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.