One of the most hotly-discussed local ranking factors is without a doubt citations. If you’re active on the forums, you’ll often see people questioning “How relevant are citations?” or “Does building citations help local SEO?” But finding a straightforward answer to those questions can be a whole new challenge.

In recent years, the relevance of citations (and other ranking factors) has been frequently debated.

Anecdotal evidence points to a change in the role of citations. No longer are they competitive difference-makers but more “table stakes”, or what people would call a foundational factor in local SEO. This means that, while citations alone won’t get you ranking #1, you do need at least some accurate and consistent citations to compete effectively in the local SEO game.

Additionally, research like our annual Local Search Industry Survey shows that citations still provide value to agencies and local businesses alike, and that citation management remains one of the most common services offered by agencies.

Value of citations

So while we might say that the impact of citations on local SEO performance isn’t what it was 10 years ago, the value to agencies and businesses remains intact. 

In an effort to demystify the chatter around citations, I’ll be asking (and hoping to answer!) some of the most frequently asked questions surrounding citations.

So get ready to hold your breath, as we’ll be diving deep into the world of citations.

Frequently asked questions about citations

Does building citations have any impact on rankings?

Like with any local SEO ranking factors, it’s hard to tell how impactful one component is, but there’s definitely a correlation between businesses ranking in the top ten and the number of citations they have. 

As I said earlier, building citations no longer provides the competitive advantage it once did. It’s possible you will receive more noticeable gains if you are in a less saturated industry, but more often than not having citations is just a part of building local SEO foundations.

While we might not advise building hundreds of citations, if you want to try to rank for local searches, you will need at least a foundational citation presence.

According to our SEO Citations Study, which explored more than 120,000 businesses, businesses ranking in the top 10 search results have an average of 81 citations. Meanwhile, businesses holding onto the #1 spot have 86 citations and businesses rankings in #10 have just 75. 

Of course, we can’t make causation claims from this correlation, but we can try to connect the dots. It’s likely that businesses ranking in the top 10 are doing well in other aspects of local SEO, but it wouldn’t be out of the question to suggest that citations played some part in their top ranking.

Do I need hundreds of citations to rank well?

You don’t need hundreds of citations to rank well — it’s perfectly possible to rank in the local pack without that many, providing you’re doing everything else right. And citations alone aren’t going to get you ranking number one without putting the work in elsewhere.

That said, citations go beyond being a ranking factor and it’s important to make sure your business is listed on any sites where customers may search for you. Our SEO Citations Study showed that, on average, top 10-ranking businesses had 81 citations. But of course, this number will vary from industry to industry.

How many citations do you need?

If in doubt, you can use a tool like Citation Tracker to find where your business is listed online already. It will also display anywhere your competitors are listed that your business isn’t present on. If your competitors are listed somewhere, it likely means that site will be relevant to you, too (if there’s a lot of overlap in your industry, be sure to do due diligence and check the site out first!)

While you don’t need hundreds of citations to rank well, most local SEOs recommend having at least 30-50. A good way to ensure all bases are covered is by submitting to a data aggregator. These companies (FourSquare, InfoGroup, Neustar, and Factual) distribute your NAP (name, address, phone number) to third-party directories, which means you can fill in any gaps on directories you may have missed.

Even more important than building new citations, it’s vital to make sure anywhere your business is listed online includes the correct, up-to-date information (think opening hours, location, contact details), and no duplicate listings are present. Duplicate listings are surprisingly common, but they’ll only serve to confuse potential customers.

Unlike some citation building services, BrightLocal’s Citation Builder allows you to build as many or as few citations as you’d like, so you don’t need to waste your money by bulk buying hundreds. After all, the number of citations you need will likely vary depending on your industry, audience, and scope. At just $3/submission, building citations with BrightLocal is cost-effective, you can build as many or as few you as you need, and most importantly, it’s under your control.

What is the ROI of citation building?

As with many aspects of SEO, it’s hard to isolate the exact impact of a single action or factor. Typically there are multiple factors influencing rankings at any given time and the effect of optimizing multiple factors is greater than the effect of individual factors working on their own. Basically, you need to optimize various factors to get maximum benefits.  

The best ROI calculation we can offer looks at a breakdown of citation cost as a proportion of marketing budget versus the ranking impact of citations.

The average spend on citations accounts for less than 2% of annual marketing spend but accounts for 10% of the ranking impact — that’s a very positive ROI. And considering that most businesses don’t need to update their citations every year, this ROI looks even more compelling with a multi-year view.

Is it true that only the “big” directories like Yelp matter?

Yes, the “big” directories are important, but it’s actually even more important to get listed on sites that are relevant to your industry. Remember, we want to think about where customers are looking — not just Google.

As with most things, the directories you choose to submit to will depend greatly based on what industry you’re operating in. 

So if you’re in hospitality, you’ll want to be on TripAdvisor, mechanics should be on CarWise, and plumbers on FindAPlumber.com… you get the picture. If you’re not sure which directories are most relevant to you, reference a list of niche directories by business category to better inform you.

Unlike other service providers, BrightLocal has a vast catalog filled with more than 1,400 directories to suit a variety of needs, so you can get down to the nitty-gritty and find those niche directories that work for your business.

Can I rank in SERPs with inconsistent NAP?

NAP inconsistency won’t deplete your chances of ranking, but it can confuse customers, so keep things uniform wherever possible.

It’s also important to determine what’s meant by inconsistent NAP. Luckily, over time Google has improved its understanding of inconsistencies and will no longer penalize you for having “St.” versus “Street” or “Ave.” versus “Avenue”. So minor inconsistencies in NAP such as these shouldn’t affect your SERP rankings. If you want to see what abbreviations Google accepts, take a look at Whitespark’s list of NAP variations.

That said, when it comes to NAP inconsistency, like with most things relating to citations, you’ll want to ensure you’re making information as easy for your customers to understand as possible. And there’s no harm in minimizing inconsistencies, so if you go for “St.” on GMB, it’s probably worth keeping it the same across other directories. 

The inconsistencies that do matter, however, are genuine informational ones. Making sure your NAP is accurate across all directories is what really matters. So if you’re using a support phone number on GMB and a sales phone number on Yelp, you’ll want to try to consolidate these. On GMB you can include a primary and secondary number too if needs be. If you’ve got different departments, you’ll likely want to use the main phone number on your listings, and then provide direct lines where relevant.

Links are incredibly valuable, but reducing citations’ value to just links is all too common. While some directories do provide “dofollow” and “nofollow” links, claiming your listing on directories that don’t link out to your site at all is still useful.

Once again, I ask you to put yourself in your customers’ shoes. Unfortunately, your customer doesn’t care whether or not Yell is giving you “link juice” — they just want to know when you’re open and how to reach you. 

Even for Google, the value of citations is the confirmation of your business’s name, address, and phone number, not the link. So while building links is important, and it can be considered a part of the citation-building process, it shouldn’t be your main aim here.

With all that in mind, purchasing citations can be an easy and effective way to build local links. Back in 2019, we spoke to some prominent local SEOs to ask them about the most valuable strategies for linkbuilding, and more than half of them said that building local citations is a valuable way to get more backlinks.

So although links aren’t the main aim of citation building, it can be an inexpensive and effective way to build out your backlink profile.

As I’ve hinted at above, citation building and link building are not the same thing! Yes, citations can include links, and vice versa. But the reason you’re building citations is to provide Google and customers with trust signals.

Plus, as Andrew Shotland said in the Search Engine Land article mentioned previously, having a solid citation profile acts as insurance against Google thinking your business is a massage parlor rather than an auto dealer or thinking a spa is actually a bathroom supply store (yes, that can happen).

GMB wrong category

Source: Local Search Forum

Even if you used all the “dofollow” and “nofollow” (which Google is now using as hints) citation sites in the world, that still wouldn’t provide you with a quality, relevant backlink profile. So your best bet is to undertake these as separate projects.

Has faith in citations depleted?

There’s certainly been a lot of frustration in the community — and understandably so — about local SEOs selling citations for more than they’re worth, or making bold claims that building hundreds of citations can skyrocket your business to ranking number one. 

But if you’re interested in what the experts have to say, Search Engine Land’s 2019 piece on the importance of local citations represents the current outlook pretty well. While some of the experts said that citations aren’t quite as impactful as they once were, they all agreed that they shouldn’t be thrown out of your toolkit completely and are an important foundational aspect of local SEO.

Moz’s Miriam Ellis offered a great take on why citations are still useful for local SEO:

Every location-based business needs to own as much of its branded and core keyword SERPs as possible. Taking maximum control of both structured and unstructured citations is one of the most obvious and sensible ways to achieve a high degree of ownership. Whether it’s structured, like a traditional TripAdvisor listing, or unstructured, like a mention of your business in local online news ranking in the first 3-5 pages of Google, these are identifiable business assets. 

Thinking beyond just algorithms, building citations is a great way to attain your brand’s fair share of the SERPs, so why wouldn’t you want to claim at least the most visible directories?

In 2018, we conducted a similar piece of research ourselves, asking local SEO pros if they still believe in citations. The results? 90% of respondents said that citations were either “fairly” or “very” important for local search. In all fairness, since this study was conducted just over a year ago, we might expect things to have changed some by then — but determining whether that’s down to the data available or to industry speculation would be another thing.

Will purchasing data aggregator submissions fix all my citations?

Ah, if only things were this simple! While purchasing data aggregators can fill gaps in your online presence, it’s not a fix-all solution.

Data aggregators work by supplying third party directories, review sites, and mobile apps with data from local businesses. So when you submit to a data aggregator through BrightLocal we can fix your data at the source.

At BrightLocal, we recommend using data aggregators in conjunction with manual citation submissions to achieve the best results.

Data aggregators do submit to a lot of sites for a relatively small fee (with BrightLocal it’s just $60 for all four) meaning they are a good way to cover many bases. That said, there are still directories they won’t work for — meaning it’s just not possible for all errors to be fixed solely by submitting to aggregators.

There are also other factors at play here. For example, if a business listing on a citation site has already been claimed or verified by the business owner, then the citation site may effectively lock that listing. This means that the listing won’t be updated by data bought from other sources, such as data aggregators.

So, in short, submitting to data aggregators will help you fix a lot of data and supplement existing listings, but there’s no way to guarantee it will fix everything.

If I stop paying a business listing management service will my citations stay intact?

With business listing management providers like Moz and Yext, nine times out of 10, no your citations will not stay intact. 

But it really depends on which citations provider you’re working with. If you read my “Take Back Control” article earlier this year, you’ll know that whether or not your citations stay intact varies depending on what process services use to submit citations — whether it’s through APIs or manually. 

In fact, a study by Whitespark showed that just 5% of listings built with Yext stayed intact when users stopped paying for the service. Because of the nature of the automation and API processes companies like Yext use, citations aren’t yours to control and will revert back when you stop paying.

With BrightLocal on the other hand, citations are handbuilt by our team of lovely citation builders! And we believe that you should have full control over listings, meaning your information won’t revert back if you stop using our service.

The main problem with listing management providers that use APIs is that it can once again lead to duplicate listings and wrong information — which not only confuses Google’s algorithm but also your potential customers.

If you’re hoping to build citations with a company that uses APIs to push data out to directories, be vigilant in your research and ensure you know what will happen when you cancel. Otherwise, building citations could do more harm than good.

If Google doesn’t index my citations, what’s the point?

While it’s important for Google to know your citations exist (or what’s the point, right?) it’s actually more useful to have Google crawl your citations, versus indexing them. 

What’s important for search engines is establishing trust in your site, which means that crawling even without indexing can be useful. So even if your citation doesn’t appear in the search results (possibly because Google doesn’t deem it relevant to searchers), it is still being used as a trust signal that will affect your site’s rankings.

Part of BrightLocal’s Citation Builder offering includes taking extra measures to get your citations crawled along with a few helpful pointers to speed this process along. 

Can I pick the directories I build citations in?

As I mentioned earlier, citations don’t have to — and shouldn’t — be one-size-fits-all! At BrightLocal our team of Citation Builders can work with you to create a custom plan, meaning you can build an online presence in the places you deem necessary.

Creating citations on a tailor-made basis not only provides a better ROI but also means your business will only appear in the places relevant to it. 

The quality of your citations is far more important than the quantity of them, and should your pet grooming site show up on FindAPlumber.com you’ll only leave customers and search engines confused.

Your business needs aren’t one-size-fits-all, so your business listings shouldn’t be either.

So, how relevant are citations in 2020?

The big one! Despite the speculation, as we’ve proved above, citations are in fact still relevant in 2020. 

How relevant they are and how many citations you need will vary depending on your industry, but if you do it right, building citations can provide Google and consumers with the trust signals they need to invest in your business. 

As our Local Search Industry Survey showed, local SEO agencies still find citation building to be one of their most valued services — and they should know! 

Most valuable local marketing services

Plus, with the recent introduction of new features like the “find results” carousel in EU SERPs, some directories are even taking center stage.

Find results carousel EU SERPs

At BrightLocal we sell citations as part of a wide suite to support your local marketing efforts. Local SEO is an ongoing project that involves undertaking several tasks if you hope to succeed. That’s why our tool unites the key elements to rank well in local search, including Reputation Management, Rank Tracking, and Local SEO Audit. 

Like many things, the approach to citations might have changed, but their relevance hasn’t.

Key takeaways

  • You don’t need hundreds of citations to succeed in search, but building citations is a quick win
  • Citations should work for you — make sure you have full control over your listings
  • Managing and removing inaccurate and duplicate listings is still important as ever
  • Submit citations to niche directories relevant to your business, not just the “big” names
  • Building citations is still one of the most valuable services provided by local SEO agencies
  • Directories are regaining prominence with new local SERP features 
  • Citations are a foundational part of local SEO — they may not solely cause you to rank #1 but they are “table stakes”
  • Citation building ≠ link building