for your old address and phone number and start the Internet Change of Address Niggle Trauma (ICANT). Your old address/phone is embedded in the ether in a way that makes permanently changing it a task for the Gods and not mere mortals.

    Despite the many changes in technology since 2008, this is one thing that has not changed.

    A citation is only able to associate with the cluster of data that Google has about a business if the NAP information in the citation matches the NAP data of the listing.

    Moving or changing a phone number essentially forces a business to “start over” in the eyes of Google. The algo is not good at all at realizing that the moved business is the same as the old business just at a new location. You can see this by Google’s recommendation that the old location be marked as closed.

    The only way that the older citations with wrong data can once again be associated is if the data is changed to reflect the new data. This is a long slog and requires that you touch nearly every citation that you can find that is in Google’s index.

  5. @Jim – a note of hope… I had a client in Vancouver who was always in the top 3 of Local results change their phone number, yikes! We discussed porting it, but they reported they had to move to a different telephone provider and there was no way to port the number? Anyway, they went from a top spot to #225 for their main keywords in Local (organic remained strong). I went about changing as many of the old citations as I could to the new number and left the scraped ones and others I couldn’t control alone. I created a few new listings as well. I updated the website and added some micro data to boot. Of course I made sure the most important sources were changed asap (YPG etc.). Within 3 months they were back in the top 3 and are still there today. Whew!

  6. Mike:

    So if I can recap this for the lay person:) For the small business owner the bottom line is this. Citations are just one piece of the local SEO puzzle. You should neither rely on them 100%, nor should you ignore them 100%. It’s just one of many things EVERY business should do – period.

    Citations may or may not give your rankings a boost. It will depend on the market you’re in and how competitive it is. And by competitive, I mean how web-savvy it is. If you run a snow removal business in a small town of 20,000, a basic website and citations alone will probably be enough. Heck, you may not even need a website as your Google+ Local page will probably suffice. However, if you’re a DUI lawyer in New York City, then a website, Google+ Local, citations, reviews, etc. etc. will be required.

    Travis Van Slooten

  7. From an organic perspective, many links are dramatically less effective than they once were.

    I had a similar situation as Jim and a similar outcome as Andy. Rebuilding the citation volume for a relocated smb is critical. To that extent it suggests that in the near past and currently citations are very important.

    Ah…google’s algo’s down the line. who the hell knows. I’d suggest to google that before they change everything again and again and again…fix the stuff internally that has created consistent problems since you first exported G Maps into the Google.com index.

  8. @Travis

    That essentially sums it up… I would add a point that Darren and I spoke of in our correspondence. Even in competitive markets it is necessary to be on at least equal footing with the leaders citation wise.

  9. Very well written. And very good question. I did a blog on this a year ago because so many businesses seemed to be obsessed with citations.

    We haven’t used any citations for web visibility in over a year, and have continued to see great results using holistic, intuitive SEO.

    I should note, viewing a citation opportunity as one would a back link opportunity makes it all work and leads to the addition of a few high authority links that you would call a citation link.

  10. Beautifully said, Mike. Wow.

    I remind my local business clients of how to avoid getting eaten when your camp group is being chased by a bear. All you need is to be one step ahead of the last person. Likewise, I tell them, you only need to be one step ahead of the competition. So if all your competition is doing is getting local citations, and that is all Google has to rate them, that may mean you only need more or one better citation. This comes as a relief because so many have little time and less money.

    But I also remind them not to be foolish. While you don’t have to go overboard (unless your competition is), if you run too slow, or God forbid, you stop running altogether, that bear could take you down.

    I like to think of citations as running shoes. They may put you in the race, but I’d rather put my energies into building strength and stamina that will last the long haul.

  11. @Kathy

    I LOVE the camp bear reference.

    I agree with you.

    But for some customers there are citation building efforts that reflect their business model and can be sustained over the long haul to increase prominence…. An example of that is a business that holds periodic events. There are many, many event sites in most cities. Some of those don’t ever remove old events from their database. They could become an ongoing, slow and steady opportunity to build citations.

  12. Thanks for popping up the question Mike!
    I think Local SEO should be seen from a holistic perspective. Citations are important but when combined with other elements that are also part of Local SEO.

  13. For my part, I think citations are playing role of directories in standard SEO where Google had to figure out how popular was a website by crawling numerous directories even the worst. Over time, Google could have enough trustable signals that it devaluated the links from these directories and switched to only site endorsment as a real signal. So we can expect at least Google will keep looking into great places for citations such like IYPs and Reviews sites but will no more pay attention to a simple entry on poor local directory that doesn’t offer any added value to business.

  14. Kathy love your whole reply, that was AWESOME! (I may quote you on that!) 😉

    My view on citations is this. Citations don’t directly impact the blended algo and it’s the Blended algo that shows up most of the time for CORE KW now. The Blended algo is mainly about organic factors. So if the business already is sitting on a sound foundation of trust because it already has good citations, then ADDING more citations won’t necessarily move the ranking needle.

    HOWEVER, if that solid foundation of trust (with existing citations is rocked) let’s say the business moves and there are NO citations at the new location, then the ranking would drop until citations are re-built. (At least that’s my theory.)

    So bottom line I agree citations are important and overall a part of the local ecosystem and will continue to be. BUT if a business already has a solid foundation of citations (and the established trust that gives) then adding more, isn’t going to move the needle like it did in the old days with the pack algo.

    So that’s why I shifted my energy away from citation building a long time ago. When I still worked on clients, all my Dentists had mature practices. They already had PLENTY of citations. So I shifted my energy to on-site SEO where I could almost always get a 10 spot ranking boost or more, right away. Just from some specific on-site SEO techniques. In blended, no way more citations is going to give a 10 spot jump.

  15. Mike,

    This is likely your best article to date. Fantastic assessment. Let’s blow off the dust our marketing books and look up Marketing Mix.

    At the end of the day, it’s about a variance of quality marketing messages adding value to prospects, customers and an industry at large, distributed in areas that this audience participates in.

    Thanks man! This one I’m sharing 🙂

  16. Mike,

    “Moving or changing a phone number essentially forces a business to “start over” in the eyes of Google. The algo is not good at all at realizing that the moved business is the same as the old business just at a new location. You can see this by Google’s recommendation that the old location be marked as closed.”

    This is HUGE problem and GOogle should offer some kind of 301 redirect rule option for address changes, where you can login into Google webmaster and/or Google Places and be able to take your old address & phone (if changed) and tell this is the new address, etc. Then all mentions of your old address get credited to your new address.

    Maybe in my dreams. 😉

    On the note of citations and if they help rankings…. Hell yeah they do. Ever do a backlink report on some local competitors and find they have barely any backlinks… how the hell are they ranking so well? Citations and not really always full citations. It’s usually just mentions of their DBA.

    Just do a search of their DBA in quotes -theirdomain.com and you’ll see all their mentions and I bet they have a crap load of them.

    Citations work. They work in both blended and pure search results. Especially if you focus on niche related stuff and local city stuff. I think they also count the age of citations too.

    You can get a business that is aged and aged citations and barely no links and it’s hard to out rank them…. even when getting citations and links. It’s usually due the age.

    I also find it’s much tougher to rank new GP local listings now. Used to be able to optimize one in a low competition arena and with some simple onpage optimization and few citations…. it’d rank. I think age is a much larger factor then we may notice.

    Go ahead and build a whack of new citations for an aged listing vs doing it to a brand new listing and you’ll see the difference quickly.

  17. Matt,

    I completely agree with you and Mike. When doing a search in most areas, the local businesses ranking for core keywords are almost always listed A-G based on the age of the business (or age relative to how long their business information has been on the internet). I use a simple whois search to get a very general idea of how long they have been around and maybe look at their reviews to see when they first started to appear. Like clockwork, the oldest businesses usually rank first and you can follow the same line of thinking on down.

  18. This is a really good post. Google made it a lot harder to spam Places, by letting the traditional organic algo to play more prominence, coupled with branded and partial branded signals, in order to rank. I am seeing it everywhere. It looks like those in tune with Penguin, will also be able to perform well due to having a higher level of naked and branded anchors. But all things being equal, the more prominent site will still need those citations from relevant, trusted sites. Now I understand why one site is better than several local sites with exact match geo/anchor domains. Did I miss anything? I am going to share this with the Circle or Legal Trust today. Thanks Mike!

  19. @ Mike

    Great topic and interesting question from Darren. Though it’s funny it wasn’t that long ago that Google displayed local results based on your proximity to the center of the city.

    My feeling is that citations will continue to play an important role in local listings for a while. The harder a citation is to get, typically the more weight it has and the harder it will be to “fake”.

    As you mentioned before, a balanced holistic approach is the key.

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