The History and Value of Citations, or Citations are Dead, Long Live the Citation

David: Mike, hope you had a fun and productive MozCon last week and a smoother trip home than our friend and your GatherUp colleague Aaron Weiche.

Mike: Before Moz, Dar and I kayaked in the San Juans for four days, camping. That was the first time I had been cell-free for quite some time. And yes, MozCon was very productive. It’s amazing how tiring staffing a booth for three days can be, but it was worth it. 

David: I’m sure plenty of attendees were dying to speak with Professor Maps himself, so I can imagine you were busy! Is your arm worn out from signing all the autographs?

Mike: Very funny. I was the “cheesecake” at the booth. How times have changed.

One of the things that struck me while at the various lunch tables was how many folks still thought that Local Citations was an SEO tactic that could influence rank. In some ways, your and my early work on citations was incredible but, like all things, their sell-by date has passed and it’s time to bury them or at least reposition the idea and remove the snake oil. 

David: Sadly, that’s been my experience as well. It feels like a lot of the information (still) circulating around the local search world is stuff that you and I wrote 6-8 years ago, an epoch ago in our business.

Mike: Absolutely, and too many companies are still selling NAP consistency as the be-all and end-all in terms of determining rank. 

David: I can empathize with the lead time needed to build an agency business process around an SEO tactic — let alone build a software business — perhaps as well as anyone. 

But as I said at Local U Advanced four years ago, I fear that the primary reason agencies are still selling NAP consistency is that it’s relatively easy to fulfill. NAP consistency as an SEO tactic makes great sense for the agency (or software company) but no longer for the average local business or even enterprise brand.

Mike: As Darren Shaw noted in his research at Mozcon, while reviews, links, and decent websites mattered, citations had little to no impact.

David: Even viewed from afar and after the fact, it was a terrific presentation. 

Agencies should realize that Darren himself is repositioning Whitespark to focus much more around Google My Business and customer feedback management as opposed to a primary focus on citations. 

That’s a very smart pivot on his part; at ThriveHive, we believe the Local SEO conversation should start with GMB and reputation as well.

Mike: For many business types, Google is the most visible representation of their brand, so I am glad to see providers catering to smaller businesses with a Google-focused product.

David: The reality is that Google has become far more dominant than when you and I published most of the articles that too many people are still relying on, and the way that Google generates its local results has radically changed since then as well.

There was a time when higher-visibility platforms like Yellowpages.com, Foursquare, and Yahoo all delivered a meaningful percentage of customers. Those days are long gone.

Mike: Darren highlighted in his presentation that 100% of the calls from these many directories were sales calls pitching the business and generated not one lead. 

AND they had zero impact on ranking at Google, even for a totally new business.  

Regardless of your stance on anti-trust, Google has come to be the main local resource delivering local leads. 

David: That’s certainly my experience. Setting aside the fact that the vast majority of calls you receive from non-Google directories are from salespeople, if you’re paying for an expensive citation service with analytics, compare the non-Google numbers to your GMB Insights. It’s going to be a drop in the bucket.

It’s time that every brand, regardless of size, ask itself whether going beyond Google, Facebook, and maybe Yelp is worth paying any premium. 

If a tree falls in the citation forest and no customers are there to see it, not only does it not make a sound, but Google doesn’t care that it fell.

Mike: Not only is Google the most dominant in terms of customer eyeballs, making many citation sites irrelevant, but their Knowledge Graph architecture removes much of the need for citation consistency that existed in the time when you and I were researching Google’s ranking factors for local. 

Historically (2005-2011) Google would scrape the web and re-assemble the world of business listings for local every six weeks. Even small discrepancies in NAP could cause problems and the whole idea of NAP consistency was to keep your local data cluster from getting messed up. But with the Knowledge Graph, once Google has an authoritative record from the business via GMB, it takes a lot to confuse the graph, making NAP consistency much less of an issue. 

David: I’d add via the business’s own website as well as GMB, but your point is well-made and well-taken.

Mike: You are certainly right on the website point—for Google, that IS the canonical source these days. I could imagine a business that changes hours often like a theme park might benefit from an automated tool that could easily change hours at Facebook, Google, Yelp, etc., but not much else.  

David: If you have the budget to update hours beyond those three sites, fine, but you’re better served putting those dollars into internal tooling to validate the accuracy of the data you’re sending to Google, Facebook, and Yelp.

A one-time clean-up of erroneous or out-of-date listings at those three sites is important, but I’m no longer convinced that bad listings from “trusted” sources will continue to surface, as you say, because of the maturity of the Knowledge Graph.

Mike: For most businesses, outside of Google, I would mostly worry about the information being right on directional queries that are generated by Apple Maps, Uber, Lyft, and the car GPS’s, like Here and TomTom. If you do that, customers, having decided to come, can get to your business easily. A lot of that data is still provided by Foursquare, so they might be a place you would want your listings accurate. And all of that is a one-and-done on a location basis with no need for a recurring fee or activity. 

David: In terms of citations, Google’s gotten so good at associating brand mentions in its Knowledge Graph, it seems to me that unstructured citations — more akin to traditional PR — are a far better investment for businesses of all sizes who are looking to influence Google’s view of their brand prominence.

Mike: We have certainly learned that a “citation” without a link in the NY Times or the Wall Street Journal can certainly move the needle. But that has more to do with the authority of those pages and the engagement of readership than the traditional idea of a citation as you and I historically defined them. 

Next week we should have a funeral, and invite the SEO industry, to celebrate the death of the citation. And see if we can convince them all to stop selling the service through FUD.

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After more than a decade in local search, David Mihm now serves as VP of Product Strategy at ThriveHive, leading the direction of the company’s search-related product offerings. He’s also the Founder & CEO of Tidings, an email newsletter platform for small businesses that leverages their everyday social media activity, and his own weekly newsletters, Minutive and the Agency Insider.  He’s the former founder of GetListed.org, Director of Local Strategy at Moz, and along with Mike, he’s a co-founder of Local University.

Mike Blumenthal is a co-founder of GatherUp, a feedback and reputation platform, and LocalU, which provides small business and agency training in sustainable local search marketing. His motto: All Local All the Time. He writes at his blog and does a twice-a-week podcast about Local marketing. 

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Got an idea for what you want Mike and David to discuss next time? Send it to either davidmihm@gmail.com or mike@gatherup.com, or just leave a comment below and we’ll put it in the hopper!

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