Posted by MiriamEllis
When you’ve accomplished step one in your local search
marketing, how do you take step two?
You already know that any local business you market has to have
the table stakes of accurate structured citations on major
platforms like Facebook, Yelp, Infogroup, Acxiom, and YP.
But what can local SEO practitioners do once they’ve got these
formal listings created and a system in place for managing them?
Our customers often come to us once they’ve gotten well underway
with Moz Local and ask, “What’s next? What can I do to move the
needle?” This blog post will give you the actionable strategy and
a complete step-by-step tutorial to answer this important
A quick refresher on citations
Listings on formal directories are called “structured
citations.” When other types of platforms (like online news,
blogs, best-of lists, etc.) reference a local business’ complete
or partial contact information, that’s called an “unstructured
citation.” And the best unstructured citations of all include
links, of course!
For example, the San Francisco branch of a natural foods grocery
store gets a linked unstructured citation from a major medical
center in their city via a blog post about stocking a pantry with
the right ingredients for healthier eating. Google and consumers
encounter this reference and understand that trust and authority
are being conveyed and earned.
The more often websites that are relevant to your location or
industry link to you within their own content, the better your
chances of ranking well in Google’s organic and local search
Why linked unstructured citations are growing in importance right
Link building is as old as organic SEO. Structured citation
building is as old as local SEO. Both practices have long sought to
influence Google rankings. But a close read of the local search
marketing community these days points up an increasing emphasis on
the value of unstructured citations. In fact, local links were one
top three takeaways from the 2018 Local Search Ranking Factors
survey. Why is this?
- Google has become the dominant force in local consumer
experiences, keeping as many actions as possible within their own
interface instead of sending searchers to company websites. Because
links influence rank within that interface, most local businesses
enterprises will need to move beyond traditional structured
citations to impress Google with mentions on a diverse variety of
relevant websites. While structured citations are rightly referred
to as “table stakes” for all local businesses, it’s the
unstructured ones that can be competitive difference-makers in
- Meanwhile, Google is increasingly monetizing local search
results. A prime example of this is their Local Service Ads (LSA)
program which acts as lead gen between Google and service area
businesses like plumbing and housekeeping companies. Savvy local
brands (including brick-and-mortar models) will see the way the
wind is blowing with this and work to form non-Google-dependent
sources of traffic and lead generation. A good linked unstructured
citation on a highly relevant publication can drive business
without having to pay Google a dime.
Your goal with linked unstructured citations is to build your
community footprint and your authority simultaneously. All you need
is the right tools for the research phase!
Fishing for opportunities with Link Intersect
For the sake of this tutorial, let’s choose at random a small
B&B in Albuquerque — Bottger.com — as our hypothetical
client. Let’s say that the innkeeper wants to know how the big
Tribal resort casinos are earning publicity and links, in the hopes
of finding opportunities for a smaller hospitality business, too.
*Note that these aren’t absolutely direct competitors, but they
share a city and an overall industry.
We’re going to use Moz’s Link
Intersect tool to do this research for Bottger Mansion. This
tool could help Bottger uncover all kinds of links and unstructured
linked citation opportunities, depending on how it’s used. For
example, the tool could surface:
- Links that direct or near-direct competitors have, but that
- Locally relevant links from domains/pages about Bottger’s
- Industry-relevant links from domains/pages about the
Step 1: Find the “big fish”
A client may already know who the “big fish” in their
community are, or you can cast a net by identifying popular local
events and seeing which businesses sponsor them. Sponsorships can
be pricey, depending on the event, so if a local company sponsors a
big event, it’s an indication that they’re a larger enterprise
with the budget to pursue a wide array of creative PR ideas. Larger
enterprises can serve as models for small business emulation, at
In our case study, we know that Bottger is located in
Albuquerque, so we decided to locate sponsors of the famous
Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. Right away, we spotted
two lavish Albuquerque resort-casinos — Isleta and Sandia. These
are the “big fish” we want our smaller client to look to for
Step 2: Input domains in Link Intersect
We’re going to compare Bottger’s domain to Isleta and
Sandia’s domains. In Moz Pro, navigate to “Link Explorer” and
then select “Link Intersect” from the left navigation. Input
your domain in the top and the domains you want to mine link ideas
from in the fields beneath, as depicted below.
Next to Bottger’s domain, we’ve selected “root domain” as
that will show us all competitor links who haven’t linked to us
at all. We’re also going to select “root domain” on the
resort domains, so we can see all of their backlinks, rather than
just links to particular pages on their sites.
Moz’s Link Intersect tool will let you compare your site with
up to 5 competitors. It’s totally up to you how many sites you
want to evaluate at once. If you’re just getting started with
link building, you may want to start with just one domain, as this
should yield plenty of link opportunities to start with. If
you’ve already been doing some link building, you have more time
to dedicate to link building, or you’d just generally rather have
more options to work with, go ahead and put in multiple domains to
Step 3: Find link opportunities
Once you’ve input your domain and your competitor(s) domains,
click “Find Opportunities.” That will yield a list of sites
that link to your competitors, but do not link to you.
In this example, we’re comparing our client’s domain against
two other domains: A (Isleta) and B (Sandia). In the “Sites that
intersect” column, you will see whether Site A has the link, Site
B has it, or if they both have it.
Step 4: The link selection process
Now that we have a list of link ideas from Isleta and Sandia’s
backlink profiles, it’s time to decide which ones might yield
good opportunities for our B&B. That’s right — just because
something is in a competitor’s link profile doesn’t necessarily
mean you want it!
View the referring pages
The first step is to drill down and get more detail about links
the big resorts have. Select the arrow to expand this section and
view the exact page the link is coming from.
In this example, both Sandia and Isleta have links from the root
domain marriott.com. By using the “expand” feature, we can see
the exact pages those links are located on.
Identify follow or no-follow
You can use the
MozBar Chrome plugin to view whether your competitor’s link
is no-followed or followed. Since only followed links pass
authority, you may want to prioritize those, but no-followed links
can also have value in the form of generating traffic to your site
and could get picked up by others who do eventually link to your
site with a follow link.
Select the MozBar icon from your browser and click the pencil
icon. If you want to see Followed links, select “Followed” and
the MozBar will highlight these links on the page in green. To find
No-Followed links, click “No-Followed” and MozBar will
highlight these links on the page in pink.
Common types of links you’ll see in the profiles of local
If this is your first foray into link building for local
businesses, you may be unfamiliar with the types of sites you’ll
see in Link Intersect. While no two link profiles are exactly the
same, many local businesses use similar methods for building links,
so there are some common categories to be aware of. Knowing these
will help you decipher the results Link Intersect will show
Types of links and what you can do with them:
Press release sites like PRweb.com and PRnewsire.com are fairly
common among local businesses that want to spread the word about
their initiatives. Whether someone at the business won an award or
they started a new community outreach program, local businesses
often pay companies like PRweb.com to distribute this news on their
platform and to their partners. These are no-followed links
(don’t pass link authority aka “SEO value”) but they can
offer valuable traffic and could even get picked up by sites that
do link with a follow link.
If your competitor is utilizing press releases, you may want to
consider distributing your newsworthy information this way!
Structured citations / directories
One of the primary types of domains you’ll see in a local
business’ backlink profile is directories — structured citation
websites like yellowpages.com that list a business’ name,
address, and phone number (NAP) with a link back to the business’
website. Because they’re self-created and not editorially given,
like Press Releases, they are often no-followed. However, having
consistent and accurate citations across major directory websites
is a key foundational step in local search performance.
If you see these types of sites in Link Intersect, it may indicate
your need for a listings
management solution like Moz Local that can ensure your NAP is
accurate and available across major directories. Typically,
you’ll want to have these table stakes before focusing on
unstructured linked citations.
Another favorite among local businesses is local media coverage (or
just media coverage in general — it’s not always local).
HARO (Help a Reporter
Out) is a popular service for connecting journalists to subject
matter experts who may be valuable sources for their articles. The
journalists will typically link your quote back to your website.
Aside from services like HARO, local businesses would do well to
make media contacts, such as forming relationships with local news
correspondents. As news surfaces, they’ll start reaching out to
you for comment!
If you see news coverage in your competitor’s backlink profile,
you can get ideas of what types of publications want content and
information that you can provide.
Local / industry coverage
Blogs, hobby sites, DIY sites, and other platforms can feature
content that depicts city life or interest in a topic. For example,
a chef might author a popular blog covering their dining
experiences in San Francisco. For a local restaurant, being cited
by this publication could be valuable.
If you see popular local or industry sites in your competitor’s
backlink profile, it’s a good signal of opportunity for your
business to build a relationship with the authors in hopes of
Most local businesses are affiliated with some type of
governing/regulating body, trade organization, award organization,
etc. Many of these organizations have websites themselves, and they
often list the businesses they’re affiliated with.
If your competitor is involved with an organization, that means
your business is likely suited to be involved as well! Use these
links to get ideas of which organizations to join.
Community organizations are a great local validator
for search engines, and many local businesses have taken notice.
You’ll likely find these types of organizations’ websites in
your competitor’s backlink profile, such as Chamber of Commerce
websites or the local YMCA.
As a local business, your competitors are in the same locale as
you, so take note of these community organizations and consider
joining them. You’ll not only get the benefit of better community
involvement, but you can get a link out of it too!
Sponsorships / event participation
Local businesses can sponsor, donate to, host or participate in
community events, teams, and other cherished local resources, which
can lead to both online and offline publicity.
Local businesses can earn great links from online press surrounding
these groups and happening. If an event/team page highlights you,
but doesn’t actually link to benefactors/participants, don’t be
shy about politely requesting a link.
Scholarships / .edu sites
A popular strategy used by many local businesses and
non-local businesses alike is scholarship link building. Businesses
figured out that if they offered a scholarship, they could get a
link back to their site on education websites, such as .edu
domains. Everyone seemed to catch on — so much so that many
schools stopped featuring these scholarships on their site. It’s
also important to note that .edu domains don’t inherently have
more value than domains on any other TLD.
If your business wants to offer a scholarship, that is a great
thing! We encourage you to pursue this for the benefit it could
offer students, rather than primarily for the purpose of gaining
links. Scholarship link building has become very saturated, and
could be a strategy with diminishing returns, so don’t put all
your eggs in this basket, and do it first and foremost for students
instead of links.
Businesses may sometimes partner with each other for mutually
beneficial link opportunities. Co-marketing opportunities that are
a byproduct of genuine relationships can present valuable link
opportunities, but link exchanges are against Google’s quality
Stay away from “you link to me, I’ll link to you”
opportunities as Google can see it as an attempt to manipulate your
site’s ranking in search, but don’t be afraid to pursue genuine
connections with other businesses that can turn into linking
Just because your competitor has that link doesn’t mean you want
it too! In Link Intersect, pay attention to the domain’s Spam
Score and DA. A high spam score and/or low DA can indicate that the
link wouldn’t be valuable for your site, and may even harm it.
Also watch out for links generated from comments. If your
competitor has links in their backlink profile coming from
comments, you can safely ignore these as they do not present real
opportunities for earning links that will move the needle in the
Now that you’re familiar with popular types of local backlinks
and what you can do with them, let’s actually dig into Isleta and
Sandia’s backlinks to see which might be good prospects for
Step 5: Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery
Both the Albuquerque Marriott and Hilton Garden Inn link to
Isleta and Sandia on their “Local Things to Do” pages. This
could be a great prospect for Bottger! In many cases, “things to
do” pages will include lists of local restaurants, historic
sites, attractions, shops, and more. Note how their addresses are
included on the following pages, making them powerful linked
unstructured citations. Bottger hosts fancy tea parties in a lovely
setting, which could be a fun thing for tourists to do.
Isleta and Sandia also have links from a wedding website. If
Bottger uses their property as a wedding venue, offers special
wedding or engagement packages, or something similar, this could be
a great prospect as well.
Link Intersect also yielded links to various travel guide
websites. There are plenty of links on websites like these to local
attractions. In the following example, you can see an Albuquerque
travel guide that’s broken up by category, “hotels” being one
Isleta and Sandia also have been featured in the Albuquerque
Journal. In this example, a local reporter covered news that Isleta
was opening expanded bingo and poker rooms. This seems to be a
journalist who covers local businesses, so she could be a great
connection to make!
Many other links in Isleta and Sandia’s backlink profiles came
from sources like events websites, since these resorts are large
enough to serve as the venue for major events like concerts and MMA
matches. Although Bottger isn’t large enough to host an event of
that magnitude, it could spark good ideas for link building
opportunities in the future. Maybe Bottger could host a small
community tea tasting event featuring locally sourced herbal teas
and get in touch with a local reporter to promote it. Even
competitor links that you can’t directly pursue can spark your
creativity for related link building opportunities.
And let’s not forget how we found out about Isleta and Sandia
in the first place: the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta!
Event sponsors are featured on an “official
sponsors” page with links to their websites. This is a
classic, locally relevant opportunity for any Albuquerque
Step 6: Compile your link prospects in Link Tracking Lists
If you’re thinking, “This sounds great, but it also sounds
like a lot of work. How am I ever going to keep track of all
this?” — we’ve got you covered!
Moz Pro’s “Link Tracking Lists” was built for just this
In Link Intersect, you’ll see little check boxes next to all
your competitors’ links. When you find one you want to target,
check the box. When you’re done going through all the links and
have checked the boxes next to the domains you want to pursue,
click “Add to Link Tracking List” at the top right.
Since we’ve never done link building for Bottger before,
we’re going to select “Create New List” from the dropdown,
and label it something descriptive.
Make sure to put your client’s domain in the “target URL”
field. For Step 3, since we’ve just selected the links we want to
track from Link Intersect, those will already be populated in this
field, so no further action is needed other than to click
We’ll come back to Link Tracking Lists when we talk about
outreach, but for now, all you need to know is that you can add the
desirable competitor links (in our case, links from Isleta and
Sandia) to Link Tracking lists straight from Link Intersect, making
it easy to manage your data.
Step 7: Find out how to connect with your link prospects
Now it’s time to connect the dots: how do you go from knowing
about your competitor’s links to getting those types of links for
There are three main ways you can get unstructured linked
citations to your local business’ website, and those categories
are what’s going to dictate the strategy you need to take to
secure that opportunity for yourself.
Self-created: Self-created links are like
voting for yourself, so sites that accept these types of
submissions, like Yelp.com, will NoFollow the link to your
business’ website. Visitors are still referred to your website
through that link, but the link doesn’t pass authority from
Yelp.com to your domain. You should only get authority from a
website if they link to you on their own (what Google calls
“editorially placed” links). Neither NoFollow nor Follow links are
inherently good or bad on their own. They are just intended for
different purposes, and it’s the misuse of followed links that can
get you in trouble with Google. We’ll talk more about that in a
later section titled “Avoiding the bad fish: Risks of ignoring
Google’s link scheme guidelines”
Prompted by outreach: In many cases, people
won’t know about your content until you tell them. These links
are editorially placed by the site owner (not self-created), but
the site owner was only made aware of your content because you
reached out to them.
Organically earned: Sometimes, you get links
even without asking for them. If you have a popular piece of
content on your site that receives lots of traffic, for example,
people may link to that on their own because they find it
Since this tutorial is about proactively pursuing link
opportunities, we’re going to focus on unstructured linked
citations types one and two.
If your competitor has been featured in an article from say a
local journalist or blogger, then your outreach will be focused on
making a connection with that writer or publication for future link
opportunities, rather than getting the exact link your competitor
has. That’s because the article has already been written, so
it’s unlikely that the writer will go back and edit their story
just to add your link.
The one exception to this rule would be if the article links to
your competitor, but your competitor’s link is now broken. In
this scenario, you could reach out to the writer and say something
like, “Hey! I notice in your article [article title] you link to
[competitor’s link], but that link doesn’t seem to be working.
I have similar content on my website [your URL]. If you find it
valuable, please feel free to use it as a replacement for that
Sometimes the contact information of the writer will be right
next to the article, itself. For example:
If there’s no email address or contact form in the writer’s