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What does Authority mean in SEO?

You'll often here people talk about Authority sites in SEO. So what are they, why is authority a good thing when it comes to search engine rankings and how do you become one?

When someone uses a search engine like Google they'll see a list of results known as the Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs). The search engine decides the order of this listing (the rankings) based on two steps:

  1. They find pages on the web that are relevant to the search - see Relevancy - and, if there is a wide choice of websites available, boost those that load faster on mobile devices.
  2. They order these relevant pages using Authority

Until 2018 the primary way a search engine measured authority was driven heavily by the number and quality of links (see Quality Links) a page or website had from other websites as this is a signal that other website owners respected its content.

Authority via links remains important so I'll go a bit deeper here. Any link from another website can pass on something called Link Juice which is really just another name for authority.

The amount of link juice each link passes on depends on a number of factors:

  1. How much authority or link juice the website that is linking to you has to give - which is determined by the number and quality of links that page and website with the link has.
  2. If the topic of the page is the same or similar to the page it is linking to - because if they aren't the link looks unnatural.
  3. How many other links there are on the page - because link juice gets shared out
  4. If the link to your page is within the main content - as this counts for more than isolated links in headers, footers, etc.
  5. How high up the main content the link to your page is - the higher the link in the main content, the more link juice it passes.
  6. If the link has been marked "nofollow" - which means the webmaster wants no link juice to follow that link

The topic issue is an important one. If I had a very authoritative website about cats and on one page I included a link to a page on another website about slow juicers it would not carry the same authority as me linking to a page on another website about cats ... or say cat foods - theme overlap. My slow juicer link is not 'bad', I may have just gone off on a tangent in a blog post, it just doesn't carry the same weight.

Passing authority around a website internally

Link juice is not just about juice moving from one website to another, you can also pass it around your own website. So if one of your pages has a lot of link juice coming into it you can create links there to specific pages on your site that you want boosted. Again Theme overlap is important, the more links there are - the more the juice gets shared, where the link is on the page is important, etc.

Proactively doing this is often referred to as 'draining link pools'. That page over there has a whole lot of link juice, you are draining it out into some of your other pages. Slightly misleading because it sounds like you'll reduce the authority of that page. You won't as long as it maintains it links from other websites.

nofollow links passing authority

Now I'm going to get a bit controversial here. Many search engine optimizers say its all about link juice when we're talking about links from other websites and that's it. However in my experience I have seen ranking increases when a page gets a 'nofollow' link on certain websites like Wikipedia.

To me that makes perfect sense. Search engines know which websites are whiter than white (often called 'seed sites'). They never spam or have links to questionable websites like gambling, adult content, con schemes, etc. If I were Google I would make sure such links carry authority, it would be mad to ignore such signals.

I've simply seen it happen too many times not to conclude that 'nofollow' links don't carry authority in some circumstances.

The issue with using links to determine authority

It was Google who revolutionized how search engines worked by using links as a signal to determine who should rank above who and in the early days of the Internet that made a lot of sense because the Internet was just websites.

However as time has gone on you can be a whole lot more popular online without receiving praise in the form of links from other webmasters. You can be massively popular on Facebook or Instagram, highly recommended on Twitter or widely talked about on live streaming platforms.

This starts to make search engines who rely too much on links to measure authority look unreliable. Users can see there is a mismatch between what is being talked about online and what is ranking and search engines start risking market share.

Google has attempted to understand 'brand mentions' as a further signal but when many brands are every day words (like 'Orange') they also need to understand context better.

Authority from 2019 onwwards

Authority via links was always an imperfect tool. Google spent years battling spammers who tried to game the system but they did it because understanding the quality of an individual page had always been limited by technology. How could a machine determine if Article A was better than Article B based on its content alone?

We're now starting to see an answer to that question in Natural Language Processing made possible by Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning.

Increasingly that can now understand, as a human would, what content is better than other content without relying on other people (i.e. links from other sites) to tell them.

Don't get me wrong here. I'm not saying search engines plan to stop using links as a measure of authority. I'm saying they will give them less weight and focus more on the content of pages themselves.

I'm Tim Hill, a Search Engine Optimization and Online Marketing specialist. I created this site to help others understand that SEO is not a mysterious black art!.

If your a newbie try the Getting Started in SEO page, otherwise feel free to dig around and learn more.

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