Local Search: Understanding ‘Citations’ to Improve Rankings
Citations are the equivalent to links in optimizing businesses for local search rankings. Much like how Google founded its initial search engine upon the thesis that a popularity score could be developed by analyzing how documents refer to one another, “citations” in local search are a way of identifying documents that refer to a place, such as a business.
Google classifies local ranking signals into three broad areas: “Relevance,” “Prominence,” and “Distance” — see Google’s explanation, “How Local Search Ranking Works.” Citations fall under the category of “Prominence,” primarily. Citations could also be called “mentions” — the more mentions there are of your business on the net where Google might read them, the more popular your business could be assumed to be. There’s also an element of trustworthiness involved, too. If more authoritative sites mention your business, Google and other search engines will have a greater degree of trust and assurance that it’s likely a real business and not a sham listing.
So, what are citations in the local search context comprised of?
According to one of Google’s relevant patent applications, “Authoritative document identification,” issued in 2006:
“…Documents may be analyzed to determine the locations with which they are associated. For example, assume that the documents relate to the same location. Each of the documents in a set may refer in some way to the location. For example, a document may mention a business at the location, the address of the business, and/or a telephone number associated with the business….”
From this we can derive the following things might be considered to be citations.
- Mentions of the business name, particularly along with the address or phone number.
- Mentions of just the business’s street address.
- Mentions of just the business’s phone number.
- Perhaps even mentions of the business’s geocoordinates — longitude/latitude combinations which fall within the property footprint or within a short range of the centroid of the property.
It can even be construed that just the mention of a local business’s URL, without being linked, could be used as a citation — Google’s patent doesn’t necessarily limit local places to being solely identified by addresses and phone numbers — any unique identifier which Google can associate with a local business might also be used as a citation. But, in the majority of cases, a local citation will involve the street address and/or phone number.
In an ideal world, all businesses would be represented in all of the appropriate business directories and local search engines where consumers are searching to find local products and services. But, this doesn’t happen in a vacuum. A handful of businesses called “data aggregators” — such as Universal Business Listing (a company I consult with), Localeze, and Infogroup’s Express Update — research and compile databases of business listings. They obtain this information in various ways, such as by obtaining feeds of business listings from phone companies, self-disclosure, business registrations from local tax authorities, and obtaining databases from other companies that are frequented by new businesses as they set up shop — such as business card printers. Aggregators then supply their business listings to various sites, such as yellow pages companies, local search engines, social media sites, mobile apps, and social media sites, which then publish them.
Once business listings are published on various websites — yellow pages, business directories, check-in app websites, social media sites (such as Facebook) — local search engines including Google may crawl those sites and associate pages where businesses are mentioned with the business’s entry in their index. As you can tell from Google’s patent, each time its crawler discovers a business’s listing data, Google may interpret this as a citation and count the mention towards the business’s overall popularity score.
Established businesses need to periodically check their listings on many sites to ensure that the information remains correct and updated with any recent developments. In many cases, information can become corrupted and may need to be corrected to make sure that Google’s algorithms interpret it correctly. Practices such as using a different tracking phone number for every directory can result in Google and other local search engine developing needless duplicate listings, which can cause one’s ranking score to become diluted.
New businesses need to get their listing data published in as many directories as possible to help obtain enough citations to rank well among their local competitors.
It is possible to audit and add/update business listing data by hand in each online directory website, but the process is extremely time-consuming. I have done this for some clients in the past, and even for a business with only a single location, the process is so labor-intensive and time-consuming that I consider it nearly infeasible.
Instead of handcrafting your business’s listing information in dozens of top directories, I suggest that you turn the activity over to one of the top aggregators and have your data added or updated uniformly across many dozens of directories, automatically. Data aggregators typically have much wider reach into more sites than what you’ll achieve by hand, and will remove the drudgery involved.
It will take weeks to months for aggregators to typically get data distributed — each publisher and local search engine has differing database update schedules, so it can take a while before a change is reflected. It takes even longer before the new citations might influence search rankings, since Googlebot must have sufficient opportunity to crawl the entire sites of publishers after they’ve begun to display the new data.
You can attempt to add or update your business’s listing information by hand, directory site after directory site, but you’ll likely experience too much fatigue before you’ve developed sufficient numbers of citations. It makes much better sense to contract with an aggregator/distributor service, get the listings deployed out there more rapidly, and then begin benefiting from conversions sooner.
Having a wide variety of citations for your local business is highly advantageous for referrals from each site where you may be listed, as well as for helping to augment your local search rankings. Data aggregators may be your key for getting more customers sooner.