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October 15, 2014

10 Best Practices for Using Citations in Your Content

In a recent article, we identified citations as one of the next big things in SEO content. Citations are nothing new in the world of copy. Any copywriter worth his or her salt will know exactly how to go about building a basic citation into online content. As for the rest of us…well, if it’s been a while since we were in school, tackling citations may pose a bit of a challenge. Since these handy little credibility builders are the next big thing in SEO content, we think it’s high time for a crash course in citations that includes some best practices to put to use.

What Is A Citation?

According to Forbes, a citation boils down your company (and hopefully your website) being mentioned on someone else’s website. The sentence you just read is a citation. It’s one of the simplest things to build into content. It doesn’t take a lot of technical understanding or fancy formatting. Overall, citations are easy to create. The true footwork is in ensuring your citations are the best.

10 Best Practices You Need To Implement Today

I don’t know how well you remember good old essay writing from your college days, but let’s talk about that for a moment. Back when I was in college, I had to ensure all of my essays and papers adhered to APA formatting. APA guidelines had very stringent requirements for in-text citations and a reference page. At one point, this aspect of writing was the bane of my existence. I hated it with a passion because it took so much time.

In stark contrast, citations in the online world are a breeze compared to my academic days, but the old college writing taught me something important. Authoritative sources are highly desirable to everyone, no matter if the purpose of the content is directed toward academics or business. I also learned that consistency was key. In much the same way, today’s citations for content depend on authority and consistency, which means that although you don’t need to purchase a textbook for the guidelines, there are still basic rules to uphold.

Practice 1: Picking the Right Source(s)

You must ensure that any source you choose to cite meets some basic criteria. Here’s the scoop:

  • Relevancy: First and foremost, any source you choose to cite must be relevant. We cannot stress this point enough. If you cite and link to a source simply to build a link or attempt to appear credible, you’ll effectively stab yourself in the back if the source is irrelevant. The right sources will contain information that is relevant to your topic and ultimately be relevant to your business, including your products and/or services.
  • Authority: The sources you choose to cite must be authoritative. In all reality, they should be presenting facts and/or statistics that back up the claims you are making.
  • Non-Compete: The last thing you want to do is inadvertently point your audience to the competition. Refrain from citing any content that is found on a website offering products or services similar to yours.

Practice 2: Be Picky About Domain Authority

We’re going to let you in on a little secret. Are you ready for this? Domain authority (DA) isn’t easy to build. It takes time, great attention to detail and a hefty collection of highly authoritative content. Not to mention, all of that content needs to be credible. So, how can you tell that you’ve picked the best possible source to cite? One indicator is a website’s DA.

Websites with high DA scores are considered to be more authoritative and credible versus websites with low DA scores. Luckily, there’s a handy, free tool that you can use to see a website’s DA.

It’s called the MozBar. All you have to do is download the browser extension and turn it on. You’ll immediately see the DA of any website you visit or any site that displays on a search engine results page.

Your goal should be to link to websites with a high DA. Websites with 80 and higher DA scores are extremely favorable, but you can realistically shoot for linking to any website that scores higher than 50.

Practice 3: Properly Linking To the Source

There’s a concept you need to understand about citations up front. Casey Meraz makes it bluntly clear in his blog on Moz entitled, Finding and Building Citations Like an Agency. To paraphrase his point, he says that citations aren’t about chasing links. In fact, they are about properly linking to a source that backs up the claims you are making or supports your topic through facts, statistics, a case study, and so forth.

Properly linking to a source is as simple as linking to the page you’re pulling the information from. It’s exactly what you’ve seen us do in our above links to ‘Moz,’ ‘MozBar’ and ‘Forbes.’ You will have some play in how you build your citations when introducing the source, but incorporating the link in text that either identifies the source or indicates what is being talked about is a must.

Practice 4: Properly Linking To the Author

It’s easy to build citations that link to the source, like in the previous best practice point where we link to content to Moz by building the link into the anchor text, “Moz.” However, it’s important to remember that variety is the spice of life. We don’t need to always link to just the source we’re citing. We can highlight the author behind the material and link to him or her also.

Linking to an author is a great way of networking. It’s also a pretty amazing way to increase your chances of getting noticed and maybe earning a link back to your website. So how do you properly link to an author? We demonstrated it for you in the previous best practice point because showing is better than telling. Here’s the quick review: We referenced the author by stating, “Casey Meraz makes it bluntly clear…” and we linked Meraz’s name to his Twitter account.

Practice 5: Keep Your Anchor Text Relevant

It is imperative that your anchor text be relevant to what you’re linking to! We cannot stress this best practice enough. The reader (and ultimately Google) needs to see the relevancy of your citations; otherwise, they are pointless. We recently published a blog about keyword rich anchor text, in which we discuss just what keyword anchor texts are and how they are used. You should definitely swing over and review the post because it’s a great starting point for keeping your anchor text relevant.

Practice 6: Only Link to a Source Once

You can cite a source numerous times in the same piece of content, but you only want to link to that source once. Duplicate links aren’t a good idea, and they don’t send out a positive SEO signal. Think of duplicate links as duplicate content: Unfavorable and potentially harmful.

The best practice when linking to a source is to create the link in your very first citation. Throughout the rest of the content, simply reference back to it by saying things like:

  • According to [insert source]…
  • [Insert source] also states that…
  • [Insert source] goes on to show that…

Practice 7: Change How You Link Throughout the Content

You can link the name of every source throughout your content, but it gets kind of boring. Not to mention, simply linking to that name may not effectively display the relevancy of the content to yours. It’s recommended to change how you link throughout your content.

For example, if your first citations read, “According to Forbes…” and you build the link into the anchor text “Forbes,” try rotating to more of a descriptive text anchor in your next citation. Your next linked citation could be anchor text along the lines of “in a 2014 study.” You can also see an example of our changing over to more descriptive anchor text in best practice point number five.

Practice 8: Always Cite and Link When Using a Direct Quote

A fine line exists between a properly cited quote and plagiarism. It’s perfectly OK to include direct quotes in your content. In fact, it can be a great way to drive home a point. But you have to approach direct quotes with care. If they are not properly credited (i.e. cited), they can quickly land you on the plagiarism offender’s list.

The best practice for direct quotes is to link directly to the source of the quote either immediately before or after the quote itself. The anchor text that houses the link should be either the name of the individual or the business you are quoting. Be sure you know the exact source when using a direct quote. If there’s any question, it’s probably best to alter or paraphrase the quote versus creating a credit that could be incorrect.

Practice 9: Don’t Forget To Link Internally

It’s easy to get so caught up in linking to external sources that you don’t bother to create any internal links. Don’t make this mistake. You should always try to link internally, whether it’s to a previous blog or piece of content that is relevant to the topic being discussed, or to your own product or service. The key to creating a strong internal link is relevancy.

Practice 10: Don’t Overdo It

The final best practice is a word of caution. Citations are truly powerful tools for building credibility, increasing your domain authority and boosting your SEO. But it is vital that you don’t overdo it. Too many links and too many citations can be a bad thing.

As a general rule of thumb, you should try to limit citations per piece of content to five to seven, including your own internal links. Your internal links per piece should really only amount to one or two as this is all that is needed. Citations are about balance. You need to back up your claims, but you shouldn’t create content that is stuffed with citations and links. Think of it like keyword stuff, it’s a dead and ultimately artificial SEO tactic that won’t result in any positive attention from Google.

Why You Simply Cannot Ignore Citations

If you haven’t yet delved into citation creation, you might be sitting in front of your computer or reading this blog on your mobile device and thinking, But why should I try to understand these best practices for using citations in my content? Why are citations so good?

For starters, citations are a means of building strong search engine optimization. They accomplish two important things at once:

  • They build your credibility and authority by showing your audience you back your claims with sources outside of your company.
  • They beef up your link profile, which is taken into consideration by Google when ranking your website. In other words, the more outbound links you create to high authority sources holding relevant information that back up your claims, the stronger your SEO.

If these two reasons aren’t enough, there are more. According for Forbes, anytime another website or company references or mentions your business on their website, they’re putting the spotlight on you. It’s exposure, and it’s FREE. What’s not to love?

Recruiting Some Help

It’s OK if incorporating citations into your content throws you for a loop. To be honest, the citation formatting I had to do back in college threw me for one! It was a steep learning curve, but gaining a basic understanding of proper academic citations proved to be helpful in my copywriting career. Likewise, learning the best practices of incorporating citations into your online content will be beneficial as you work to improve your content and SEO.

Don’t be afraid of enlisting the assistance of a qualified copywriting team. They can take the headache out of finding and creating those vital citations. And they can even teach you a thing or two in an effort to keep you on the ball when it comes to your content.


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Julia McCoy is the founder of Express Writers, a serial content marketer, and bestselling author. A dedicated self-starter since an early age, by age 13, she'd written a 200-page book and taught herself Internet marketing. At 19, Julia dropped out of college and a nursing degree to follow her passion, teach herself online writing, and start her agency. Within two years, Express Writers grew by 400 percent, and today, Julia’s agency serves more than 5,000 clients. Julia is a bestselling author, the creator of The Practical Content Strategy Certification Course, host of the Write Podcast and Twitter Chat #ContentWritingChat. She just published her second bestseller, Practical Content Strategy & Marketing, November 2017.

3 Responses to “10 Best Practices for Using Citations in Your Content

    avatar Anna Morrish says:

    Interesting article, and well laid out. Adding citation links are also a good way to help market your content too. By adding in citations, you can contact the original writer and let them know you’ve quoted them, that way you may even get an extra share and some more traffic!

    avatar asad says:

    I am regular reader of your blog and no doubt it all stuff is awesome. The best thing about your sharing and posting is that you always provide content that is helpful for both the newbie and experts.
    Looking for more stuff and tutorials.

    avatar PLR Updates says:

    Looking for domain authority (DA) was a great piece of advice. I never thought of it. It really makes sense. Thanks for sharing that little secret.

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