Image credit: Loren Javier
It’s a whale of a question: Does citation management still matter in the grand scheme of local SEO? Our industry has been trying to gauge which way the wind is blowing on this subject for years now, and I’ve been professionally frustrated by a lack of large-scale studies to inform my own take.
SEOs live through ongoing cycles of one formerly-favorite tactic or another being proclaimed “dead”, whether that’s link building, guest posting, or search engine optimization, itself. The reality, we come to realize, is much more nuanced than the headlines. I wanted more than my own anecdotal opinion as to how location data distribution and management correlate with shifts in visibility and engagement, and was gratified when discussions with Uberall helped spark a major study with real numbers.
Today, I’ll share the results of this study which interested me most in hopes of offering a data-based answer as to whether citations still matter, as well as whether the local businesses you market should be paying for ongoing local business listing management services.
Useful context for the citation question
Professionals say citations are a piece of the pie
A structured citation is an online listing of a local business on a platform that exists to publish this type of information. The above screenshot shows a structured citation for a restaurant on Yelp, containing basic contact data for the eatery, as well as a variety of other enrichments such as ratings, reviews, and images.
A decade ago, citations were widely considered to be a top local search ranking factor. Over the past eight years, however, as perceptions of the influence of organic factors and Google’s reliance on its own location and reputation data have grown, experts are cutting citations a smaller piece of the pie. For example, the 2020 Local Search Ranking Factors Survey allots a 7% slice to citations amongst the seven most important types of local pack influences. It’s still a good-sized serving of a dish no local business can pass up; it’s just not as super-sized as it used to be, according to respondents.
Google says it relies on directories to understand prominence
Now that we’ve listened to opinions from people like me who participate in these kinds of ongoing surveys, the next thing we have to check is what Google says about directory citations:
In its article on How to Improve Your Local Ranking on Google, directories are transparently listed as a source from which Google derives its sense of how well-known a business is (a characteristic called “prominence”). Prominence, proximity, and distance are the three types of factors Google tells us it takes into account when ranking local businesses. In short, Google says citations matter.
Google continues to tell us it looks at third parties for information
This experimental text regarding reviews from third parties was recently reported at the Sterling Sky Local Search Forum. It’s part and parcel of Google’s ongoing testing of different displays of reviews from non-Google sources. It’s also of a piece with Google’s long standing crawl of third party platforms and directories for the information it includes in the Web Results section of local business listings:
Though the ramparts of Google’s walled garden are always getting higher, it’s clear that they are still pulling in information from third parties.
But where’s the data?
Anecdotal experience is useful, and Google’s hints are informative, but SEO is at its best when it’s data-based. I longed to see a big before-and-after study of what happens to visibility and engagement when location data is distributed across a network of directories, platforms and apps, and this is what Uberall delivered.
The study looked at thousands of small and enterprise business locations across the US and Europe, and tracked the results of pushing data out to just the “big 4” platforms (Google, Apple, Facebook and Bing) vs. distribution to these sources plus 10 or more directories.
The most difficult barrier to conducting a massive study like this is not being able to fully control the data set or environment, so do note that this report couldn’t weigh in on rankings prior to the study nor control what other SEO tactics all these brands might have been using during the period of analysis. It would be all but impossible to conduct an investigation on this scale in a vacuum, so take note that Moz always warns that correlation doesn’t equal causation. That being said, let’s look at the notable trends which access to this volume of data provided!
The data, or: why I’m not going to pass up the chance for a 91% increase in Maps Views
This chart comprises 6,000 total small business and enterprise locations in the US and Europe. In green, we have distribution to the big 4 platforms, and in red, the extraordinary difference in local pack visibility when local business data was pushed out beyond this to 10+ directories over the course of the 13-month testing period. Increased local pack visibility is defined not as the numeric rankings within a specific pack, but as the overall existence of a business in a greater number of packs. These double digit increases were recorded:
Direct search 89% — This is people searching for a business by name or address
Indirect search 77% — This is people discovering a business when searching by category, or for a product or service, rather than for a specific business by name
Search View 65%, — This is the number of times a listing was encountered via Google’s search services
Maps View91% — which is the number of times a listing was encountered via Google’s Maps services
Here is how these local visibility increases correlated with noteworthy growth for the 6,000 locations in the actions consumers can take on a listing — a metric we call “engagement”.
Given that these metrics fall at points in the consumer journey when a purchase is the next logical, and greatly desired, step, it’s exciting to see these figures associated with distribution to directories beyond the big four:
A 102% increase in requests for driving directions
A 13% increase in people clicking to call the business
An 87% increase in people clicking to visit the business’ website
Local business owners and marketers are generally perspiring hard to earn single digit increases in any metric because of how they can convert to sales. In some industries, just one extra lead can mean thousands, tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands in added revenue for the business. I honestly can’t think of any local business I’ve ever consulted with that wouldn’t jump at the chance for growth of the kind depicted by this study.
Finally, the third takeaway that interested me most is that there’s evidence of a sweet spot, for both enterprises and SMBs, in distributing to about 31-40 directories for optimum increases in total search volume. This test looked at 800 SMB and 6,000 enterprise locations. The average increase was between 55-58% with distribution of this kind. This indicates, then, that business owners don’t need to distribute their location data to hundreds of platforms. About three dozen will do.
The customers: why citation accuracy and consistency are basic to customer service
Now that we’ve established the data side of the equation, we need to think about the humans, because at the end of the day, it’s customer service that makes or breaks brands. In 2020, Moz found that 66% of local business owners and marketers listed conversions and revenue as their top priorities. When managed properly, citations are meant to be conversion and revenue engines. When neglected, though, opportunity can vanish.
Our peers at BrightLocal found that 85% of consumers encountered incorrect or incomplete information on business listings in 2021, that 81% visited a business that was listed as open on the web but that had actually closed due to the pandemic, and 63% said that incorrect listing information would prevent them from doing business with a brand. This is the overwhelming majority of human searchers having terrible customer experiences like driving to closed locations or calling old phone numbers. Then negative reviews like the one shown above result, degrading the overall rating of the business. If a pattern like this snowballs, the accumulation of low ratings can be enough to contribute to permanent business closure.
In sum, inaccurate data on a listing and incorrect data across multiple listings are significant barriers to offering the kind of trustworthy customer service that underpins profitability. My own takeaway is that, regardless of trending sentiment on the impact of citations on Google’s local business rankings, their impact on humans outweighs all other considerations.
There’s simply no gainsaying that shedding 63% of your potential customers and seeing your reputation and profits deteriorate is an acceptable loss from ignoring citation management.
So, should you be paying for citation management?
“If you’re worried that people might see the wrong name or phone number online, it might be a good idea to stomach the annual fee.” — Joy Hawkins, Sterling Sky
Who can you trust?
Moz sells a local business listing management product called Moz Local. Let’s face it — we have a vested interest in finding that it’s a useful business strategy to pay for help with location data distribution and stewardship, as do many of our peers who publish these kinds of studies and surveys about the role of citations in local search marketing.
What I’ve noticed is that brands which sell ongoing location data management services tend to feel their methodology is best, and those which vend one-and-done deals think their way is right. I personally think what matters is what works for the local businesses you are marketing, and again, I wanted to see an actual study about this rather than relying on my own opinion.
More real data, please!
I took notice when the independent local search marketing firm, Sterling Sky, (which doesn’t develop local business listings software) ran an experiment in which they cancelled an annual contract with a service that manages information on location data aggregators. While they saw no impact on rankings or links within the timeframe of the study, their number one finding was that their listings then became polluted with bad information, possibly stemming from government entities, utilities, and other offline sources.
Doubtless wisely seeing the looming threat of lost reputation and customers, Sterling Sky concluded that, for the sake of accuracy, ongoing management fees are a business expense you should likely plan for.
I’ll add that it’s important to remember that many citations, including Google My Business listings, are basically open-source. It’s not just a case of large data aggregators pulling in information from government records. Any member of the public, including competitors and spammers, can suggest inaccurate edits to your live listings, and the brands you market need to know when this happens so that you can take action to maximize damage control.
Will you take a DIY, one-and-done, or always-on approach to your listings?
I was recently at a virtual conference at which reps from two citation services companies agreed that no one seems to question that multi-location businesses need help controlling their listings because manual management just doesn’t scale. Instead, questions about value tend to arise for smaller brands with just one or two physical locations. Should these local business types be paying for help with location data distribution and management?
My heart is always with the independent local SMB, so I’ve seriously pondered this question for the past several years and this is what I’ve concluded:
I do consider it quite possible to build citations manually but managing them is another story. If 31-40 citations is the sweet spot found in the Uberall study to see maximum ROI, that’s going to involve substantial work just in terms of submitting data and keeping track of where you submitted it. And then you’re left with a big spreadsheet of platforms you’ll have to return to any time something changes at the business or you need to refresh content for seasonal purchase, or for the never-ending work of review management.
I don’t consider citations to be one-and-done. The COVID-19 pandemic proved the exact opposite, with nearly every local business in my town having to adjust their hours of operation, rapidly distribute information about changed conditions, and post temporary or permanent closures. The person with the manual spreadsheet was in a real fix in this scenario and the person who paid for a one-off citation building service found that it wasn’t truly one-and-done and that they’d have to pay the provider again to update their listings. Meanwhile, a business with an always-on product like Moz Local was able to take a couple of minutes one morning to edit their record in one place to have these changes distributed everywhere.
I can’t overlook the review aspects of citation management that make a central dashboard for management so valuable. I’ve seen it questioned, even in the midst of the life-altering pandemic, that small business data changes too infrequently to warrant an annual subscription to location data distribution software, but I’ve never seen a marketer promote a hands-off approach to reviews. They come in constantly and require immediate responses, day-in-day-out. If your software bundles location data and review management into a dashboard, your life as an SMB owner or marketer will be so much easier.
Given these three factors, my advice for SMBs would be two-fold:
Whenever possible, consider citation management a necessary business expense. Given the actual data we’ve looked at today and the wisdom of putting customer service at the center of your marketing plan, this is an investment you should make if you can afford to.
If you just can’t budget for an on-going subscription right now and have to handle your local business listings manually, block out the time on your calendar to build your Google My Business listing and citations on, perhaps, the top 10 directories that rank for your brand name and your core business categories. Keep track of them in a spreadsheet and build into your daily calendar a check across these platforms for new reviews, and a weekly check across your listings for accuracy. Invest your time this way until you can invest in wider distribution and the ease of single-dashboard management. Be cautious about one-and-done offers, because, as we’ve seen in multiple studies today and in real life, changes in society, business data, and incoming reviews make a myth of the idea of set-and-forget listings.
There is a right path for you, one that ensures you are meeting customers’ expectations for accuracy and building visibility commensurate with your marketing budget, and I hope the studies we’ve looked at today will help you make an informed choice that will work for you in the new year.