Authority vs Celebrity … Is There a Difference?

by Jeff Quipp February 20th, 2008 

Is an authority in a given industry necessarily a celebrity, and visa versa?

Lee Odden recently made an interesting post The Fallacy of SEO Celebrity earlier this week, echoed shortly after by Rand Fishkin with his Desire for Fame in the SEO World post. I wonder if this post has been misinterpreted ... think I did at first too.

These posts resulted in a blog volley from a different perspective ... the Fame Game and Take Your Fame and Shove It. All posts caused me to think even harder about the subject of authority (though Dave's made me laugh too), as did Lyndon's (Cornwall SEO) response in the SEOmoz post, and will cause me to rethink what I postulated earlier.

I believe Lyndon nailed it when he responded to the question is fame important; "Respect amongst peers, yes. Fame and being loved, I can do without."

Definition of Authority:
I'll therefore argue there is a distinct difference between fame/celebrity and authority. Authority is as I initially defined it; "is someone or some entity whos opinion(s) about specific topics are respected and valued by industry peers." Authority is earned. Authorities aren't necessarily well known either, though many are. Its certainly not a condition of being an authority.

I'll personally bet most people can name many more washed up A-list actors from the 90's than they can Nobel Prize Winners.

Definition of Celebrity:
Celebrities on the other hand are really really well known, though they've not necessarily earned it, and isn't based on actual merit or respect. I can think of many famous individuals, who are not well respected.

Is it possible to be a celebrity and not an authority? Yes!
Is it possible to be an authority and not a celebrity? Again yes!
Is it possible to be both a celebrity and an authority? Yes

Why Do These Definitions Matter:
These definitions matter because of the techniques I defined for helping clients become authorities in my post What Is Authority, and How Do You Build It?. In reality, I would much rather have a client become an authority (which denotes respect) than a celebrity (which does not necessarily mean respect). An authority on a topic is routinely referenced (ie. links), trusted (ie. asked to speak or guest blog), and is often a part of exciting opportunities that present themselves.

In essence, I stated that there were 3 primary approaches to authority building:

    1) Be an Expert
    2) Be an Uber Networker and Super Friend
    3) Carefully Craft Perceptions

I now need to revise my approaches slightly, based on the following analysis:

    - Being an expert (without the networking, friending, and perception crafting) will still make someone an Authority, but the scope of their perceived Authority is reduced.
    - Being an uber networker and super friend (without being an expert or without crafting perceptions) can only lead to fame/celebrity status, but not authority
    -Carefully crafting perceptions without being an expert or networker can lead to perceptions of Authority Status and actual fame, but ultimately the authority status could be debunked.

So, what am I concluding? Essentially this;

a. both authority and fame can put bread on the table, and work best when combined. Authority with no fame leads to limited authority .... ie. if noone knows about your genius, are you infact still a genius? Authority with fame leads to Rock Stardom, which is my goal for most clients.

b. fame with no authority leads to short lived careers ... think of all the actors and actresses desperately trying to retain their fame, and the lengths some go to stay in the spotlight. In the end, they have no real control since their talent is lacking. This is much like a web site dominating the rankings, but with no real content. It WILL lose its rankings ultimately, and will try anything to regain its prior status, though never will.

Further Support:

Let me drive this home even more. As part of my series on "Authority Building", I asked both Rand and Lee prior to these recent festivities; if you could summarize, what would you say are the three biggest keys to becoming an authority online ... where I'm defining 'authority' as; a person or company who's opinion is respected and valued by industry peers.

Here were their responses:


    1. Produce content that explains complex problems, news or issues in simple, understandable ways
    2. Be both professional and friendly in the the way you write or speak
    3. Take a real interest in the people you meet - be willing to sacrifice some of your time to help solve problems or contribute your expertise. Don't ask or expect anything in return and over time, you'll grow an exceptionally important personal and professional asset - goodwill.


    1. Be an authority - know your stuff!
    2. Make promises and keep them - consistently
    3. Give before you get and freely recognize others that give

Both have combined some elements of 'authority building' and 'fame building', which is why they have achieved the status they have today.

So in the end, my interpretation of what they're both saying is that being an expert and promoting awareness of that knowledge crucial. They are warning though ... don't try to become famous, without first building the requisite authority. Am I understanding this correctly Rand and Lee?

To me, this is very interesting, and certainly helps in planning strategies for clients. Thanks guys!

What are your thoughts about this? Now's your chance to be an authority ... speak up!

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9 Responses to “Authority vs Celebrity … Is There a Difference?”

  1. James Duthie says:

    So what you're saying Jeff, is that SEO fame seekers are the online equivalent of Paris Hilton…. :)

  2. I LOVE this topic Jeff. Good one. I've always held a couple of simple beliefs:

    1 – content is king
    2 – to get, you must give
    3 – any help is precious, so open appreciate it

    I'd have to say your definition suits my own "moral compass" on the topic nicely. Very nice to see a couple of "brand names" from the industry in agreement not just with themselves, but aligned in your direciton as well.

    I wrote a post parallel to this topic (on my own blog) last year and dragged Vanessa Fox into it (with permission. 😉 ) – the basic thrust was:

    We've got a lot of names being built in our industry, can any of them cross over to "absolute celebrity"? The thinkign being that exposure + financial success seems to be pretty much all that's needed to qualify as a "celeb" these days – as vacuous as that it.

    In the end it seemed that many online names are destined to never become celebrities for one simple reason – they know better. 😉

    …though appearing on Oprah might hasten one's acsednancy into the hotter night clubs. 😉

  3. MiriamEllis says:

    Hi Jeff,
    I think this is the first time I've commented on one of your posts, though I know I've sphunn lots of them.

    Frankly – the famous SEO thing took me as a bit of a surprise. It is that people really want fame or wealth that is frequently the byproduct of fame?

    While I wouldn't mind being wealthy, I would personally loathe being famous, and I guess it's always been my assumption that most people making use of industry-oriented SM are doing it in hopes of networking…not so people will worship them.

    The series of posts around this topic (including yours) have been interesting to me because they point to a concept that people are, indeed, hoping to be celebrities. Hard for me to see the sense in that.

    Appreciated what you wrote.

  4. Paul says:

    @James, have you ever heard of 'Perez Hilton' the blogger who used to write about the celebrities and is now ironically a celeb after chasing fame.

    @Jeff, Another great piece, my take in all of this is "live and let live" … if some wish to chase a dream of fame, let them … if others wish to shun the spotlight, let them … if others just wish to blog and be part of the community, let them …

    There's space for everyone.

  5. Lee Odden says:

    Great post Jeff and great series as well. Thank you for involving me.

    I think you've hit it right – authority is different than celebrity. In fact, the notion of "celebrity" is a bit silly in an industry as little as ours.

    Building authority is like building a brand. You make promises about capabilities and you deliver on those promises time and time again.

    Trust, credibility and confidence in a person or company all come from a reliable representation based on truths as well as the consistent delivery and superior knowledge of the subject matter/industry.

    That's my opinion anyway. :)

  6. Jeff Quipp says:

    @ James – haha … thanks for the anology. I guess so … there must be some substance for it all to be sustainable.

    @ Duane – thanks for the comment. I think appearing on Oprah will only help Rand become even bigger in our industry … what would he be famous for outside our industry (unless he's got something cool up his sleeve we don't know about yet:) Again, there has to be substance to sustain notoriety outside our industry.

    @ Mariam – thank you for commenting. I hope you will again too! I appreciate your comment. I love what Lyndon wrote; “Respect amongst peers, yes. Fame and being loved, I can do without.”

    @ Paul – absolutely Paul … to each his own. Just make sure its accompanied by authority too.

    @ Lee – well said! My personal belief is that it is about setting expectations, then exceeding them. Consistently doing so will build authority … which essentially is as you state; trust, credibility, and confidence.

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  8. Utah SEO Pro says:

    Jeff, I'm glad you drew a line between the dichotomous relationship of being an authority and a celebrity. Often times people mix these up. I can think of conference panelists that IMHO are only there because they are celebrities…NOT authorities.

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