Channels Are the New Citations

Given that I’ve been around in the listing management space for about 12 years now, I can say with some confidence that we are entering Phase Three in the evolution of listing management strategies. This is not news. It’s been a slow, steady march for several years, and to a great extent the changes I want to describe here have been happening in front of us and have already long since altered the way we talk about local, the advice we give to clients, and the strategies we implement in local listing campaigns.

Phase One: Data Aggregators and Structured Citations

What I’d call Phase One is more a relic of the distant past at this point, though some of its elements remain in place today. Back in the 2000s (roughly 2006-2010), before Google and other sites had really opened up to direct influence by business owners and companies working on their behalf, the recommended path to getting listed properly in local directories was to go through the data aggregators. These companies — at the time, Acxiom, Localeze, and Infogroup (or InfoUSA as they were known) were the primary candidates — licensed listing data directly to Google and other then-popular sites like Superpages, Mapquest, Citysearch, Yahoo Local, AOL Yellow Pages, YellowPages.com, and so on. 

At that time — before the rise of mobile, and before Google had started in earnest on its path toward zero-click local results and dominance over a large portion of the local marketplace — directories like Superpages and the like had a lot more power and authority. They generated their own direct consumer traffic, were well indexed in SERPs, and were used by Google to build its “local index,” a weekly ground-up reconstruction of the local listings dataset that relied heavily on the consistency of structured citations: business listings with consistent name, address, and phone number (NAP).

In short, the pitch to businesses in Phase One was to go through the data aggregators to the directories; this would get you listed everywhere that mattered and would help you rank well in Google local results. 

What’s a Citation?

Citations, in traditional SEO parlance, can be either structured or unstructured. A structured citation is more or less the same thing as a typical business listing or profile page. It usually contains labeled data elements that can be understood by a search engine as referring to the business’s official name, address, phone number, hours, website link, and other details. 

Structured citations had great value in the early days of listing management, because Google relied on them to help construct its own listings and to vet those listings for accuracy. You can roughly think of citations as “soft links” to a business entity, similar to the links to websites that formed the core of Google’s original PageRank algorithm, though citations may or may not actually contain hyperlinks. More loosely organized or “unstructured” citations were influential as well — things like newspaper articles or blog posts mentioning your business by name and perhaps referencing other identifiable details. Such mentions of your business may still be helpful in boosting your website’s organic ranking.

In this article, I’ll be distinguishing between citations and channels. I’m using the latter term to refer to larger streams of consumer activity, such as local search across Google properties, or the equivalent on Apple Maps or Facebook.

Phase Two: Listings Management and Google’s Growing Dominance

Phase Two, which I’d argue is the version of things we’re now in the process of moving beyond, began around 2010 when directories, in some ways led by Google, started opening up more and more to listing management. Google’s various local dashboards, culminating in today’s Google My Business interface, gradually (and not without numerous fits and starts) became more and more useful and businesses got more and more acclimated to the idea of managing their listings. Other directories opened up to direct claiming and management of listing content as well, and began adding features like review response to make listings more engaging for businesses and consumers alike.

In this Phase Two version of things, listing management companies said to businesses: Let us take care of the complexity of getting you listed on dozens, or hundreds, of sites and managing your Google presence. We’ll do this through direct feeds to publishers wherever possible, augmenting those direct relationships with indirect distribution via the data aggregators, which still offered an efficient means of broad distribution as well as a reinforcement of the primary feeds. The basic theory was the same — lots of consistent listings, many of them now managed directly, led to a strong presence where consumers were searching, as well as stronger Google ranking.

But as Phase Two evolved — let’s say from 2010 to 2018 — we saw many of these secondary directories begin to fall away, lose traffic, recede into the background, or disappear entirely. Anyone remember Kudzu, or Magic Yellow, or MojoPages? While competitors were disappearing, Google gained more local traffic and real estate in traditional desktop search. Meanwhile, we saw the explosive growth of social networking, smartphones, and smart speakers. Each of these developments opened up new channels for search, several of which existed not in a Google-centric universe but as alternative channels to Google.

Take three examples: Facebook, Apple Maps, and Uber. All three are heavily used today to discover, engage with, look up, and/or access local businesses. None is reliant on Google. For a local listing management strategy to succeed in a broad sense today, that strategy needs to pay attention to major channels of traffic and make sure one’s presence is optimized for all of them. Google still dominates, but it’s not the only important channel out there, nor do all rivers lead to it.

Phase Three: Channels Are the New Citations

Enter Phase Three. As my column’s title suggests, I would argue that the old concept of citation building has largely lost its relevance, and that thinking of the local network as a system of channels — parallel, somewhat independent sources of consumer traffic — is a more appropriate paradigm for where we are now. 

As discussions in Street Fight and elsewhere have made clear, many local SEOs are beginning to question the value of citation building in the traditional sense. As far back as the 2017 edition of the Local Search Ranking Factors report, Darren Shaw had already relegated citation building to a “foundational” rather than a “competitive” ranking factor, meaning that it helped ensure you would appear in search but didn’t especially boost your standing amongst competitors. 

More importantly, in recent years Google has shifted from the old “local index” model to the Knowledge Graph, and thousands of businesses, listing management providers, and Google users (especially Android users and Local Guides) are now actively contributing content to keep Google’s knowledge of businesses as entities current and up to date. Put simply, Google doesn’t need citations like it used to.

That doesn’t mean directory listings don’t matter, but they matter in a different way. Some of the more popular ones, like Yelp and TripAdvisor, continue to get independent traffic and to be well positioned in organic search results. But Yelp especially has an importance as a discrete channel that isn’t summed up just by its appearance in Google SERPs, as I’ll explain in more detail below.

In all, there are approximately 10 independent sites and site categories that together make up the primary channels where any business should be well represented in order to be competitive.

The Local Channels That Matter

Here’s a chart we’ve come up with at Brandify to explain the new concept. It’s inspired by the well-known Local Search Ecosystem chart (developed by David Mihm and inherited by Darren Shaw) that mapped relationships among aggregators, citation sites, and larger publishers. But the idea here is to focus on the primary channels businesses need to worry about, while referencing some of their important interrelationships and the secondary channels they influence. 

Hopefully it’s fairly clear how to read the chart, but just to be sure I’ll highlight a few of the important relationships depicted here. To begin with, you’ll see a Location Database at the center of this version of the local universe. Sometimes referred to as the “single source of truth,” this database contains all the information about your store, chain, or franchise that you need in order to fill out all relevant fields in all of the channels in the “primary” ring (shaded in green). It’s critical, especially for multi-location brands, to have a central repository of this information, fully cleansed, accurate, and up to date, so that every store location consistently syndicates correct information to every endpoint. 

On the primary ring are the channels that matter most for capturing attention from today’s consumers. You’ll notice that Google is the same size as every other primary channel. If we were depicting relative importance, Google would take up roughly half of the real estate in the entire chart. But that’s not the point — there’s a limit to the amount of energy and attention you can spend even on Google My Business, and if you neglect the other channels, you’ll be missing out on major sources of consumer traffic.

Those other channels include Yelp, which, as you can see from the arrows leading to the “secondary” ring (shaded in grey), feeds all the major voice search interfaces except Google Assistant, powering at least 99% of local listings and reviews on Amazon Alexa as well as reviews on Cortana and reviews and photos on Apple Maps and Siri. That’s one example of the types of interrelationships I’m talking about. Similarly, Foursquare is a major distribution path today to popular mobile apps such as Snapchat, Uber, and Apple Maps. It also provides local recommendations on Airbnb and powers local discovery features on Samsung phones. 

What we’ve traditionally called citations are still represented in the chart, but here they are relegated to a single channel called Secondary Directories, which may include smaller directories still indexed by Google as well as vertical sites like Vitals for physicians, Avvo for attorneys, OpenTable for restaurants, and so on. Aggregators are combined into a single channel as well; in the secondary ring, you can see Infogroup, Neustar Localeze, and Factual called out as well as a line connecting the aggregator channel to in-car navigation. Aggregators can still help to maintain listing accuracy on many directories, and they’re one of the few paths to impact the POI data in traditional in-car navigation services (depicted in the chart by the car icon).

Those navigation services are also represented by TomTom, OpenStreetMap, and HERE, each of which powers a segment of consumer searches in the navigation channel. 

Apple Maps, as I’ve mentioned, is one of the best examples of a consumer channel that stands independent of Google. As the incumbent mapping app on the iPhone, Apple Maps is the default local search tool for millions of iPhone users; its local data comes from sources like Foursquare as well as from brands who use companies like Brandify as intermediaries. Small businesses can use the free Apple Maps Connect tool to manage listings themselves. 

Rounding out the primary channels, Facebook and, to a lesser extent, Bing also represent independent sources of traffic, capturing a segment of consumers and providing a link to secondary services like Instagram, Messenger, and Cortana, all outside the Google ecosystem.

Hopefully, the chart helps to clarify the growth in importance of major, independent or semi-independent channels, and the relative diminishment of citations whose paths all lead to Google. Again, Google is of course the dominant member of the group, but a well-rounded search strategy will spread its focus in appropriate proportions across all of the primary channels or risk losing access to large numbers of consumers. 

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Damian Rollison writes the Streets Ahead column for Street Fight. He is VP of product strategy at Brandify, and can be reached via Twitter at @damianrollison. Brandify is the publisher of Street Fight.
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