Local vs Traditional SEO: Why Citation Is the New Link
Citation, 1948 Triple Crown Winner, from Wikipedia (image in public domain).
While I am preserving this post as a historical artifact of what drove local search rankings in Google in the late 2000s, the concept it describes — particularly as it relates to volume — no longer holds true.
In this lengthy post (sorry, it must some kind of delayed reaction to Twitter’s 140-character limitation) I’ll try to explain a hypothesis about optimization for the Google Local algorithm (along with the 10-pack, 3-pack and authoritative OneBox) that’s been brewing in my mind for the past couple of months. It has really crystallized this week in various discussions I’ve had with other Local SEOs, including Mike Blumenthal, EarlPearl, and David Klein, and after reading a blog post by Stephen Espinosa that’s no longer available, unfortunately.
Other experts, especially Bill Slawski and Mike Blumenthal (in fact, I think Mike may have been the first person to turn me onto the word “citation” in some of my conversations with him?) have postulated the importance of “citations” for quite awhile, but for whatever reason, the concept never really hit home for me until recently.
In my opinion, the Citation vs. Link distinction boils down to two parts:
1) In Local SEO, not all links matter.
2) “Links” that matter for Local SEO aren’t necessarily links.
Even greenhorn SEOs are probably aware that inbound links are critical for ranking well in the organic search engine algorithms. Almost any link, potentially even those that are no-followed, can help a site rank higher for terms that its content targets. If there are enough links that use the right keywords in their anchor text, a site, or a particular page on a site, can rank well even for content that doesn’t appear on the page–a concept known as “Googlebombing.”
For new SEOs, or for those outside the industry, Yahoo Site Explorer provides more or less accurate data about the volume of links pointing at a given website, and where they are coming from. In general, the most powerful links in a site’s footprint are listed at the top. Google, on the other hand, doesn’t provide accurate link data for organic search, but most industry experts agree that their link analysis probably looks more or less the same as Yahoo’s.
Seemingly, however, Google’s Local algorithm (the one that populates maps.google.com and helps populate the 10-pack, 3-pack, and Authoritative OneBox) counts links differently than its standard organic algorithm. It also seems to present a much more accurate picture of the kinds of “links” that it values than does the organic. I say “seems” because it’s entirely possible that this is just another example of Google trying to throw competing search engines, and SEOs, off its scent. But one frequently gets WILDLY different numbers in comparing the volume of Local “citations” to the number of Yahoo Site Explorer links.
What do I define as a citation? Any page that is listed under the “Web Pages” tab inside a Local Business Listing.
Mike Blumenthal likes to talk about relevance vs ranking, a distinction that never really made sense to me until recently. As SEOs, our job is to improve the rankings of our clients, in a way that is going to bring more traffic and hopefully more business from people who are looking for what they are selling. So in that sense, links are a means to an end, because they lead to both higher traffic AND rankings. Links are like a “vote” for a particular website within the search engine
In the Local algorithm, links can still bring direct traffic from the people who click on them. But the difference is that these “links” aren’t always links; sometimes they’re just an address and phone number associated with a particular business! In the Local algorithm, these references aren’t necessarily a “vote” for a particular business, but they serve to validate that business exists at a particular location, and in that sense, they make a business more relevant for a particular search.
At this point in the post, I’d like to direct readers to some seminal patent analyses from Bill Slawski that have helped crystallize for me the distinction between “Citations” vs. “Links” :
1) Local Search Glossary – Of particular interest are “Geographically Relevant Documents,” the concept of a “Geo-Relevance Profile,” and “Geographic Relevancy Criteria.”
2) Signals of Authority / Authority Documents for Local Search
Pay special attention to this section:
A local document – one associated with particular geographic area, which can be associated with a location, by one of the following means:
* A document may mention a business at the location,
* The address of the business, and/or;
* A telephone number associated with a business.
3) A patent which states that links might not even be looked at
4) Google’s ability to analyze both “structured” data AND “unstructured” data
There are still factors that carry over from the traditional “link” algorithm to the Local “citation” algorithm. For instance, quality still matters. A citation from your local community college or city hall is going to be infinitely more valuable than one from findbusinessesinyourcity.info. Volume still matters too, in that if your business is listed on 100 websites, all of equal value, and your competitor is listed on 50 websites, all of equal value, you should rank higher (sorry, be more relevant) for a particular search than your competitor.
The interaction of all these factors clearly varies from industry to industry and business to business, but it is safe to say that comparing the “Web Pages” tab within a Google Local Business Listing and the Yahoo Site Explorer Link footprint yields some very interesting data.
By Way of Illustration: Florists in Seattle, WA
Not all searches will support the theory to quite this degree, but this particular search does a nice job of holding other well-known Local variables (like proximity to centroid, reviews, and keyword-laden business titles) more or less equal. So to my mind, this is more or less an ideal 10-pack to study.
It’s also an ideal search result–nice going, Google!–all mom & pop businesses, no spam, and a relatively small variation in the number and valence of user reviews of these businesses.
Let’s take a closer look & see how each of these businesses’ Citations compare with their Yahoo Site Explorer links.
Citations vs. YSE links for the Florists Seattle WA Local 10-pack:
Juniper Flowers – 61 / 396
Ballard Blossom – 99 / 421
Fiori Floral Design – 73 / 71
Trudy’s Flowers – 61 / 527
Topper’s European Floral Design – 39 / 227
The Flower Lady – 32 / 65
Flowers by Capitol Hill Flower and Garden – 45 / 28
Pike Place Flowers – 20 / 75
Fleurish – 41 / 188
Metropolitan Market – 96 / 1325*
*Metropolitan Market is a full-service supermarket & thus is a bit of an outlier as a true competitor in the floral industry.
What stands out:
1) Plenty of sites that are only listing address and phone number, or otherwise unspiderable links, are showing up as citations. A couple of quick examples: MySeattleWedding, Seattle.AreaConnect, and Daplus.us (which is a subsidiary of infoUSA, a well-known data provider for Google Local).
2) Crappy-looking links might not be crappy after all. If we go a bit deeper and see the kinds of links that are being counted by the Local algo, just using #1 Juniper Flowers as an example, we see a heavy dose of usual suspects Citysearch and Yelp, but we also see things like Washingtonfloristonline.com and Locateaflowershop.com. I don’t know about you, but based on domain name alone, those look like pretty spammy sites to me, and not worth pursuing as a link for the organic algorithm, but they’re just the kind of links that seem to be propelling Juniper to the #1 Local ranking.
3) Interestingly enough, we DON’T see a citation from Juniper’s #1 YSE link, Cory Parris Photography, a perfectly natural, white hat link from a Seattle wedding photographer that probably partners with Juniper for a lot of business. But evidently the Local “scent” of Cory’s site as being specific to Seattle isn’t strong enough for that to count as a citation, or else the Local algorithm expects to see some address and phone information somewhere near that link as well.
4) The Local “deck” is stacked against Ballard Blossom, yet it still ranks #2. The remarkable thing for me isn’t that Ballard doesn’t rank #1. It’s that it’s able to rank #2 despite being 7 miles and “up to 25 minutes in traffic” from the City Center. What gives Ballard such power? It’s citation volume is higher than ANY other competitor, including Metropolitan Market, which sells a lot more than just flowers. Ballard is #1 in the organic rankings for this search too, with over 400 YSE links.
5) For the most part, the businesses with lots of citations rank higher than those with a lower volume. Don’t know that I really need to say much else here. Again, I am certain that the quality of the citation plays a factor, but it looks like most of these businesses are getting cited on more or less the same websites, so volume correlates well to ranking.
6) Two of the top 10 Local businesses have MORE citations than they have inbound links! If this doesn’t prove the importance of non-link citations for the Local algorithm, I don’t know what will!
7) Now let’s take a look at the #5 Local result, Topper’s Floral. Topper’s ranks #2 in the organic algorithm, with good reason (227 YSE links). But its Citation volume is only 39. Clearly, the vast majority of links coming into Topper’s aren’t valued by Google as a Local reference; i.e., to channel Mike Blumenthal, nearly 200 of those links don’t make Topper’s relevant for a Local Result.
What Does This Mean for Local Linkbuilding Strategy?
Lots of us in the Local space proselytize about the need to verify your Local data with third-party information providers like InfoUSA, SuperPages.com, and InsiderPages.com that Google and Yahoo draw on to populate and confirm their own databases.
But the rise of citations suggests that this process should be taken one step further. Not only should you verify your data with these larger data providers, but Google seems to be actively spidering smaller sites both in your keyword niche AND your geographical niche. These range anywhere from knock-off YellowPages to the homepage of your grandma’s knitting circle. So take the time to submit to sites that you might not have thought were worth it before.
Also, mine your competitors’ citations. If you’re not ranking well in Local, study the Web Pages tab on your competitors’ listing. In many cases they’re local directories that are free to submit to or create a listing. In traditional SEO, it’s NOT usually a good idea to have the same link footprint as your competitor. But in Local SEO, it seems that there is a certain set of standard sites (which vary by area and by industry) in which Googlebot expects every relevant business to be listed.
I mentioned Steve Espinosa’s blog post about leveraging Yahoo Local for better de facto rankings in the Google organic search earlier in the introduction. Well, guess what–there’s another reason to optimize your Yahoo Local listing–the Google Local algo seems to count Yahoo Local as a trusted citation.
Think about targeting local bloggers when writing content that is going to attract links. These links are likely going to improve your “Geo-Relevance Profile” (Bill Slawksi’s term), and lead to higher rankings in both the organic AND Local algorithms. Matt McGee’s post today on HyperLocal Blogging is a great primer on the subject.
Whew, that was a long one!
Thanks for suffering all the way through it :-).
For future study:
Does a link from a trusted Local source carry more weight than just a citation that includes address and phone information?
Does the anchor text of that link matter?
Other things you’d like to ponder with me? Leave a note in the comments!