There’s No Such Thing as a “Permanent” Local Data Record

A common misperception in the local search and data industry is that publishers have a single “permanent” or “master” record for a given business listing.  The misconception goes deeper: many people think that claiming a business causes a publisher to update a permanent record for that listing.

However, if publishers have a single permanent record, how come so many people have problems updating listings?  It’s because there’s actually no master record.

Publishers consider many different signals and sources when deciding which information to show in their experiences for a particular business.  Claims are just one source of many.

Let’s take a look at how local data works at most of the world’s major publishers.  It’s actually pretty complicated.

We’ll start with a simple example of a fictional local search publisher called Bingo that uses 5 local data sources: an aggregator, a government data file, results from crawling the web, claims, and consumer signal.

Source
Aggregator
Government Data File
Web Crawl Results
Claims
Consumer Signal

Bingo stores all the local data from each of these 5 sources.  For each data element, the sources are ranked by “trust”.  Here are Bingo’s rankings for 5 elements: Name, Address, Phone, Web Site, and whether the business still exists:

Source Name Address Phone Web Site Open
Aggregator 5 2 3 4 4
Government Data File 4 3 1 2 3
Web Crawl Results 3 4 2 3 5
Claims 1 1 5 1 2
Consumer Signal 2 5 4 4 1

Periodically – let’s say weekly – Bingo runs a process to conflate these 5 sources to build a current “view”.  That is, the local data file that actually appears on their live site.

Let’s say the conflation process is running to decide what info to show for a local business called PizzaLand.

Here’s the data that’s contained in each source about PizzaLand:

Source PizzaLand
Aggregator PizzaLand
212-123-0000
44 Broad Street
New York, NY 10011
www.pizzaland.com
Gov’t Data File Pizzaland, Inc
44 Broad Street Suite #75
New York, NY 10011
212-123-0000
Incorporation Date: 4/30/2013
Web Crawl Results PizzaLand
800-321-1234
44 Broad Street
New York, NY 10011
www.pizzaland.com
Claims PizzaLand
44 Broad Street
New York, NY 10011
888-331-3110
www.pizzaland.com
Claim date: 5/14/13
Consumer Signal 1 user marked business as closed on 5/17/13

The bolded elements are those that are ranked highest and will therefore show in the next generated view.

(Side note: To simplify the illustration, I’ve skipped the first step, which is to actually match up the PizzaLand locations across each source.   This is actually super hard!  What if there’s no consistency identifying elements across sources to match them up?  Or what if there are multiple PizzaLand locations in a source?  Entire companies like Locationary have built sophisticated matching technology to handle this.)

Assuming Bingo’s algorithm can actually match up these locations correctly, the next challenge: which data sources do they choose to actually show in the view on their live site?

Most publishers use a ranking algorithm that includes factors like source quality and recency of update to determine which fields to show.  Typically this happens at the element level – so a phone number could come from one listing, whereas an address from another.

In this case, Bingo ranks claims that have occurred in the past 3 months as the trusted source for name and address, but since a lot of businesses use tracked phone numbers in their claim (which Bingo tries to avoid), they rank the government source highest for phone number.

But, a consumer marked it as closed!  Should Bingo trust a single consumer?  Maybe it’s PizzaLand’s arch nemesis down the street who marketed it as closed.   Bingo’s algo does not consider if a single user vote is sufficient to mark a location as closed.

So the final output in the view might look something like:

PizzaLand
44 Broad Street
New York NY
212-123-0000
www.pizzaland.com

As data in the sources change, or Bingo tweaks their trust rank, whenever Bingo runs their process, the info that appears in the live view changes as well.

A great advantage of this approach for a publisher is that they can easily pull in new sources (or remove sources) and rebuild their view without an archeological dig.

But the key point is that “claims” are not the permanent record.  They are just another source of many, often ranked highly in the beginning, but losing trust quickly over time.  Claims are a tricky business for publishers.  Many of them come from brand new businesses.  Brand new businesses fail at an astounding high rate.  And how many of them notify publishers when they close?  Basically none.  So, for publishers, claims are a double-edged sword.  Primarily, they are used as a lead generation source for their local sales efforts.

Furthermore, this is a vastly oversimplified example.  In the real world, publishers take in hundreds of sources.  They deal with many duplicate listings.  They deal with closed locations.  They deal with fake claims.  They deal with constantly changing data.  They re-rank sources.

Simply put, the entire process is a mess, which is why we invented Yext – an overlay on top of the madness.

An Overlay isn’t a Problem.  It’s the Solution.

Yext is not a permanent solution” or “Yext is just an overlay”, critics say.   These critics are 100% correct about one thing – Yext is an overlay.  But this is by design. A trusted overlay is exactly how you solve the madness.

Historically, to manage a business’s local data, experts have advocated a “spray and pray” approach.  The strategy behind this approach is that, since the public has no real idea which sources any given publisher uses, and no idea how those sources are ranked, the best idea is to simply “spray” your local data to every known aggregator, update your web site, claim your business, file with all gov’t agencies, etc.  Then you “pray” that you guessed every source a publisher uses, that their matching process works, and there is no idiosyncrasy that causes your listings to show wrong data.

But with an estimated 20% of searches returning wrong data, and numerous complaints rampant throughout the industry, it’s pretty obvious there’s a huge problem here.

For clarity, I do not fault the experts for advocating this approach.  In the past, it has been the only logical approach.  But Yext has invented a better way: an overlay.

Going back to our prior example, let’s say Bingo is in the Yext PowerListings Network and accepts local data from the Yext Cloud.  And PizzaLand signs up for a PowerListings subscription.

As an overlay, the Yext data source is ranked highest for every element.  It short-circuits the rest of Bingo’s process.  Here’s the rank by element:

Source Name Address Phone Web Site Open
Yext 1 1 1 1 1
Aggregator 6 3 4 5 5
Gov’t Data File 5 4 2 3 4
Web Crawl Results 4 5 3 4 6
Claims 2 2 6 2 3
Consumer Signal 3 6 5 5 2

Here’s how the data from Yext looks in their Bingo’s source database waiting for their next build:

Source PizzaLand Location
Yext PizzaLand
212-123-0000
www.pizzaland.com
44 Broad Street
New York, NY 10011
www.pizzaland.com
Aggregator PizzaLand
212-123-0000
44 Broad Street
New York, NY 10011
www.pizzaland.com
Gov’t Data File Pizzaland, Inc
44 Broad Street Suite #75
New York, NY 10011
212-123-0000
Incorporation Date: 4/30/2013
Web Crawl Results PizzaLand
800-321-1234
44 Broad Street
New York, NY 10011
www.pizzaland.com
Claims PizzaLand
44 Broad Street
New York, NY 10011
888-331-3110
www.pizzaland.com
Claim date: 5/14/13
Consumer Signal 1 user marked business as closed on 5/17/13

When it’s time for Bingo to work on the PizzaLand location, since PizzaLand appears in the Yext source, and Yext has the highest trust for every element, all the data Yext supplies shows up in the view.  It doesn’t matter if the data is present or not in the other sources.  It doesn’t matter if Bingo didn’t match up PizzaLand’s locations correctly when running their local data build.  It doesn’t matter if a rogue consumer marks something as closed.  PizzaLand’s data in Yext shows up in the live view.

The overlay approach wins.  The “spray and pray” approach is not necessary because as long as the business maintains an active subscription with Yext, the data in the other sources is not important.

When a business leaves Yext, we don’t delete their listing.  They are simply no longer active in our cloud and so the overlay no longer short-circuits a publisher’s data compilation process.  It’s back to the “spray-and-pray” approach.  With few exceptions, usually whatever was happening before starts happening again.

An Active Subscriptions Proves Existence and Ownership

We created Yext to put businesses in control of their own data, give publishers a trusted source of local data, and to get users the right data in their local searches.

The authoritative objective data about a business is known by the business itself.  So, the key for a publisher is to make sure the business actually is real (existence) and that they are receiving information about a business from the authoritative source (ownership).

The best way to knock out both of these goals is with an active, paid subscription from the business itself or an agent of the business.  A reasonable, ongoing paid subscription proves continued existence of a business.  It proves ownership.  It eliminates fraud.

A “claim”, even when properly validated, is insufficient to solve the existence and ownership problem.  It solves the problem at the exact point in time when the claim is completed.  But what happens if the business changes owners?  Or moves completely?  Or runs out of business – which a huge percentage of claims do.

I’m not trying to make a moral argument that businesses should have to pay for their listings.  Rather, I’m saying that an ongoing subscription fee to keep listings updated solves a huge structural problem in the industry by proving continued existence and ownership.

Conclusions

Publishers don’t have a master database of locations.  Typically, they pull in hundreds of sources, which they store.  They try to match locations across sources, rank sources at the element level, and periodically rebuild their dataset for their live search based on their trust levels.  Claims are not a permanent record.  They are just one source among many.

Any listings management requires ongoing work.  Whether you do it manually or use Yext (or some combination of both), an active effort is required to keep ongoing existence and ownership of the business locations you’re managing.

I will leave you with a controversial idea: I actually think Google could solve a lot of their problems by implementing a similar program to the Yext Cloud and charging a reasonable monthly amount for businesses who wish to directly control their data.  Who wouldn’t want to pay Google a bit every month to guarantee that their listings were up to date?  If a user reported something different, this could initiate a challenge for the business to respond to.

In this way, businesses would have control, Google would have continued proof of existence and ownership, and most importantly, end users would always find the right info.

  • http://www.SmallBusinessOnlineCoach.com matthew hunt

    A very interesting angle to use Yext. :)

    You have some very good points. I love the saying “spray and pray”! I do think a SMB could do both if it’s in their budget to subscribe to Yext and clean up any messy NAP info by hand across the web. I still think nothing beats cleaning up NAP info by hand at each source. it’s tedious and painful, but necessary.

    I agree that Google should over a PAID claimed product that trumps all other data. I too have been saying for years SMB’s would pay for it.

    • Howard Lerman

      Matthew,

      Couldn’t agree with you more about the Google paid product. It would solve a lot of their problems.

      Yes, I think doing it by hand and using Yext can be an effective strategy. That’s a bit more targeted than spraying all over the place. And obviously this is necessary for Google, since Yext does not have a pipe into Google.

  • http://synup.com Ashwin

    “I will leave you with a controversial idea: I actually think Google could solve a lot of their problems by implementing a similar program to the Yext and charging a reasonable monthly for businesses who wish to directly control their data.”

    Have you heard about Google’s phone verification? Google already lets users directly control their information without having to pay $800/year.

    • Howard Lerman

      Hey there Ashwin,

      Thanks for reading. Yes, we know about all the validation stuff. I believe I addressed the claim point pretty comprehensively in the section about existence and ownership. A claim is a mixed bag for publishers. A claim validates existence and ownership at the exact time it’s completed and that’s all. But how long can this info be trusted? An ongoing subscription with a living signal solves the problem.

      • http://synup.com Ashwin

        Thanks for the response Howard.

        But, I still don’t understand how different it is from me using a verified Google profile to make changes vs using a “living signal”?

        With G, the only time when I have to re-verify is when I want to change my phone number or address – which is again verifiable by phone. Why would a business want to pay a “fee” for something that Google already allows for free?

        Another big big assumption you’re making is considering a “payment” as a verification. Hypothetically, I could cough up the “small fee” and take control of all my competitors listings, slander them to hell and what not.

        I think existing top-tier directories are doing a great job *individually* when it comes to claiming data with the phone verification model. The problem is being able to have a “command center” for all your listings where you can update once — this is where Yext is handy. Not intending to offend , but, your tool services such a small proportion of the major directories that it’s nowhere close to being a magic bullet.

        • Howard Lerman

          Ashwin,

          I am happy to help clarify. The concept of an ongoing subscription is fundamentally different than a one-time verification (or even a verification system where you can choose to re-verify when you leave). The big problem with an episodic verification system is for publishers. What happens if you go out of business? (Which, for local businesses, by the way, happens all the time) Without an ongoing “active” signal of some sort, there’s no way to know a business is still around and the info is still accurate – and therefore should still show up in search results.

          With a subscription system, when a business goes out of business, the subscription lapses, and the publisher now knows the business is no longer active.

          As for your second point, I’m not sure I agree with you. Yext works with virtually every major publisher outside of Google. If there are ever publishers you’d like us to try to add, please do let us know! Our goal is comprehensiveness.

          • http://synup.com Ashwin

            The only so-called advantage of a business paying for something that is supposed to be free (listings on different local directories) is that when their card stops working, you can assume that their business is closed.

            But, even that is a falsified assumption — what if my credit card expires? Or, I don’t want to pay you any more for the listing? My listing just dies?

            Other than the off chance that the business shuts down, any other change (change of address, updates etc.,) can already be done by them using the Google Local Business Listings dashboard. So, I’m not sure how much merit there is in monetizing something that has so far been a free service for no apparent reason except a very rare, low probability event, that is again very flaw prone of being flagged off for the wrong reasons.

    • http://www.localseoguide.com Andrew Shotland

      As an SEO consultant who has worked on numerous claimed Google+ Local Places for Business profiles, I would gladly pay Google for the privilege of never having to fire up a business’ profile only to to find that their NAP data has been mysteriously overwritten, their edits are “pending” or any other number of other maladies.

      Perhaps paying Google wouldn’t solve these problems either, but it would sure give them more budget/reasons to do so.

  • http://www.joshgates.com Josh Gates

    Excellent read on an awfully frustrating problem. As a Yext customer I have peace of mind knowing that one aspect of this convoluted mess is taken care of. Keep up the great work!

    • Howard Lerman

      Thanks Josh. I am glad that you recognize that we are actually trying to fix the problem by changing the ecosystem – not just manage the existing spaghetti mess.

  • Pingback: SearchCap: The Day In Search, October 17, 2013

  • Pingback: SearchCap: The Day In Search, October 17, 2013 | Search Engine Optimization & Internet Marketing (SEO & SEM) Blog

  • Pingback: E2M Eagle’s Eye - 18 Oct 2013 | E2M Blog

  • http://www.deepripples.com/about/bill-bean Bill Bean

    Howard, it’s a convincing argument. If Yext can maintain a relationship with the popular sites, it does create a win-win for all parties. Seems there’s enough competition in your niche to incentivize Yext to keep improving features and maintain “trusted” status with the network, which is good for all of us.

    It won’t be a good fit for all businesses. Some businesses are small enough that simply maintaining their Google listing manually, along with a few others (Yahoo, Yelp), could be enough.

    Thanks for a helpful article. Great job presenting the problem and positioning your product as a valid, though not the only, solution. Well said.

  • http://www.cylex-uk.co.uk/ emerikusz

    If a SMB has a website the crawled data should have the highest trust rank. I know many businesses doesn’t have a websites or have more than one, and there are many abandoned or rarely updated websites with obsolete info. Before start building local citations it’s critical to create a homepage and display the contact information they would like to see by local search publishers too.

  • http://www.orionweb.net Russ Offord

    Judy’s Book offers a listing lock for $4.99. I bet the idea was prodded by the fact that they get bombarded with requests to update info all the time… but perhaps inspired by Yext ;)

    Their locking service includes:
    Update basic info: Name, Address, Phone, Categories
    Lock listing info: Prevents third-party sources from modifying your listing information
    Distribute corrections: We will distribute your corrections to partners and Search Engines (*)
    Consolidate duplicates: We will remove duplicates and consolidate all the reviews in one single primary listing
    24hr Response time: We will handle you request within 24 business hours or refund the fee

    I found it interesting that they will also consolidate duplicates for this fee. They will update info and even delete incorrect dupes without paying, currently, but they warn you that the listing info could change back again, as they receive their data from multiple sources.

    On one hand I’d complain to have to pay $5… but on the other hand, it is a good assurance to have. Though for the price of a Yext subscription… I could justify paying about least 75-100 venues $5 each ;)

    That leaves me to wonder… what IS “a reasonable, ongoing paid subscription” fee?

    Many of us internet marketers use Yext to simply sync NAP data, though others use it to enhance their listings with staff Bios and Food Menus, etc. I would love Yext to come out with a more affordable no frills package to just ‘lock’ the NAP data with a low yearly fee. Perhaps an extra fee can be paid to allow a data update after the 1st edit each year (similar to how Localeze has a 1 free update per year option, yet they have a full blown paid package, too).

    What would you readers pay to simply lock your listings every year across 50 or so venues?

    • http://www.orionweb.net Russ Offord

      I noticed that Judy’s Book has just changed their pricing. It is now doubled to $9.95 per listing. It must have been changed within the last week or two, because I paid the $4.99 just the other week for a client.)

      The reference to the ‘listing lock’ on their website can currently be found here: http://www.judysbook.com/Corrections/SubmitCorrection.aspx … however, you can only see the pricing for the ‘listing lock’ option by going through to the 3rd of 4 steps in the info submission process of an actual listing. (starting where it says “Owners: Incorrect info? Update and Lock your listing here”)

      I found it interesting that on that ‘submit correction’ page on step 3 of 4 (not the same as the link above) they explain/justify their fee by saying the following:

      Why is a small one-time fee required?
      - A human representative will carefully verify and manually update the information
      - We’ll distribute your corrections to our partner network so you don’t have to
      - We’ll block partners from changing (over-writing) your listing information
      - Helps prevent listing fraud from unscrupulous competitors

      Compared to the price of a Yext sync, I suppose I could only justify paying to lock listings on about 35-50 individual venues at a price of $10 per listing lock (IF all those venues offered a listing lock service at that same price, that is)… though Judy Book’s fee is a ‘one-time’ fee, not a yearly subscription.