The Local Search Forum is a great place to get involved in all kinds of discussions about local search strategies, and collaborating with some of the best in the business to try and solve real local SEO problems. One member brought up a great question whether you can (or should) disavow a bad citation. This raises an interesting point because yes technically you can disavow that URL or that domain, but when thinking about the question I’m not sure we’re talking solely about links. The root problem is whether a tool exists that can help you remove bad data. Check out that thread to get a little more background information for the scenario, but i’d like to discuss what to do in the inevitable situation of finding incorrect business information online.
For the many business owners and new consultants in the local search space, this graphic may seem pretty overwhelming (no judgement, it’s a beast). David Mihm and the Moz team have done an outstanding job laying out an extremely complicated entity into a much easier to digest format. The local search ecosystem is a collection of business directories, data aggregates, review sites, and search engines that contribute to a large majority of local search traffic and authority. I urge everyone to follow the link below the image to learn more about the ecosystem from Moz directly (I linked to the appropriate page). In a nutshell what we’re looking at is a map of which sites are buying data or scraping business data from other sites. This is your road map to understand how to control & maintain data online. To tie this back to the question in the Local Search Forum, here is the graphic for UK businesses:
The biggest takeaways from these graphics is to know which are the main site that feed data, so you need to correct the data at those sources first and foremost. Work at the higher levels to control the data, since those will be feeding many sites. The time spent to correct those will prove to be a greater benefit in the long run, since you can impact a handful of sites who buy data instead of a single site which may revert in the future.
Google works very hard to make sure that actions on third-party sites do not negatively affect a website. In some circumstances, incoming links can affect Google’s opinion of a page or site. For example, you or a search engine optimizer (SEO) you’ve hired may have built bad links to your site via paid links or other link schemes that violate our quality guidelines. First and foremost, we recommend that you remove as many spammy or low-quality links from the web as possible.
The quote is taken directly from Google’s Search Console Help page to help set the scenario why someone would want to use the disavow tool. They also note this is an advanced feature, so it should be used with extreme caution. The question whether someone should use Google’s Disavow Tool and what types of sites should be added to the list is constantly debated in the SEO community. Its effectiveness also comes into discussions as many SEO’s and business owners reach out for help to find out when their sites will be helped by this miracle tool. Unfortunately it’s not as simple to find backlinks you think are hurting your site, add to the file, upload the file to the tool, and *poof* your site is healed. There are a couple of major challenges to this tool:
Finding out which links are helping or hurting your site is no easy task. It takes time and a solid understanding of Microsoft Excel & other link analysis tools (I like aHrefs, Moz, and Majestic personally) to get the job done right. The main goal is to identify sites that are violating one or many of Google’s Webmaster Quality Guidelines and are trying to manipulate ranking. This is very difficult to identify, and there are many cases where it’s possible to see a false positive. Directories can sometimes fall into this false positive bucket.
This part has been debated by many SEO professionals and companies for years, and it’s hard to determine when someone would actually see help from the disavow tool. If it’s a manual penalty, there is basically a second set of rules how to handle. I think the best case study on manual penalty removal I’ve read so far comes from the Moz Blog case study – How We Removed a Massive Manual Google Penalty in 5 Steps. That was one of the more comprehensive studies I’ve read in a while, and since it was recent (to the date of this post) I’ll recommend anyone suffering from a manual penalty check that post out.
If someone is suffering from an algorithmic penalty, it’s tougher to give a specific date on recovery. Depending on the situation you may not see a full recovery even after a Penguin update; you may see partial, but it really depends if the sites linking to you are really unnatural links. There is no reconsideration request for an algorithmic penalty, only a manual penalty.
The common question we hear is, “should I get rid of citations on bad websites,” and it’s hard to tell exactly what Google classifies as a “bad website” so it’s important to pay very close attention to the Quality Guidelines. If we’re talking about disavowing a citation because the Name, Address, and Phone Number (NAP) information is incorrect, then we’re talking about a different element than links. The disavow tool is for bad link building, so this wouldn’t fall into that category (and there’s no tool to do this). Mike Blumenthal (Professor Maps) jumped into that thread and made this key comment:
“In the pre 2012 era they might have created a duplicate which would have been a problem. Post 2012 that is not very likely. If Google can’t associate the directory listing with your business you won’t get credit for it (although these don’t sound credit worthy) but you won’t in any way be dinged like you would with bad links under manual or penguin. They are not helping you and they aren’t hurting. Ignore then and focus on things that matter.” – Mike Blumenthal
If Google is using a location prominence scoring system as outlined in this US Patent (Scoring Local Search Results Based on Location Prominence), then Mike’s comments would hold true. They are counting the mentions of the business online to allocate a score (rank), and would effectively ignore the bad data to only give credit to the correct data you give them. It’s definitely more complicated than this, but that’s a patent analysis discussion for another post.
The situation where I would see a case to disavow citations is because of unnatural linking. Most websites will either use the domain name or “website” as the anchor text in the link, but other directories built for the purpose of manipulating ranking would allow you to choose the anchor. This could lead to someone creating exact match anchor text, and possibly contributing to the penalty. In that case I would either remove the link (assuming you have some control over it), or disavow if there’s enough evidence to suggest the directory could be hurting. This could be the case for article or low authority business directory networks.
If it’s a high authority LOCAL directory (think Yelp, CitySearch, Insiderpages, YP, etc.), I wouldn’t worry about it. If it’s a super obscure directory not showing up within the first 5 pages of a local-intent search result… you might want to consider adding that one to the list of bad sites.
First thing is to identify whether you’re calling out a citation based on NAP inconsistencies, or whether it qualifies as an unnatural link to your site. If it’s the former then the best course of action is to spend time working on the sites that matter (the sites that customers will see). Citations contribute to better ranking in Google Maps, but the real importance to accurate data is for potential customers. If someone finds incorrect information and can’t contact or find the business, then it’s a lost sale. Most will find businesses via the major directories ranking within the first couple of pages and of course the business website. Make sure your website is up to date, and the contact information is easily accessible. Next work on the major sites in the Local Search Ecosystem. Working on the larger sites will matter for the business, but remember there is an opportunity cost to citation building. Make sure your time is spent where it will make the greatest impact; whether that means citations, onsite optimization, offsite link building, or content writing. Make the most of your time by putting it where you’ll create the biggest impact.
I have a competitive drive that is heavily rooted in my love for playing sports. When I'm not active on the field or court, I'm busy making websites profitable. I've worked on small WordPress sites all the way up to large eCommerce platforms. I enjoy the challenge, the puzzle, and overall just love the work.