In the past, citations from directories were crucial for local businesses, especially those without a significant inbound link footprint or a website. So much so, that in 2014 citations/NAP consistency was considered to be the number one local ranking factor by some local SEOs.
In fact, citations were one of the few ways that Google knew businesses without websites even existed at all. And even for businesses that did have a website, these third-party profiles often served as source of validation of phone and address information, and categorization which informed Google’s assessment of which local businesses to return for any given query.
Fewer Signals Early On
In the early days of local search (mid-late 2000’s), Google had fewer signals to rely on for local businesses. Their own native review feature was just getting developed, and there was a much smaller corpus of reviews, both at Google and around the web, upon which Google’s local algorithm could rely.
This context made citations in directories like Yellowpages.com, Citysearch.com, and Yelp highly valuable, as they were well-ranked in Google's organic algorithm and helped propel the mentioned businesses in search rankings.
Landscape Has Shifted
Today, the landscape has shifted considerably.
Most businesses have claimed their Google Business Profile and provide basic contact information directly to Google – information which is validated and corrected by myriad Local Guides and everyday Google Maps users.
A larger percentage of these businesses have their own websites (and often those websites have earned at least a few inbound links).
Both of these developments have diminished Google's reliance on third-party directories for data validation, a significant role these directories played a decade ago.
Furthermore, the authority, trust and usage of many of these non-Yelp directories have declined, making the citations in them less impactful for local SEO. Indeed, the most recent Local Search Ranking Factors survey continues to document the relative decline of citation signals.
Smart Citation Strategy
A smart citation strategy in the current era of local search emphasizes identifying and targeting sites that already rank for your desired keywords, as these are more likely to draw clicks and direct customers – and convey algorithmic authority for the terms you’d like to be seen on.
Businesses should focus more on building a robust online presence on the local and vertical sites prominent in today’s search results, and less on broad directory listings of yore.
David Mihm is a co-founder of Near Media and veteran local SEO. He was the founder of the Local Search Ranking Factors survey, co-founder of GetListed.org, acquired by Moz, and founder of Tidings, acquired by DemandScience.