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Relevance vs. authority: Which link has more value? (Part 1)
When pursuing a link, which is more important, relevance or authority? Columnist Andrew Dennis asks expert link builders this question, and in the first of his three-part series, we hear from those who value relevance.
Relevance versus authority: these two metrics are always at the forefront of a link builder’s mind.
Both authority and relevance should be part of the overall evaluation of a given link. In an ideal world, every link we secure would be from sites that are both authoritative and highly relevant to our own site.
But what if you had to pick one or the other? Which is more important: relevance or authority?
This is a very difficult question to answer and a constant source of passionate debate at Page One Power. There are many nuances, and link opportunities are never cut-and-dried in the real (online) world.
Relevance versus authority can be particularly challenging for beginner link builders as they begin the arduous process of securing links. To dissect the issue, I posed the following question to a number of the best and brightest minds in search:
“All other metrics being equal, would you rather have a high-authority link with lower relevance or a highly relevant link with low authority?”
I received so many great responses that I will be separating them into three categories, and three separate parts:
Quick Disclaimer: This is a purely hypothetical debate, as link building is never this black-and-white. I posed this question to tease out the valid points for both sides of the relevance vs. authority argument.
This is a difficult question to answer in a short quote, but everyone I contacted was a good sport and gave their best shot, sharing valuable insight. The debate on relevance and authority won’t end with this post, but hopefully, this will push the discussion forward.
Expert opinions: Relevance
I’ll start by sharing the opinions of those who answered on the side of relevance.
Referral traffic and conversions
The opportunity for qualified referral traffic is a major bonus of relevant links, and some of our experts highlighted this point:
“It’s a tough question because of context; a high authority link is great, but if ‘all other metrics are equal,’ this would mean that the page with the high authority link is receiving the same amount of traffic as the highly relevant link, which then stands not only to pass link equity (albeit less) but then has the potential to send highly qualified traffic… which exponentially increases the likelihood for a conversion; so I’d go contextual over authoritative.” –– Nick Eubanks, IFTF
“I’d rather have a more relevant link with low authority. I’d hope that was better for traffic, but I’d not really expect it to have the same effect on rankings as a higher authority link with lower relevance. I certainly wouldn’t want a high authority link with zero relevance of course, but I like to think that someone’s actually going to click on the links that I build.” –– Julie Joyce, Link Fish Media
“I would pursue the more relevant linking opportunity because the domain still likely has some authority and by having relevancy, you increase the chance of driving targeted traffic to your site, which has the potential to affect other metrics like conversions. Of course, the golden opportunity would be one that is both authoritative and relevant, but that’s the politician’s answer. The other option would be to pursue both opportunities. After all, sometimes link building is a game of numbers.” –– Annalisa Hilliard, Pole Position Marketing
“I am one of those people who believes that links not only to improve search engine rankings, but if link building is done right it allows you to build doors that allow targeted audiences to move to your website and possibly convert into paying customers.
“The reason why I would love to go for a website that has high relevance and low authority is because it has a better ability to drive a targeted audience back to the website, instead of a high authority low relevance site that might get me/my client tons of traffic, but little-to-no conversions.
“If your SEO/Digital Marketing efforts aim to help a company grow and increase its conversions, then you should choose a website that has more relevance, and it’s ok if the website has low authority. Obviously, you also have to make sure that the link profile of the website is decent and will not produce any negative effect to your website if you get a link from them.” –– Moosa Hemani, SEtalks
Authority metrics are only barometers
Other experts cited the fact that while the authority measurements we have in the SEO industry (Majestic Trust Flow, Moz Domain Authority, Ahrefs Rank and so on) are helpful barometers, nobody truly knows how Google measures authority.
“High authority links are great, but in my opinion, relevant links win the game every time. They are truly in their natural habitat and make more sense for users that click on them, hence serving as a stronger ranking signal. Google hasn’t updated Toolbar PageRank since 2013, and I’m fairly certain it’s not because they wanted to promote other third-party metrics.” –– David Farkas, The Upper Ranks
“If all metrics are the same (including all link value metrics at page level), then I would take relevance in 2017 over authority. Authority seems to be just a function of the link metric, or at least that is what Google suggests. Whilst I am never one to just follow what Google tell us as reality, I personally lean more towards the view that most authority, as a baseline, can be seen in the link metrics.” –– Paul Madden, Kerboo
“Highly relevant link with low authority.
“I strongly believe that relevant links have a bigger impact on the algorithm. More so, authority is pretty subjective, as metrics available on SEO tools out there can be flawed; how users/website visitors look at sites is mostly based on the relevance and utility of the information they’ve found on a given page.
“Also, in terms of scalability, you’re likely to get a bigger list of highly relevant link prospects, sitting in a very specific niche, than finding only high-authority sites with your choice of metric. Plus, if you’ve been reaching out to a webmaster, it makes more sense for them to give you a link if they think you’re highly relevant to their sites.” — Venchito Tampon, SharpRocket
“I would prefer a relevant link with less authority than higher authority link with low relevance. It’s very difficult to accurately measure authority. While Moz and Majestic do a great job in helping to evaluate relative authority, no one really knows how Google evaluates it. But one thing is pretty clear from our clients’ results: the more relevant the links, the more they push up rankings and traffic. I can’t say I’ve noticed the same kind of push from a handful of high Domain Authority placements.” –– Nicole DeLeon, North Star Inbound
Google might discount irrelevant links
Even links from high-authority sites may be discounted if there is no relevance.
“Without question, I would take a highly relevant link, with low authority. All. Day. Long. The reasons for choosing a relevant link are many:
1. Google can, and does, ignore low relevance links. The worst offenders are generic links (“click here”) and even worse, off-topic links (“premium watches” when your content is about cat food).
2. Several Google technologies discussed in patents, including Topic-Sensitive PageRank, Reasonable Surfer, and Phrase Based Indexing with Co-occurrence, assign more weight to topically relevant links, and less to off-topic links.
3. Relevant links generate more — and better targeted — traffic to your content.
Sure, we all want high-authority links. Including me! But if the link is low-relevance, it may not count at all. Better to get a boost from a relevant link, even if it comes from a lower quality source.” –– Cyrus Shepard, CyrusShepard.com
Relevant sites have potential to grow
Some of our other experts who sided with a relevance-first approach pointed to the fact that relevant sites with low authority still have the potential become more authoritative over time.
“If I had to choose, I’d vote for higher relevance. Your authority will constantly be in flux — just because you have a low authority now, doesn’t mean it will always be that way (for example, consider a new site building up their reputation). Strong relevance is a better customer experience and is more likely to remain consistent.” –– Erin Everhart, The Home Depot
“If you asked me this a few years ago, I’d have a more absolute answer. But today I want the relevance and would accept a lower authority link, as long as we aren’t talking about a spammy ‘bad neighborhood’ website. Sites with low authority can eventually grow, giving your link future Domain/Page Authority. But the relevance can also lead to qualified referral traffic. For me, it’s a case-by-case scenario because I’m wearing a ‘marketing’ hat along with an ‘SEO’ hat. I simply don’t do link building by authority metrics alone anymore.” –– Bill Sebald, Greenlane SEO
“I’d choose a highly relevant link with low authority. The authority can always increase over time if it’s a relevant and useful site; however, the relevance of the link likely won’t change.” – Aleyda Solis, Orainti
Relevant links = relevant anchor text
Relevant sites will typically implement more relevant anchor text as well.
“From personal experience, I’ve found that the right answer to this question mostly comes from the competitive landscape. You need to know what type of resources are referring to pages with whom you want to compete in SERPS. Based on this data, you can make the right decision. However, I prefer to vote for a link with the right anchor text and high authority sites typically don’t allow that.” –– Alexandra Tachalova, AlexTachalova.com
Total respondents who chose relevance: 13
That wraps up the folks who came down on the side of relevance. In Part 2, I share some thoughts from the experts who chose the high authority, low relevance link. And in Part 3, I speak with those who believe it depends on the situation.
Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.