A business without online listings is like a covert operative – it pretty much doesn’t exist

Brick-and-mortar businesses are constantly competing to rank higher in the local search results in order to get their locations in front of potential customers. Local search engines like Google Maps, Yelp, and others manage a database of places (stores, restaurants, etc) that are commonly called business listings or local listings. These listings are what you see when you click on a listing in search results that opens to describe the business, provide photos, etc.

Listing data is one of the most influential factors in Local SEO, accounting for over 45% of how search engines rank businesses in the local search results. Local business listings are the foundation for how search engines find, index and present businesses to searchers.

Don't Hide Your Local Listings

What is a listing?

In order for a business to be recognized and indexed as a local business listing – and later be presented in that directory or search engine’s local search results – there are four main criteria that search engines and web directories require

  1. A Business Name
  2. A Local Phone Number
  3. A Physical Street Address
  4. A Face-to-Face Business – no e-commerce only businesses

Typically these listings on local search sites like Yelp or YP.com have what are called markup language or schema that tells the search engine crawling the page this is a business/location. When covering the role that local business data plays in the reputation, rankings, and success of a business, there are two key terms that you need to know and are often used interchangeably: Local Listings and Citations

Markup Language and Schema: Tags that can be added to website data in order to provide organization and structure to web pages and improve the way search engines read and represent the data found.

ore elements of citations and listings are the Name, Address, and Phone number (NAP) of a business and can also sometimes include a reference or link to their website. Every business location may also have additional information (like photos, descriptions, categories) that is tied to that specific location. Adding these additional pieces of data is often called “optimizing” your business listing.

Optimized Listings

Optimizing your listings has 2 major benefits:

  1. Consumers are more likely to click for more information about that business. In fact, optimized listings get 400% more clicks!
  2. Optimized listings are pushed up in the rankings since Google, Yelp and others want to connect consumers with great businesses. This added information allows consumers to better evaluate the business and consider if they want to go there/use them.

The Local Search Ecosystem

The local search ecosystem is a complex web of Search Engines, Data Aggregators, and Online Directories, each storing, updating and distributing its own database of business listings and each holding its own value within the system as a whole. With so many different players, the first questions are often…why is this so complicated and why does the listing data so easily become outdated?

I’m sure that you have found a phone number on one of these sites and called it, only to find the number was incorrect or they were out of business. The issue and complexity start with the sheer volume of businesses we are talking about. At any one time,  there are more than 30 million local businesses operating in the United States. Then, pile on the fact that there is tremendous churn with local businesses. The churn rate for small businesses is around 30%. That means 900,000 businesses open and 900,000 business close each and every year. This doesn’t even include all the dirty data that is generated from businesses moving, merging and changing locations!

Nearly a million businesses open and close each year

Business owners only need a rental agreement, phone line, power, etc. in order to get their business up and running, which are all services provided locally. There is no national database local search sites such as YP.com, Yelp or others can access to track all of this. Thus, you can imagine the challenges encountered with the job of tracking all this – trying to figure out who went out of business and get notified when a business opens up or moves. This has led to many different players getting involved in an attempt to solve this challenge, resulting in the ecosystem you see above.

Let’s take a look at how each of these players specifically influences the world of local search:  

Primary Data Aggregators – The starting point

There are four primary data aggregators relevant to businesses here in the United States: Infogroup, Acxiom, Neustar/Localeze, and Factual. These data aggregators are the primary sources for compiling and distributing business data (NAP, website, etc.) across the web. However, unlike search engines and online directories that are customer-facing, data aggregators do their work behind the scenes.

It is the aggregators’ job in the ecosystem to maintain a database of the live locations (approximately 35 million in the U.S.) and know when new businesses open and business close (go out of business). They do this by collecting hundreds of data points on every business from a wide variety of resources. Everything from public records, to phone companies, to online sources, to even calling each and every one of the millions of businesses out there.

These data points are then cleaned, standardized, validated and finally sold to all kinds of local search sites, data warehouses, marketing firms, and even search engines. Some of those sites like YP.com and Citysearch may only buy this data on a quarterly, or even worse, annual basis, to save money, leading to very stale data. Again, with 1/3 of small businesses going out of business each year and new ones popping up, this is a gargantuan task and leads to dirty data.

Search Engines

The dominant force here is Google, but this category also expands to include major players like Bing, Yahoo, and Apple.

As customers began using the web to find, research and discover nearby businesses, naturally, the all-knowing search engines became the “go-to” destination for their questions. As the idea of using online resources to search for physical location businesses expanded, so too did the search engines databases of local businesses. Today’s search engines are constantly working to create the most comprehensive (and accurate) database of physical businesses that can be used to support searchers in their efforts of finding a nearby business.

Search engines manage their own databases of local business listings and compile information from a variety of different sources:

  • Purchase databases from aggregators
  • Business owners themselves
  • Listing Management Service Providers
  • Manual entries by consumers (seen any of those pop-ups on your phone lately, asking for info on a business you just went to?)
  • Purchasing new/closed business info from phone companies, electric companies, business licenses, etc.
  • Web Crawlers

Doing so enables them to create listing databases with a higher accuracy. For a single business, they can check the consistency of information found in all their resources. In general, greater consistency across the web (i.e. the same NAP) equates to greater accuracy in the eyes of the search engines.

However, since search engines collect listing information from multiple sources, they often get conflicting information. This led them to create confidence levels and score these sources for the accuracy of the information they provide. For example, any updates from actual businesses themselves should take precedence from a business listing received by an aggregator. If they are getting the same NAP from multiple sources, they can have a high level of confidence in the accuracy and then not update a listing if they get a different NAP from a low priority listing source.

However, it does happen. This is often why you can see a listing that a business owns getting updated without their knowledge. If a search engine receives new information about a listing from a myriad of sources, the search engine may take it upon itself to update the listing.

“It’s been reported that a listing on average may change as frequently as every 6 days!”

Local Search Sites and Online Directories

Local search sites like Facebook, Yelp, YellowPages, and Foursquare are another way that consumers access business listings. Online directories are similar to each other, but typically with an industry focus (Cars.com, HealthGrades, Tripadvisor, etc.) Sometimes these terms (local search and directories) are used interchangeably in the local search industry.

Consumers turn to these sites to find local business and look at reviews to decide where they want to go for their local products and services. It’s important for these sites to have an accurate database of listings, so they often turn to the aggregators to do so. In this case, they may purchase a license and update monthly, quarterly, and save money…even annually. However, you can imagine how outdated their information may be in only updating every so often.

Buying and maintaining this data is not cheap. Many start-up sites may even just purchase an old (possibly multiple years old) database available somewhere on the web just to get started. That can be a big problem for search engines looking to keep their data accurate and up to date since they will crawl these sites and then get different information for a business and their NAP.

Business Owners and Listing Management Service Providers

The last component and source of listing information are from the businesses themselves and service providers they may hire to optimize their listings. Business owners, chains, and marketers have the ability to claim a listing on a local search site. Business owners or marketers at multi-location businesses may hire Listing Management Service Providers to claim and manage their listings for all their locations. This is especially helpful for chains who may have hundreds of locations, resulting in the need to claim and update thousands of listings across the web.

Chatmeter is one of the leaders in Listing Management and a key player in the ecosystem in this category managing hundreds of thousands of listings for our clients.

Optimizing Your Listings for Local Search Success

Quantity vs Quality of Listings

There’s an endless pool of data available for search engines and directories to gather and check their data against. The question is, do you need to spend hours and hours creating consistency across as many data aggregators, search engines and web directories as possible? According to recent studies driving the local search ranking factors, the quality of the listing sources where your business is found is much more important than the quantity. Years ago, it was all about how many sites you had your NAP consistent on across local search sites, but that has all changed in the last two years.  Search engines and local search sites are relying on fewer, more reliable sources to reduce the noise of bad data from less reliable sources.

In terms of rankings, the accuracy and consistency of your listings are considered afoundational ranking factor, meaning that you need accurate and consistent listings to even be considered for a bump in your rankings over other businesses. This is a “Must-Have” or “Must-Do” for local SEO. If your data is not accurate and consistent on these core sites, there is little you can do to significantly improve your rankings.

The “must-haves” in terms of listing management include the 4 primary data aggregators, Tier 1 structured citation sources, and Tier 2 structured citation sources. Tier 3, the remaining hundreds of niche business directories and citation sources that exist all over the web, is more of a “nice-to-have” if you have the time and resources, but will have little effect on boosting your rankings. In addition, fewer consumer ever visit those sites, so you don’t have to worry as much as someone coming across an outdated or unoptimized listing.

Listings Distribution

What’s important to your listings

Claim – The first step you should take is to claim your business listings on each of the top sites. Claiming your local listings verifies with each of these sites that the listing data is accurate and being actively managed by the business owner or another authorized user.

Clean – It’s highly possible that some of the directories and search engines have already created a listing for your business location. After claiming that listing, it is important to correct any existing data and be sure that it is accurate and consistent with the data you are distributing across all of your other listings.

Optimize – The more information your listing has the better. Be sure to add photos, business categories, descriptions, attributes, hours, and relevant links to menus and reservations to your listing. This helps both search engines and customers get to know your business. A listing with photos is much more likely to be clicked than those without and consumers use photos as a way to help determine what their experience will be like with a business.

Update – It’s not enough to set up your listings and forget about them. They will get corrupted (again, the average listing can change every 6 days!). Listings are something that needs to be constantly managed and updated as you make changes or special circumstances occur such as holiday hours. This is why many business owners and marketers turn to listing management service providers to manage this on their behalf.

Duplicates – a duplicate listing exists any time you have more than one listing on a given platform (like Google My Business or Facebook Places) representing a single location. These could exist for any number of reasons, but the bottom line is that they create confusion among search engines and customers, and have a negative impact on your ability to rank well in the local search results. You have two options for handling duplicate listings, Duplicate suppression or Duplicate Reduction:

Duplicate suppression: This is a term coined by a popular listing management company in the US. They figured out a way to scale their duplicate removal feature by allowing the customer to manually click on a duplicate suppression button in their dashboard. This then flags the duplicate and makes it hidden from the public.

The only issue with duplicate suppression is that the duplicates are not hidden on any of the major search directories, i.e., Google, Bing, Yelp, Facebook. In addition, the duplicate suppression is not permanent. It only remains so long as you keep paying for the duplicate suppression service.

Duplicate Reduction: In comparison, duplicate reduction is the act of MANUALLY claiming the duplicate listings and either merging them into the primary listing or marketing them as closed. This method will permanently remove duplicates on the major directory sites, eliminating confusion for searchers and producing positive search engine and directory visibility returns.

Local Listing Management: How-to

It’s important to create and maintain accurate business listings on the top tier sites that are constantly indexed and frequented by searchers. The question then becomes, will you manage this manually or through automation?


The manual creation and maintenance might save you a little money, but that’s a big might. If you only have a handful of locations, you can probably get away with creating and/or claiming all your listings on the top search, review and social sites, as well as the top geo/industry sites and data aggregators.

However, very soon, the headache and hours required to create and maintain these listings will outweigh the cost of automating the process. Trying to manage all of your listings only gets exponentially harder and more time consuming with every added location. Let’s say you have a mere 20 locations, can you imagine trying to find, claim, create, and update your listings for even just 15 of the top sites? That means every time you want to change your store hours or update your cover photo you’re going to have to do it 300 times. The entire process is extremely tedious and quite frankly, boring.

As you can imagine….if you have even as little as 50 stores, this can be very complex…and very time-consuming. Claiming and optimizing just 50 locations can take someone up to 6 months or more depending on how much time/effort they are willing to dedicate to the process. However, outsourcing can have all this accomplished within as little as 30 days!


Outsourcing to a trusted listings management provider, on the other hand, will quickly become your saving grace. Listings management providers help businesses to quickly gain control over one of the most critical pieces of their online presence. In addition, there is a huge variance of what sites will accept what types of information, special requirements to submit, and other variables that someone could take months to stumble through. Furthermore, you will run into ownership conflicts as mentioned above and each site has their own complicated process, requirements, and timeline to handle these. Listing management providers are experts at navigating these twists and turns and have relationships with these sites; this can save businesses a huge number of hours and headaches.

The goal of the listing management company is to ensure that all of a business’s data is accurate across the major places that consumers may find your listings and/or impact your rankings. Everything from core NAP information to store hours, photos and attributes. They allow businesses to easily create, claim, manage and update all of their location data, as well as handle any potential issues along the way, such as suppressing or merging rouge duplicate listings and fixing any location-specific inaccuracies. Of course, this is an extremely difficult task, but a good service provider should achieve a consistent 95% accuracy in these places.

However, If you do choose to go it alone, check out this free guide to DIY Local Listings Management!

The Results of Listing Optimization

Listings management is all about providing search engines and customers with as much accurate information as possible. With so much competing for data that exists, it can be difficult for businesses to keep their data from getting corrupted, but that hard work is paid off time and time again when you look at the results.

Having a combination of all these factors plays into the search engines determination of how you are scored and ranked. The more accurate information that you have on your listings the more you are providing for potential customers and search engines. By focusing on these key factors, you provide a wealth of information and build trust with potential customers and search engines by putting in the time and effort it takes to keep providing as much accurate information as possible. The purpose of all this hard work is to beat out local competitors and get your locations at the top of search results in order to drive potential customers to your locations. And we know this works: