The Price of Free Listings Revisited: A Hyperlocal Business Perspective

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In a recent article, Andrew Shotland detailed some of the issues and opportunities associated with citations (better known as NAP — name, address, and phone number — data) across online directory sites. His piece prompted me to share a different take, one that comes more from the hyperlocal business perspective.

First, there is a big difference between managing citations for a local business vs. a large, multi-location brand. Nearly 85 percent of all businesses serve a local market. Before the advent of citations, these business owners simply added their information to the Yellow Pages, their biggest decision being whether or not to take out a standard listing or pay for a larger one. Once the Yellow Pages broke up and companies such as Infogroup, Acxiom, and Localeze began offering online citation services, the local business owner’s life got infinitely harder.

As Andrew mentioned, it became conventional wisdom that having “clean” citations was a major factor in SEO rankings. On one hand, this opened the door for companies such as Yext, UBL, Moz, and others to introduce innovative new products. On the other, it enabled scores of new entrants to create online directories, hoping to “cash in” on the SEO gravy train. One side apparently fed the other: As more directories popped up, the citations managers had more sites for which they could offer to clean data. This also allowed agencies to offer SEO services, by which they would manually feed the aggregators and popular directory sites with information from their clients.

Sadly, these interrelated developments have made the citations space much more complicated for hyperlocal business owners, with discernible fallout in the following areas:

  1. The large aggregators (Infogroup, Acxiom, Neustar Localeze, and now Factual) are inundated with citation updates from agencies, SEO practitioners, and self-service tools. They have to employ sophisticated algorithms to determine what information is indeed “correct.” If small business owners want to update their own records, their additions get included in the algorithm, with no guarantee that even their own changes will be accepted as authoritative. Also, given the time and effort involved in updating just these few aggregators, most small business owners leave this task to their marketing or SEO partners. As a result, the only stakeholders that truly know what information is authentic often are left out of the conversation.

  2. The aggregators feed many of the online directory sites. They are the “source” for most of the information that gets distributed, so they are the sites that business owners should care about the most. Unfortunately, the “lock” that Yext offers to put on directory sites does not apply to the large aggregators or popular directories. Plus, sites like Moz Local, which have focused heavily on feeding correct information to the large aggregators and popular directory sites, consistently come up with missing listings and incorrect data. In our experience, the large aggregators can’t rely on any single source, so their algorithms make decisions independent of the citation services. Without passing judgment on the value of any of these services, it’s clear that no matter whom you pay to “clean up” your citations, there is no guarantee it will all get done, and it’s nearly certain that over time something will “break” in your listings.

  3. Most of the online directory sites today are relatively stagnant, with little going on other than business’ NAP listings. What’s more, many directory sites only will take NAP data from Yext as their authoritative source, and Yext pays these sites to take its data. Yahoo recently punted on directly managing directory listings and now is only accepting listings from Yext, which shows how widespread this practice has become. Directory sites that strive to be authoritative or that have meaningful activity would never rely on a single third-party provider for NAP data. Ironically, then, Yext likely is helping keep these directory wastelands alive since it pays them to feed their 100,000+ listings.

The entire industry niche is trying to solve a problem that the business owner never had until hundreds of independent directories started popping up and somebody decided that businesses needed to make sure their listings were correct on all of them. I agree with Andrew that marketing professionals can be quite helpful to multi-location businesses, since their citations-related issues are significant and complicated. But independent business owners, who make up a large percentage of US-based businesses, are getting stuck in the citations crossfire. This is not an area on which hyperlocal businesses should have to spend time and resources simply to maintain their online presence.

Scott BarnettScott Barnett is a serial entrepreneur with 25+ years experience in software development, product management, sales, and marketing. He is currently founder of Bizyhood, a startup focused on content distribution and engagement tools for local publishers and businesses.