In its simplest sense, a citation (as applied to SEO) is a mention of your brand online. Let's say, if someone wrote on their blog that last night they ate at [insert the name of a restaurant], this would be a citation.
The 'problem' SEOs have had with citations all along, is that they are not links. So, there's been a great deal of speculation in the industry as to whether Google counts citations and, if it does, to what extent.
Professionals who specialize in local SEO have noticed that citations help local business listings rank higher on Google. However, the same strong effect has not been observed by SEOs at large.
At the same time, we are now in the post-Hummingbird, semantic search Era when Google is expected to have a better grasp of who is who and what is what on the Web. Would this involve recognizing a valuable citation when it sees it? Perhaps.
Why citations are awesome (anyway)
Google rankings apart, there are many benefits to citations that can't be overlooked.
Benefit #1: publicity
As good old marketing is the new SEO (as odd as this may sound), getting a mention of your business in a major online publication is always worth it.
That's simply because, if it is a truly earned mention, it's likely to attract genuine attention to your business, get people talking about it, writing about it, linking to it, etc.
Benefit #2: higher local rankings
As I've already said, citations are an indispensable ingredient in the local SEO recipe for success – this is just something local SEOs have observed. Also, local search engine optimizers normally distinguish between structured and unstructured citations.
Structured citations are standardized business listings one finds in local directories, Yellow Pages sites, etc. As a rule, a structured citation would have a company's Name, Address and Phone Number (and sometimes Website). This is frequently abbreviated as NAP or NAP+W.
Keeping one's NAP uniform (more or less) across all your company listings is important if you want Google to correctly attribute all your citations to one business.
In their turn, unstructured citations are various versions of your company’s name, address and phone number mentioned online.
It may be just the name, or just the phone number, the phone number without the area code, etc.
The screenshot is taken from rentcafe.com.
So, is a structured citation better than an unstructured one? Although 'consistency of structured citations' has been quoted as the #3 local SEO ranking factor, this doesn't unambiguously prove structured citations' dominance, since there is also the consistency factor at play.
Benefit #3: (possibly) higher Google rankings
As I said earlier, citations' direct impact on non-local search engine rankings has never been officially confirmed.
At the same time, it's been proven that Google tends to associate brands (websites) with certain contexts they often co-occur in. What this ultimately means is that being mentioned in certain desired contexts (next to a competitor, next to your main keyword) might up your 'Google score' and give you extra power in search results.
By the way, when Barry Schwartz appealed to the SEO collective, asking whether Google counts unlinked citations, 39% of people responded they believed it did:
By the way, what about URL mentions that aren't links? I mean a mention like this - http://example.com/
A comment recently dropped by Google's John Mueller confirmed Google 'might use them to crawl the mentioned site'. Does this mean Google is ready to count these semi-links as normal links? Could be.
How to get citations for your brand
Basically, all citation acquisition methods can be classified into 2 groups: creative out-of-the-box ideas and proven, tested ways that work in most situations for most types of businesses.
For practicality seasons, I would like to discuss the 2-nd group in this post. Besides, you can always turn to Chris Silver Smith's classic for unconventional methods of getting citations for a biz (I really like Chris' idea with the ATM, do you?)
1. Use Google search
One can find a fair number of citation opportunities simply by performing a search on Google using certain footprints.
For example, here is what you could search for.
To find review sites: [your keyword] review, [your keyword] ratings and reviews, best [your keyword] of 2014, compare [your keyword], etc.
To find niche directories: [your keyword] [your location] directory, [your keyword] [your location] directory lists, [your keyword] [your location] list, etc.
To find niche blogs: [your keyword] blog, site:wordpress.com [your keyword], site:blogspot.com [your keyword] , [competitor name] review blog -[competitor URL], etc.
For example, let me search for "Canada real estate directory". Here is the number one result that comes up on Google:
It's a paid directory, but a highly relevant one. In my opinion, it is usually better to get your business listed in a few high-quality paid directories than in dozens of free ones (even though free directories can be great as well). But of course it is up to you.
2. Use citation finders
The local SEO industry has come up with some tools that help one look for all sorts of citations online. So, to spare yourself the manual work, you can use this type of software to tap into new citation sources.
Here are some popular citation finders:
It’s a great tool to find citations for a local business. It’ll also list the top competitors in your niche and will help you track mentions of your business (on news sites, blogs, directories and more).
PlacesScout's Citation Finder is similar to the one just described. In addition, it reports a bunch of metrics about each citation source (its PageRank, domain MozRank, etc.)
GetListed is a must-try 'citations checker' (as I would call it) by David Mihm. It lets you easily check if your local business is listed in all major local data aggregators such as YellowPages, Yelp and others, letting you claim or edit your listing by following a link from the tool.
3. Search by competitor name
To look for new citations for your brand, put down the names, addresses and phone numbers of your top 10 (or more) competitors and see if anything interesting comes up in search engines.
Use parenthesis ("competitor name", "competitor address/phone number") to limit your search only to the pages that really mention your competitor.
Use the minus sign (-[competitor URL]) to exclude the competitor’s own domain from search.
For example, you may say that Raven Tools is a competitor of ours, because they make similar tools (we love competition; it keeps us in shape!)
Let's see who writes about them online (let’s also choose the 'Past year' filter to find citation sources that are more likely to be up and active):
4. Leverage Google Alerts and Co
Creating alters for just the right keywords can deliver citation opportunities straight to your door. I bet you already have some sort of alerts set up for your biz, but you can do the same for competitor words, for the footprints mentioned in tip #1, and more (by the way, Google Alerts support advanced search operators).
5. Do good old marketing
And, last but not least, another traditional set of methods one can use to attract citation is to do good old marketing. That is, you can
- Write press releases when you have a newsworthy piece of information to communicate
- Look for partnership and/or sponsorship opportunities
- Offer freebies/discounts and submit offers to coupon sites
- Run (viral) marketing campaigns
- And more.
In the end, what often distinguishes a white-hat SEO campaign from a fly-by-day spammy one is that the former goes hand in hand with other online marketing activities that only work to make one's online voice stronger.
Do you think Google can tell if you are trying to be popular with just the search engines?
I remember Matt Cutts talking about how (their internal?) email system can tell an important message from the unimportant one and mark it accordingly. It does so based on how fast and how often you usually reply to messages from a particular address. If you normally respond within minutes, it must be a message of top-priority.
It may well be that Google uses similar logic when estimating a site’s importance online. If no one is talking about a business and all it’s just links pointing to a website, then there must be not much value to it.
And what do you think?