What Is Search Engine Ranking Authority?

Next month, I will speak at SMX Advanced as a member of the authority panel, so it makes sense to discuss authority in my column this month. Authority is a term that has been around as long as I can remember, probably longer than the term search engine optimization itself. That is because classic SEO […]

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Next month, I will speak at SMX Advanced as a member of the authority panel, so it makes sense to discuss authority in my column this month. Authority is a term that has been around as long as I can remember, probably longer than the term search engine optimization itself. That is because classic SEO divides itself into four quadrants based on on-site vs. off-site and relevance vs. authority.

SEO Authority and Relevance

Relevance refers to how well a documents match a search query. Authority is ranking strength.

Before Google, most search engines could find relevant documents, but they struggled with ranking them in an order that surfaced the best matches. This led to SEO tricks like extreme keyword stuffing, hidden keyword text, and writing title tags like AAA Keyword Keyword Keyword.

Google recognized the conundrum so it separated relevance from authority by counting links. Every link became a vote. Off-site links brought authority onto your site while on-site links flowed that authority through your website. Links signaled popularity and trust. PageRank was born. This is a simplified description. If you do not know the rest, it is easily researched. We are more concerned with how authority has evolved than the original PageRank paper.

And evolve authority has. Today, authority refers to far more than links and the line separating relevance and authority has become blurred, if not decimated.

 Authority overlaps relevance

In 2012, what is authority and where does it come from? Good words with which to describe authority include influence, trust, and quality. How extensive is your website’s footprint across the Web? What type of user experience does your website deliver?

Links Still Matter

Links continue to transmit authority. The more links the better. Links from trusted sites or sites with lots of their own external links pass more authority than links from pages and sites with fewer off-site links. This continues to be a dominant ranking signal and it is not about to change.

What is changing is how search engines evaluate links. You don’t know which links pass authority or which links the search engines ignore. You cannot know how much authority a link passes. All we can do is make generalizations based on experience and what the search engines tell us. We know search engines have become far more adept at differentiating links they can trust from links they will not. Site wide links, such as blog rolls have lost their punch. Google aggressively weeds out blog networks and similar link schemes. They constantly work to recognize paid or sponsored links.

At the same time, paid link services continue to operate and create positive results. Obviously, the search engines have not perfected link grading. Still, the best links are earned naturally by publishing and promoting high quality content. If you are buying links, which is against the search engines’ terms of service, consider dealing with websites directly and stick to ones with a natural relationship to your topics.

Brand Mentions

As reported by Nat Ives in AdAge, In 2008 Google’s then CEO Eric Schmidt said, “Brands are the solution, not the problem,” Mr. Schmidt said. “Brands are how you sort out the cesspool.” In 2009, Google made an algorithm update named Vince’s Change which favors brands.

No one outside of Google’s search team knows how Vince’s change works or how brands impact rankings, but with a little conjecture, we can form a hypothesis. As Google crawls the Web, it indexes words on pages. It could also have a database or list of brands and those brands’ websites, like the Fortune 500, except many times larger.

All Google has to do is cross-reference the brand names with their crawl index. The brands which appear the most receive additional authority. The actual algorithm is probably different, but the upshot is the same. Just as more links convey more trust, so do more and more brand mentions. When you see SEO marketers use phrases like links and mentions, this is what they are referring to.

Social Media

Does social media impact rankings? How? In the end, social media is a bunch of webpages. Yes, it’s dynamic and user generated content, but it is still presented as webpages. Search engines can crawl these looking for links and mentions.

The idea behind social media as ranking signals is that conversations are more numerous than static webpages and less susceptible to gaming and optimization. If one-thousand people on Facebook, Google+, or Twitter link to a page, that page must be current and authoritative.

Here are the problems. First, much of what becomes popular or goes viral is low-quality. Second, far too much new content gets generated too quickly for search engines to keep-up. Third, search engines cannot access content behind firewalls or logins.

To access social media conversations, the search engines need help from the social media sites. Google once had a relationship with Twitter but this expired. Bing does have access to Facebook data that Google does not. Google created their own social media network, Google+, which they have complete access too except, when compared to Twitter and Facebook, not many use it.

Just because a search engine does not have a relationship with a social media company does not mean the company’s social media pages will not appear in or influence rankings. Google includes Twitter and Facebook content in its index. Instead of copying everything into its database via a fire hose, Google likely picks and chooses the pages it crawls and indexes based on authority signals like off-site links. You can also tell Google about which social media profiles you control in your own Google profile or using authorship markup.

While social media as a ranking influencer is still in its infancy, it might be a toddler, it is the best channel for outreach to new people, to generate multiple impressions, and to build an audience. Those things generate authority and authority boosts rankings. The tie-in between social media and search engine results placement is largely based on personalization.

It’s not enough to be present and post in social media. Businesses need to grow their connections, get people to share their posts, and discuss their brands.

When you place a company in your Google+ circles or like it on Facebook, it is more likely to appear in your search results because of the personalization than from non-personalized authority signals. This is why companies work to influence the influencers. They want to use people who are already popular much like a pilot fish congregate around sharks.

Personalization & Search History

Personalization is like a highway bypass to authority. When search engines know you are connected to a website or brand’s social media account they become far more likely to include that company’s relevant content in your search results pages.

Google personalized search results

Bing personalized search results

 To sum up personalization and social media’s influence on authority, here is what Sean Francis had to say about working with Amanda Palmer, a singer-performer who used relationship building to raised over half-a-million dollars for her new album and tour:

The internet’s been synonymous to Wild West’ian outlaws and lawlessness for so long, I think people forget that it’s also got another REALLY appealing attribute: it’s a giant safety net. And if you spend time nurturing and engaging the people holding that net, you KNOW you’re going to get caught. – Via TechDirt

Site Quality

When we speak of site quality we refer to performance, user experience, and trust signals.

The most discussed measure of performance seems to be site speed. When webpages fail to appear in a timely fashion, people abandon sites.

From a search engine perspective, this is a poor user experience and a poor choice for the search results. Negative signals of quality include duplicate content, broken internal links and empty pages. All these things combine to erode the user experience and lower authority.

Trust signals include machine readable markup,  transparency, and text or copy quality. Rich snippets formats like Schema.org and RDFa help search engines identify and place content in results. This is one of those areas where relevance and authority overlaps. Trust leading to authority includes off-site signals too, like independent reviews on Google Places and other sites.

Authority from reviews

This is especially visible in local and shopping search results.

Transparency can be described as letting people know who you are. Does your website include easy to fine contact information like a street address and phone numbers? Trustworthy businesses do not need to hide these things, so their presence can be a basic quality signal.

Good content and use of language shares common traits. Back when Google began scanning books, some of us surmised they would use the data as pure un-optimized content to figure out the traits of quality text. Whether they ever did or not we do not know. What we do know is Google released Panda. Panda identifies websites which possess a preponderance of low quality writing then penalizes the entire site. More recently, Google improved keyword stuffing identification.

Query Intent

Another area where relevance and authority overlap is query intent. There are four basic types of queries:

  1. Brand search
  2. Informational search
  3. Transactional
  4. Navigational

If you have an online store and all your content is transactional, just one big shopping cart, you are unlikely to rank for information searches. Adding informational content broadens your website’s relevance.

This also increases opportunities to earn authority. People may be unlikely to link to your pole tent product page, but a great article filled with tips for campers could be a good target for links and starting conversations on social media sites.

Final Thoughts

This brings us to my final thoughts on building authority. For the most part, authority grows over time – it is not always direct. Publishing great content will not help rankings unless you promote it. The best way to promote is to build and nurture relationships with people who share and create fans. As your audience grows, your influence will grow. That influence will get noticed by the search engines and rewarded with rankings and visibility.

Search engine authority comes naturally to companies and people who earn trust and influence with people. This is why people like Rick Burnes, Dharmesh Shah, and  Rand Fishkin are championing Inbound Marketing.

Search engine optimization is evolving, fast. Authority has become less about traditional on-page and off-page optimization and more about relationships and trust. You still need to build a good website with great content. You still need to optimize your content and earn links. But more than ever, people and companies must build the types of relationships that drive organic referral traffic outside of SEO. When this happens search engine authority, rankings and referrals naturally follow and grow.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

About the author

Tom Schmitz
Thomas Schmitz is a longtime digital marketing professional who works with startups, SMBs, enterprise, media and not-for-profit organizations. Regarded as an expert in inbound and content marketing, search engine optimization and social media, Tom's an innovative growth creator and turnaround specialist. Follow Tom at @TomSchmitz.

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