If you want to earn high rankings in Google search results, you first need to understand how Google ranks its search results. The algorithm responsible for taking the world’s information and organizing it into (usually) 10 entries is, as you likely know, complicated. There are actually hundreds of variables, maybe even thousands, responsible for determining the position of the results you see when you perform a search.
Still, you can boil most of these factors down to influencing one of two qualities: authority and relevance. Both are generally responsible for sites ranking the way they do, but is one of them more important to focus on in your strategy?
The Nature of Relevance
First, we need to define our terms.
Relevance is a measure of how appropriate a given page is for a given query. In the early days of SEO, this ultimately boiled down to what keywords were used in a query, compared to what keywords were found on an indexed page. For example, if a user searched for “cheap tacos Cincinnati,” Google would scour the web for a site that used that exact phrase in key positions, such as the title tag, meta description, h1 tag, and body content of a page.
Today, thanks to Hummingbird and other algorithm changes, Google is far more capable of deciphering user intent and generating results that meet a user’s needs, rather than relying on one-to-one keyword matching. Keywords are still an important part of SEO, but relevance can often be figured in more abstract ways.
Some strategies that affect relevance include selecting your niche, choosing topics for your content marketing strategy, and of course, your keyword research and on-site optimization efforts.
The Nature of Authority
Google used to evaluate this score using PageRank, which was a scale from 0–10. It’s still possible to see PageRank for a given website, but PageRank values are no longer updated by Google, so they are essentially irrelevant now.
Instead, domain authority has taken its place for evaluation purposes. Designed and maintained by Moz, a Seattle-based SEO software company, domain authority is a proprietary measurement that attempts to predict how well a given website will perform in search engines relative to its competition. The score is based solely on the quantity and quality of inbound links to a given domain or page, as links are known to be the highest correlating factor with search engine rankings.
Domain authority is more insightful than PageRank because it’s measured on a scale of 0–100, but it’s not perfect. Still, these are the best measures of authority, both at the domain and the page level, that we currently have, and they’re well-respected in the industry.
There are a number of different factors that influence authority in the eyes of Google, even if they don’t influence Moz’s domain or page authority values, and most ongoing SEO strategies are about building that authority up.
For instance, in the eyes of Google (but not Moz), you’ll earn a higher authority by having a better-functioning site, such as one that’s optimized for mobile devices, loads quickly, and has an optimized internal navigation structure.
Essentially, authority is measured by the quantity and quality of inbound links to your site, as well as its technical performance and structure.
So now you know how and why both relevance and authority come into play when determining a page’s ranking in Google. But which one is more important to focus on?
The Competition Consideration
I want to draw your attention to the issue of competition. Let’s imagine two scenarios; in one, you’re trying to rank for a niche keyword that no other site has much relevance for (good luck finding one), and in the other, you’re trying to rank for a somewhat common keyword with heavy competition.
In the former scenario, you don’t need much authority at all; in fact, you can probably get by with nothing but some pages optimized for that target keyword, even if it has just a few links. In the latter, you’d need a ton of authority to stand a chance — plus the relevance of optimized pages.
This thought experiment is meant to illustrate the fact that in some cases, it’s possible to achieve your goals when you have relevance without authority, indicating relevance may be more important in these scenarios. Now, let’s take a look at the reverse situation.
Thought Experiment: Authority Without Relevance
We just imagined a site with relevance but no authority, but let’s imagine a site that isn’t optimized for any particular keyword or topic focus. Instead, it posts a hodgepodge of different topics and focuses on building its authority.
It’s hard to imagine because by definition, the site must be without real purpose; in this scenario, despite having a high authority, the site wouldn’t rank for much because it doesn’t specialize in any topic or focus.
There are some publisher sites that have earned a significant reputation — and search rankings — by going with the “hodgepodge” approach. Consider Mashable, TechCrunch, MSN.com, Forbes.com, and HuffingtonPost.com, all of which publish articles on a wide array of topics, while all having huge visibility in search results.
These examples all consist of publishers who have built a brand that has so much authority, that even a slight amount of relevance pushes their articles to the top of search results.
If you’re trying to build an online publication, the lesson to learn here is the importance and value of branding. However, if you’re like most business owners , it’s likely that you’re looking for a highly specific target audience interested in buying your products or services. Because of this, some readers are more valuable than others, and the relevance of your site and content is going to play a major role in how those readers find your site. This quality makes relevance a prerequisite, and therefore more valuable than authority.
The Bottom Line
Asking which is more important, authority or relevance, is like asking whether water or food is more important to survive. Both are necessary, though technically, you can survive longer without one than you can without the other.
This is the case for authority and relevance. If you want your site to rank higher, earn more traffic, and ensure that traffic is relevant, you’re going to need both sides of the equation. However, it’s more important to establish a foundation of relevance first; otherwise, your authority won’t matter and the people who come to your site may not be valuable.