Chapter 4: How to Build Citations for Local Businesses
We’ve established what citations are, why they’re important, and covered the likes of NAP. In this section, we’ll move on to talking about the process of “citation building”, explaining how to build citations and business listings across the web for local SEO purposes.
What is local citation building?
Local citation building is the process of creating and managing business listings online. If a ‘citation’ is a mention of your business online, then building local citations is the act of producing more mentions of your business across the web.
Everything you see in the screenshot below is a result of local citation building, from the Google My Business profile to the third-party directories and review sites.
How many local citations do you need for better local SEO?
This is a question many local business owners ask, and luckily the answer is simple: as many as possible, but only on quality sites. The more high-quality local citations your business can build, the better.
What do we mean by ‘high-quality local citations’? Directories specific to your niche and local area can be impactful, but the website’s Domain Authority is, as always, a good barometer for quality. That’s not to say you shouldn’t consider upping the number of lower-quality listings (the kinds of relatively unknown listings sites that are rarely visited by consumers) if you have the budget and time, as these all add to your overall authority, just don’t expect to get any leads or calls through them.
When you create relevant, credible, and localized citations on local online directory websites, you increase the odds of your site ranking higher in local searches—which can help generate more leads and ultimately, more sales.
This will require a serious time investment as it’s no quick job to build dozens of accurate citations on good-quality sites. A service like BrightLocal’s Citation Builder can help make the process a little easier.
There are no quick fixes, though, and citation building should be seen as an ongoing task. The more consistent you are with local citation building and NAP information, the more you provide search engines with credible backlinks and data to rank you with.
Wondering what the average number of citations is for a business in your industry, or how citations impact local rankings? Take a look at our wide-ranging SEO Citations Study, which covers 26 industries and can help you benchmark your business against competitors and develop your citations strategy.
How to build local citations
Well, we’ve covered the ‘what’ and the ‘why’, so let’s get to the ‘how’. There are three approaches to prasticing local citations SEO, each with their own strengths and weaknesses.
Whether you’re manually building citations yourself, using a citation building tool or service or hiring a local SEO agency to take over the building and management of your citations, one or more of these approaches will be used:
- Direct Citations Submissions: This is where someone enters data into the business listings site directly by hand. With this approach, you can reach some of the more niche directories, and also you have the added benefit of a human eye, leading to fewer submission errors. The downside is that if you aim to do this yourself, it could take you a long time.
- Automated Citations Submissions: As the name suggests, this approach uses a citation building system or API to automatically fill in submission forms on citation sites. Unfortunately, unlike manual submissions, this often leads to errors, and automated systems also don’t have as wide a reach as you would if the citations were built directly.
- Data Aggregator Submissions: This is a far more accurate way of automatically building citations across the most important business listings websites and online directories. There are three big data aggregators in the USA: Neustar Localeze, Foursquare, and Data Axle. Each of these has a widely used, automated process for submitting citations to their trusted partners.
Let’s go through these processes, one by one.
Manually submitting citations to directories
If you’re building citations manually, you’ll need to know how to create new listings without risk of duplicates or inconsistent NAP.
In this next section, I’ll share a simple step-by-step process that will guide you to submit citations manually.
Check for existing local citations
Before you can start to find new business listings, you’ll need to identify which citations you already have. A tool such as BrightLocal’s Citation Tracker is invaluable here. Not only does this make lighter work of trawling the web to find all existing citations for your business, but it also makes it much easier to uncover incorrect information and inconsistencies in NAP, and then take suitable remedial action.
If you’re on a budget and only need to check out the top local citation sites, you can use our free Local Listings Health Scanner tool to get a local citation health score across the top 15 directories.
Presenting consistent, accurate information is crucial—incomplete or incorrect details can lead to a loss of trust, not just from the search engines who rely on the data for ranking purposes, but from consumers, too.
We grilled a panel of consumers about local listings and local citations to find out if they’re as important from a sales perspective as they are from a search one. 93% of consumers said incorrect business directory information frustrates them, 80% will lose trust and 68% would stop using a local business entirely if they found incorrect information in online directories.
Find good quality, popular local citation sources
Now we’ve answered the question, “what is local citation building?” it pays to go a little further and ask, “what does good local citation building look like?”
As with links, there is an element of quality control to keep in mind. You should initially focus on building citations from sites that are either widely used (such as Yelp or Yellow Pages) or very relevant to your industry or location.
Research shows that quality and relevance of citations are more important than quantity, so it’s worthwhile hunting out better quality sites where possible. The same study finds that 64% of local SEO experts say niche and industry directories offer the best measure of authority for structured citations, with 18% saying national directories offer the most authority.
There are lots of good quality, highly trusted citation sites—but there are also plenty of poor online directories that have no credibility with the search engines. Building local citations on those sites could actually harm your local search rankings.
Here are several ways to sort through the large pool of potential targets and hone in on better quality options.
Perform competitor research to identify new opportunities
If you’ve carried out any form of SEO prior to learning about local citation building, it’s likely you’ll have done some competitor link research to find out what sites are linking to rivals and giving them a search engine edge. This same mindset should be carried across to local citation building.
Knowing how to find new citations can actually be as simple as discovering which sites your competitors are on that you aren’t. A tool like Citation Tracker is, again, useful here, as it can automate the process of spying on competitors, compiling a citation report, and then identifying targeted niche and local citation opportunities to explore.
Download Moz’s toolbar for Chrome
The Moz toolbar allows you to see the Page Authority, Domain Authority, and Spam Score for any site you visit. When you start to build citations using this tool, look for sites with a high Page Authority and Domain Authority number and a low Spam Score.
Do a Google search
You can use Google to aid with citation building for local SEO. Simply perform a search for relevant business types. The citation sites that show up on the first few pages of the search results are generally good quality online directories that you should strive to get your business listed on.
In addition to the main business data platforms such as Yelp, look for industry-specific or geographically relevant platforms. This should include sources such as a local chamber of commerce listings, trade bodies, and professional member associations.
Once those two avenues have been exhausted, turn your attention to the web in general. You can build good-quality citations across a range of website types, including blogs, government databases, apps, maps, and local media outlets.
Use online resources
BrightLocal conducts extensive research and has created a number of resources which showcase top-quality citation sites. You can use these lists to build citations, safe in the knowledge they will help rather than hinder your local SEO rankings.
Our top 50 online directory sites for the USA, UK, Canada, and Australia is a good place to start. These lists detail the domain authority for each of the best citation sites in these areas.
In addition to “general” online business directories, there are niche/industry-specific citation sites that you should get your business listed on if appropriate. We’ve collated a list of more than one thousand citation sites by niche, all of which have been vetted for quality.
Here you’ll find popular citation sites for a variety of industries like insurance, healthcare, real estate, and restaurants. If your industry has quality citation sites online, make sure your business is listed correctly on as many of those niche online directories as well.
Submit local citations manually
If time is on your side, you can submit to directories one by one. It’s pretty mundane as tasks go, but it’s not difficult!
All you need to do is search for your business name on the relevant sites and, if it’s already there, make sure the information is accurate. If it isn’t accurate, look for an option to claim the listing (most sites have this) and correct the errors. If your business isn’t already present, select the option to create a new listing.
Even if your business is present and accurate, you still might want to claim the listing. This way, you know you’ve got full control over your information and you can add more information about your business. For example, Yelp lets you add photos and tons of other details once you’ve claimed the profile.
Claiming a listing online verifies that you’re the owner of a valid business and are authorized to maintain its presence on the web. Each online local business index has its own claiming process with unique steps to verify your listing, but we’ll aim to provide a general picture of what you can expect to experience.
Most places will first ask whether your business already exists in their index. Don’t be surprised if it does, even if you’ve never created a listing there!
“Where did that listing come from?” Unless your business opened its doors today, chances are there’s some record of its existence on the web. This could be a result of user-generated content, data aggregators, or if you’ve worked with an agency in the past.
In general, you’ll be prompted to enter your business name or phone number to discover any existing listings.
Next, you’ll need to review any existing information, fix incorrect information, and provide any new or missing information about your business. Remember: You want your NAP to be as consistent as possible on every listing.
Once you’ve filled out your business’s information, the verification process starts. This typically happens in one of three ways:
- Via an immediate phone call, during which you’ll verify using a pin number
- Via a postal mail postcard and pin number verification
- Via an email in which you’ll be clicking on a verification link (usually you’ll need an email address that matches the domain URL)
If you’re verifying via postcard, alert all staff members who retrieve mail to be on the lookout for the postcard. These typically arrive within a couple of weeks but are rather plain and small. Keep an eye out as you don’t want them to get lost.
The time between completing verification and seeing your listing appear online varies widely from platform to platform. In some cases, your listing will be live in a matter of days or even minutes, but other indexes have a lengthy manual review process, meaning that it can take several months for your listing to be approved for publication. While you wait, don’t make any further changes to your submitted listings. This will help you avoid additional delays.
In certain indexes (such as Google My Business), any future changes to core data such as the business name or phone number may trigger the need to re-verify. However, you can typically edit fields like business descriptions and photos without having to go through the verification process again.
Before we wrap up this section, if you are choosing to manual manage your citations, there are a couple of dos and don’ts you ought to be aware of:
- DO keep track of your listings and their statuses in a detailed spreadsheet that includes dates submitted, email/password use, status, links, and anything else you need to know to quickly find the listing again whenever necessary.
- DON’T enter into an arrangement in which someone is claiming your listings under any account other than the account of the business. For example, Jim’s Plumbing Co. shouldn’t authorize ABC Marketing, Inc. to claim the plumber’s Google My Business listing under firstname.lastname@example.org’s Google account. Should the relationship between the plumber and the agency end, Jim may find that he doesn’t control his local business listings and can’t manage them—a situation that should be avoided at all costs.
- DON’T confuse claiming with owning. While claiming validates that you have the right to manage a listing on a platform, you don’t own that listing—the platform owns it. They maintain the right to take the listing down if they feel it violates guidelines, filter out reviews if they’re deemed untrustworthy, and approve public/community edits to the listing’s data, all without the business owner’s approval.
Optimize your local citations
While local citation building can begin and end with just spreading your NAP across the web, it’s often beneficial to build out and optimize your business listings. Having optimized, detailed listings can have fringe benefits like converting searchers.
Here are a few things to keep in mind when optimizing your listings:
Business descriptions can help search engines better understand your business. Plus, if a potential customer stumbles upon your listing, you’ll want to make sure you’re putting your best foot forward. Use this space to accurately describe your listing without too much sales talk or keyword-stuffing.
If you’re a multi-location business or a business with many different service offerings, you may want to use your website link space to direct readers and search engines to specific pages. This is especially important for businesses operating out of multiple locations, to ensure search engines don’t get confused. For example, a business listing for Home Depot in Florida should link to that specific store’s website page.
Some citations, such as Google My Business, allow you to select primary and secondary categories. This is another good opportunity to help search engines associate your business with the right search queries and areas of expertise. To make sure you’re using the right categories, you can cross-reference with what your competitors are using.
Adding photos of your business can help you gain visibility and help with customer conversion rates, too. Try to share a variety of photos to showcase your business. For example, exterior, interior, and product photos.
Online reviews are a known ranking factor. So, having great reviews not only helps you earn new business but can also improve your rankings. Google looks at review sentiment on third-party sites to gauge the quality of businesses.
Measure and track the value of Your local citations
Local citation management is a long-term investment. As such, it’s likely that your clients or stakeholders will want to know that the investment is actually paying off and returning those local SEO dividends.
There are lots of different ways to track citation statuses and performance, and tools will do a lot of the work for you. And, fortunately, there are a few simple steps you can take to help cover your butt when it comes time to report the fruits of your labor.
How to track the status of local citations
Whether you’re working with a local citations service or building citations manually, there are a few ways to track the status of your work.
Some citation building and tracking tools will have open APIs with directories. These help to keep citations live and in place. However, some tools will simply establish your listings and leave it at that.
You’d like to think your citations won’t go anywhere, but these things do happen for a variety of reasons, which is why it’s so important to keep track.
Using a tool like BrightLocal’s Citation Tracker, you can easily see and manage the state of your local citations, looking at things like NAP inconsistencies or missing listings.
From the Citation Tracker dashboard, you can see if citations have increased or decreased, and how you’re doing compared to competitors.
In the Location report, you can then quickly and easily see a ‘Citation Score’, as well as how many live and pending local citations you have.
You’ll also be able to see a summary of your citations, including any errors.
The report gets a lot more granular than this, but it’s a lot easier to see if there are any listings in need of your attention than keeping track manually.
To make your life even easier, we’d suggest setting this report to auto-run on a regular basis.
Using data aggregators to submit citations
There are thousands of business directories. Data aggregators help to keep these up to date with accurate information.
What are data aggregators? A local data aggregator (LDA) is an organization that gathers information about other businesses and then passes that data on to other sources. Data aggregators collect information about businesses and distribute it to hundreds of other websites. So, if you send these companies your information, you’ll end up with citations in lots of places. Data aggregators work well for submitting to maps, apps, and sites that may not be on your radar.
Think of the function of an aggregator as similar to that of an old-school Yellow Pages—they bring together information such as business name, address, and phone number, but on a much larger scale. Unlike the Yellow Pages, the data gathered by a data aggregator is then funneled to lots of other services for use in a range of ways: in mobile apps, on maps, to populate business directories, and to be used on citation sites, for example.
Any business can sign up to use a data aggregator. Simply create an account, input your business information, and then that LDA takes steps to verify your information. Once verified, you’re added to its database along with thousands of other companies with your business information subsequently fed to all of the websites and services that use business data from that aggregator.
Aggregators diffuse their information using systems such as RSS technology, so they can push information on thousands of businesses to thousands of sources quickly and efficiently. It’s this process that makes data aggregators a very useful tool for local citation building: just create an account with an LDA, submit your information, and wait as it gets blasted out to multiple sites.
Compare the ease of that process with the prospect of having to submit your information to every local citation site one by one, painstakingly typing out the details of your address, phone number, etc. each time (and consistently and accurately, too!) and it’s easy to appreciate their usefulness.
What are the key local data aggregators?
We’ve seen that data aggregators make quick work of building citations by sending your business information to multiple sites automatically. There is further good news, too: there are less than a handful of data aggregator services in the USA. This means it’s not too much of a task to submit your business information.
You’ll likely be familiar with Foursquare as a popular mapping solution.
More recently Foursquare has developed and enhanced its location data offering to make it a major player in data integrity and accuracy.
Foursquare is now among the top data aggregators and is favored for its speedy turnaround of listing submissions.
Data Axle says it is “… the leading provider of business data to the top search engines, navigation systems, mobile apps, marketing information programs, and location-based apps. Our data powers the top search engines, because we provide the most accurate, continually-verified collection of real-time business data available, delivered through powerful technology.”
Data Axle accepts business data submissions via its Data Axle Local Listings and BulkUpdate engines.
The process is quick and simple for business owners; simply search Data Axle Local Listings for your business listing and verify the information is correct. Any anomalies can be corrected and updates can be made in future as circumstances change.
Data Axle conducts a phone verification and then makes that data available to its partners, which it says include the leading in-car navigation systems, 85% of the largest public libraries, and the leading search engines, which account for 98% of all US-origin internet searches.
The BulkUpdate works in a similar manner, but is for those with 10 or more listings to submit—for example, brands with multiple physical locations.
Neustar Localeze is a data aggregator for small businesses. Its local search solutions for small businesses are built around True Identity™, its proprietary platform which offers listing management with full control over business data.
It says, “Our True Identity™ service enables businesses to update their local listing information with over 100 local search platforms, mobile applications, navigation systems, and directories at one time—from one place.
“Localeze publishes your listing information to the largest authorized local search platform network in the industry.”
Businesses must take out a subscription to use True Identity™; this is currently $79 per year, for 1-24 locations with unlimited updates. Data is subject to ongoing verification and validation to ensure complete accuracy and a completeness score is assigned to data, demonstrating how much additional information is required to assure trust in business information.
Using an API to submit citations
Local citations can be submitted through APIs (application program interfaces), automating the process.
It helps to think of an API as a data feed, or pipe—the API absorbs or pumps out information.
There are no humans involved in the process as the API is coded to function autonomously. Many citation providers use APIs to submit to local directories.
In terms of citations, each API will have a set network that it provides information to. Some companies will even have exclusivity partnerships, such as Yext and Yahoo.
Within API solutions, there are two distinct versions:
The first version functions by providing data to directories as a kind of “data layer”. This means the API will give Tripadvisor, for example, your information (again, no humans involved here!)
The information is then layered over the existing website. So you’re paying for your business’s information to be put on top of existing data on that page.
As a result, this is a temporary solution, meaning you have to continue paying for the listing for it to remain active.
The second version uses APIs to submit data directly into the database. In theory, this method should result in permanent listings, however, that’s often not the case.
The problem is, the information provided by these APIs relies on constant data pushes—much like an RSS feed.
So if you cancel, most listings are likely to revert because there’s nothing to confirm the information is correct.
While API solutions aren’t for everyone, there are a select few instances where API solutions are not only worthwhile but actually preferable.
Say you’re McDonald’s. You’ve got thousands of locations around the world and you’re constantly making changes to menu items, offers, and more. API solutions could allow you to have an always-on approach while doing little heavy lifting yourself.
In the case of huge multi-location businesses that are more concerned with having an up-to-date shop window than sending trust signals to Google, API solutions can work well.
But for businesses who haven’t quite reached levels of world domination like McDonald’s, a direct-to-site solution might be better suited.
How to fix duplicate business listings
Earlier, we looked at the dangers of duplicate listings. Cleaning these up forms a key part of any local citations or listings management strategy.
Once you have identified a duplicate business listing, you need to remove that duplicate so that a single, correct, and complete listing remains. The exact process you’ll need to undertake will depend on the directory or platform hosting the duplication. Google My Business, for example, has a specific process to follow but this process will differ to the steps required by a directory such as Yell.
Wherever you do encounter a duplicate listing, you’ll need to log in, claim it, and then edit it. If you have pinpointed dozens of duplicates, it’s a long and arduous process that requires a lot of manual effort to rectify, but the results are evidently worthwhile.
Some services allow you to suppress duplicate listings while others will merge or remove the listing. BrightLocal’s Citation Builder, for example, will either create an account and claim the listing or submit an update or removal request via a web form or editor contact (more info on this can be found here). Again, the exact process will depend on the site or service itself.
Using a citation building service or tool
As we’ve discussed, citation building services and tools can take a lot of the guesswork (and headaches) out of local citation management.
There are lots of different tools out there to help you manage your online business directories, and all of them vary in costs, features, and functionality.
Most of them, however, use the same directories, which can make it difficult to decide what tools to use. However, there are several things to consider when looking for the right listings management tool:
What to Look for in Citation Management Tools
When it comes time to decide which local citation management tool is for you, there are a few criteria you will want to consider.
- Can you select industry-specific directories?
- Can you select specific directories or does the tool pick for you?
- How does the tool set up the citations?
- Does the tool have a direct API to the directories?
- Are aggregator submissions available?
- Is duplicate suppression available?
- How easy is it to manage suppressing duplicates?
- How accurate is the duplicate detection?
- What kind of tracking features does the tool offer?
- How accurate is the tracking?
- Can it sync up with other tracking tools?
- Does the price per location on offer fit my budget?
- How does this tool compare to other tools with the same features?
Frequently asked questions about local citation building
We’ve covered a lot of ground, but with a broad topic like local citation management, it’s likely you’ll have a few stray questions to resolve.
Can I build citations if I don’t have a physical address?
Given the nature of service-area businesses, many owners use their home address on their citation listings, and, therefore, want to hide it on all citation sites. However, not all top-tier citation sites will allow you to hide your address, including two of the aggregators, but some citation sites do allow you to hide the address.
Please note: USPS Stores and PO Boxes are strictly against Google guidelines, so don’t resort to using these in local citations. Virtual offices may be fine to use, but make sure to follow this Google guideline: “Service-area businesses can’t list a “virtual” office unless that office is staffed during business hours.”
Can I use a toll-free number as the main number on GMB and citation listings?
Yes! Google accepts toll-free numbers as the main number on GMB listings, and so do many citation sites.
There are a few sites that don’t, like ExpressUpdate.com (this site only allows a phone number with a local area code).
One thing to keep in mind, though, is that according to Google guidelines, businesses should “use a local phone number instead of a central, call center helpline number whenever possible.” While it’s fine to use a toll-free number as the main number on the website, GMB, and citations, it’s still best practice to use a local phone number with a local area code if you can.
Are there workarounds to phone/mail verification on citation sites?
Yes, there are.
To manually verify your Google My Business listing, you’ll need to contact Google My Business support and have a representative verify the listing on their side. This will involve the GMB support member either phoning or emailing the business to verify your relationship and potentially request some photos. In some instances, video verification will be required.
These processes will vary greatly depending on the local citation site, so be sure to check out the verification process for each of the top sites.
Can enterprise businesses benefit from citation building?
We’ve mostly discussed small-scale local citation building, but will businesses with hundreds of locations benefit from listings management? Absolutely.
In cases of multi-location businesses though, you’ll need to lean on a tool even more heavily due to the significantly increased scale.