What is 'Authority' with respect to SEO?

The answer may surprise you!

Here's what most SEOs can say with utmost confidence; we know that the concept of 'authority' is an important one to rankings and traffic from organic search.

Its comical though, perhaps even sad. Over time, "Authority" has come to mean something completely different to Google, than it does to SEOs. This is no one's fault … just a condition created by imperfect information, and the need to suffice.

The Engines' Definition of Authority:
To Google, Yahoo, MSN, Ask, et al, links are the consequence of being an authority, they do not make you an authority.

Their rationale, people and companies that are thought leaders, visionaries, and moral leaders in a space (aka the 'authorities'), will naturally attract a substantial following. These followers will monitor much of what the 'authority' says, and inevitably will discuss it, blog about it, and link to it. Ultimately, they hope to learn from these authorities, and become authorities themselves.

The problem however is that Google et al doesn't definitively know who the authorities are, so they can only infer who the authorities are by the indicators at hand … links. Fortunately, they've also figured out that often, authorities link to other authorities, as often they enlist the help of one another and/or reference the work of one another in their attempts to further the understanding of the topics at hand. Essentially, its as the great quote by Isaac Newton states:

"If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants".

Where he acknowledges that all of his gifts to humanity were only made possible by the gifts of all who preceded him. There it is … authorities reference authorities. Search engines know this!

The Typical SEO's View of Authority:
To an SEO, 'authority' is created by links. SEOs often look at the term "Authority" as an adjective (its an authoritative site), not as a noun (she is the Authority).

Accordingly, our goal as SEOs is almost never about making our client an authority, but rather making their site authoritative by building links. I don't blame SEOs either … often client companies are either unwilling or incapable of investing the time and effort necessary to make them 'authorities'. This is a very long and arduous process afterall!

So What? Who Cares?
Google cares, and I care. Here's why you should too!

As I've said on many occasions, the ultimate goal is not to fool Google. Nor is the ultimate goal is not to achieve high rankings … high rankings without authority are a short term proposition and unsustainable. Google is evolving. They've got more PhDs than NASA! Even if you manage to fool them in the short term, it'll have long term consequences once they figure it out, and how many of your clients are willing to take that risk? Besides, by doing things right the first time, you can focus on the future and on moving forward, rather than always fighting the fires you've left burning behind you.

What does this mean? It means this; I Jeff Quipp am not an SEO. I am an Authority Builder! SEO (technical analysis and recommendations) is a component of Authority Building, but only a component, much like search is but one component of the overall marketing mix.

Will I be an authority builder for each and every client? Probably not. In some cases, the role of the client site will be as an information hub (eg. directories or information sites) … this is a perfectly valid strategy also. Some of the biggest sites on the net are hubs.

What this concept also means though, is that where I define my role as an Authority Builder, we now we have a guiding mantra and philosophy for actions and objectives. The implications of this are far reaching. It impacts most everything we do; the content we write, the social media sites we use, the friends we make, and much more. Before we act, we need to ask ourselves; does this help to establish me/my client as an authority in my field?

Now, I understand many of you will look at this with a fair amount of scepticism. To those of you who do, consider these people in our space:
a) Maki from DoshDosh
b) Rand Fiskin (ahmm sorry Fishkin) from SEOmoz
c) Darren Rowse from Problogger

None of these people have infinite budgets, nor were their companies particularly large when they built their authority. Yet, they're amongst the best known and most trusted people in our industries. In essence, they understand this concept, and did it. Now look at them go! Could we not learn alot from their successes?

Say it with me now; I (your name) am an Authority Builder.

Doesn't that feel better? Did you get shivers down your spine?

Going Forward

As I alluded to, the implications of viewing yourself as an authority builder are many. Accordingly, I'll publish a series of posts in coming weeks (one per week) discussing these ramifications. Here are a few of these future posts:

    - Establishing Clients as Authorities, Not As Having Authoritative Sites
    - The Role of Social Media in Authority Building
    - Authorities vs Information Hubs
    - Perception is Reality … Authority is Perceived

What are your thoughts? I'd really like to hear them. I know my buddy Dave Harry disagrees to some extent, so do voice your opinion!

ps Before calling me to task for not changing the copy on our website accordingly, keep in mind potential clients are not yes using this terminology. Maybe someday soon.

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16 Responses to “I Jeff Quipp Am Not an SEO … I’m an Authority Builder”

  1. Jeff – awesome piece. I guess you're building yourself up as the authority on authorities, huh? :)
    As to info hub vs authorities, I'd say that it's an interesting distinction but rather just new terminology for an old categorization: mavens and connectors. The former being knowledgeable, connectors linking people together (online with links a la BoingBoing or SEL) or offline by references. But then maybe that's not where you were going with that?

  2. Jeff Quipp says:

    @ Gab … thanks for the response. the term 'hub' has been around for a long time as has mavens and connectors. But you're right; that's exactly where I'm going. Some sites aim not to be the authorities themselves, but rather to be a repository for authority pieces. Both are sound strategies.

  3. If you can come up with a nice TLA that uses Authority Building in it, I'd be willing to switch away from being called an SEO :-) Who among us optimizes search engines, anyway!?

  4. glengara says:

    "Yet, they’re amongst the best known and most trusted people in our industries."

    Trusted? You seem to have bought into the celebrity culture thing….

  5. Jeff Quipp says:

    @ Marios – I've leave the TLAs to someone else :) though can you think of any.

    @ Glengara – you're right … trusted is taking it perhaps a little too far. We do appear to trust their writing more though than someone we don't know.

    I'm not so much buying into the whole celebrity culture thing as I am realizing that hey … when I ask questions such as "why do we blog?", the answer is inevitably because it helps to establish/show our knowledge (authority no?) in a given field while helping us attract more search traffic.

  6. Matt Ridout says:

    "Say it with me now; I (your name) am an Authority Builder."

    Brilliant line Jeff, I said it by the way. It's an interesting take for sure, like you said, sometimes the client won't need an "authority". In my experience I've been lucky enough to work on sites with that "authority".

    Great post

  7. SEO Catfish says:

    Really good article. I don't believe that SEO is all about authority building because sometimes it is a matter of making the information more available to search. But certainly as it relates to external link building and moreso, the overall content strategy as it relates to being a thought leader in your space, I agree 100% with what you are saying.

  8. Ross Dunn says:

    Great article Jeff. Dude you are on fire these days!

    Anyway, my first instinct is YES! YES! That is exactly what I try to get across to my clientele… build your site into a resource that establishes authority.

    @ SEO Catfish is right that getting info into search engines is an SEO practitioner's role but that is awefully basic. It is like saying an advertiser's job is just to get people to see their ads. That is a part of it but hardly the main point… the advertiser's role is to make people act on the ads. By the same token an Authority Builder's role is to get information out there that increases the positive opinion of readers and builds the perceived expertise of the writer/company.

    Anyway, I rambled, sorry. Anyway, I am not so sure I would put "Authority Builder" on my business card but it is definitely a term I plan on using to describe in 360 terms what our objective is with each client in search engine marketing.

  9. Dr. Pete says:

    Interesting discussion, Jeff. I've been thinking a lot lately about the construct (and illusion) of authority online. Just as the search engines fall prey to their own algorithms, we humans have certain rules that we use to judge authority, and we aren't always right either. It's fascinating to compare how people and machines make judgments, and it's an important area for both SEM and usability.

  10. Utah SEO says:

    Yes, that's really what Internet Marketing boils down to. Authority perception Development…you could drum but a dozen different titles.

    I might be the only South Park fan here but…"RESPECT MY AUTHORI-TY" :)

  11. I agree in such that anything that gets SEOs out of their pre-occupation with "links" and realizing "authority" is not about the quantity but quality of links is a step in the right direction.

    I spend more time evaluating competitors sites then I do on link development. I know that if I can identify an "Authority Niche" opportunity then with a lot less work all the Authorities find it and… you're in the club.

    Too often I see SEO's that see the keyword "mortagage calculator" and… they add a mortgage calulator. No research is done to:
    A. Build a better calculator
    B. Find an unmeant user need in a calculator and meet it
    A. Use A and B to leverage all the Mortagage calculators out there.

    For instance I see lots of calculators but I've never seen one that would keep results from every calculator for comparison by the users later.

    The three "authorities" mentioned chose a niche they were very good at and the content made it happen er… in at least 2 cases. In one case well… they aren't an Authority they are a "famous" or well known SEO. IMO, there's a difference.

  12. Don't know about the others but the reason Darren Rowse is perceived as an "authority" is that he was one of the first to build a site around so-called "pro-blogging". He got lucky. He's no more of an "authority" than a lot of other busy bloggers. And you'll note he'll write about anything that'll bring him affiliate income. Load of hogwash this "authority" business. Next you'll be telling us DMOZ is the "authority" directory (just send your "contribution" in an unmarked envelope). One thing's for sure – the net is not a level playing field.

  13. [...] Quipp claims not to be an SEO but an "authority builder." Sounds like someone's ahead of the curve… got insider information you'd like to [...]

  14. [...] momento. En éste, el segundo artículo de las series (el primero fue publicado la semana pasada) I Jeff Quipp am not an SEO! I’m an Authority Builder), exploraremos la definición de una autoridad, y otras posibles estrategias de volverse, o ayudar [...]

  15. [...] more usually talk about domain trust and domain authority based on the number, type and quality of incoming links to a [...]

  16. Great post all around. I agree that having a great site and content will make you an authority and help you to build links.