2011 has seen one of the more significant updates to Google’s search algorithm in recent history. One key goal of Google’s on-going “Panda” update is to clean up its index and devalue sites that seemed untrustworthy or were just plain-old content farms that offered very little value to visitors. Removing or devaluing these sites, in theory, makes Google a better search engine by offering up higher-quality websites more often to its users. Google has done this, partly, by promoting a concept that can be called “brand authority” or “domain authority.” Essentially, they want to answer a query with the most authoritative, trustworthy and useful sites that have content related to a given query.
So how does one become an “authority?” Let’s run down a few key factors and why they’re important.
Cultivating links from external pages back to your website has long been the lifeblood of any site’s ability to rank. Now more than ever, site owners should be focusing on quality over quantity when it comes to their link profiles. Generating an organic, natural-looking link profile is a great indicator to search engines that your site’s or brand’s content is worthwhile, useful and trusted. But what does that look like? Here are some indicators webmasters should be aware of:
Editorial vs. Non-Editorial Links: Search engines can discern repeating blocks of code on a website and determine that these are likely navigational elements or ad blocks. It’s a lot easier to buy, sell or trade links within footers, for example, than to get links within editorial content. Therefore, “editorial” links have a far greater value since someone is telling their readers “I trust this content enough to recommend it to you through this link.”
Number of links vs. Number of linking domains: If your site has 10,000 links and they’re all coming from three domains, chances are you’ve got a link in the footers of a couple website, or worse, have paid for a link. It’s never going to be a 1:1 ratio but more natural link-building has more links spread across many domains.
Linking Domain Quality/Authority: This is the heart of the quality-over-quantity discussion. Site owners should be marketing their content to other relevant, authoritative outlets from their market spaces. A link from one trustworthy source in your space is going to be worth more than 50 links from a random variety of websites.
Anchor Text Diversity: If your site has 10,000 links and 9,990 of them all have the anchor text of “Brand Name,” those links will not appear to have been cultivated naturally or editorially. Logically, it stands that if multiple sites were freely and independently choosing to link to your content, it would be very likely that they would be using different anchor text.
Depth of Linking: Combined with the factors above, link depth helps indicate trust and authority by showing the search engines that sites aren’t just linking to the homepage but to quality, important and relevant content that exists within that site. This site is producing content of value and that content is trusted by other site owners enough to link to it.
Social media channels offer more opportunity than ever for your visitors to become evangelists for your website and its content. People are promoting your brand through tweets, Facebook “likes, and +1’s. Search engines know this too and see these channels as ways to view popular sentiment. Much like an inbound link is considered a “vote” for your website and brand, to some degree so too are these social media signals.
Site owners should make it very easy for visitors to share, like, tweet, dig or +1 any single piece of content as well as the site as a whole. New, relevant content should be published to the brand’s social media networks for sharing as well. Sharing is marketing. Marketing is branding. Branding is trust. Trust leads to authority.
Brand managers should also spend time cultivating their social networks. Networks with a wide reach and are comprised of other authoritative followers can have a greater impact on the perceived authority of the content being shared via that network. Also, it offers greater opportunities for content to be shared by authorities within the market space, which will only add weight to the content being shared and who originally published it.
Subjective Factors - Content, Design & Usage
Is the content on your site useful to visitors? Is the look and feel of the site pleasing to your audience? Does the site inspire trust? Would you give this site your credit card number? These are all questions site owners must take into consideration.
Search engines can track when users arrive on your site and then return back to their search results. Think of this as their way of measuring your site’s bounce rate. If a page is causing visitors to return to Google more frequently for a given query, soon enough, Google will deem that page no longer an authority for that particular query. If this happens with a significant number of queries for that domain, Google can make adjustments to the frequency in which a domain’s pages will appear in search results, and the rankings of that site’s pages when they do appear. Site owners need to monitor their bounce rates, specifically from organic search traffic, and continually work to improve their sites’ stickiness.
Google also employs an army of people who manually check Google’s search results and provide the subjective view of their search results that an algorithm sometimes can’t. Here, actual humans are making judgments about the trustworthiness of a site and how well it fulfills a searcher’s needs. Make sure your site looks like someplace your average visitor would feel safe providing personal information. There have even been reports of these reviewers making judgments based on the snippet shown in the search result. Make sure your Title and Description tags are useful and not overly stuffed with keywords.
Finally, when it comes to design and usage, site owners have to be concerned with page load speed. One popular statistic states that “40% of people abandon a website that takes more than 3 seconds to load.” It’s going to be next to impossible for people to share and promote your content or brand if they’re leaving before they get a chance to experience it.
If we try to sum-up what Google’s recent push toward brand and domain authority really means in these terms, I believe we see some basic principles bubbling up:
- Get deep, quality links from relevant, authoritative websites
- Allow your content to be sharable through social media channels
- Build a fast-loading website that provides relevant content within an experience that pleases visitors and keeps them on the site.
It looks to me like Google is encouraging us to combine the basics of SEO, Content Marketing, and Design and Usability. Getting these disciplines in sync should be something site owners everywhere can agree is a positive and something to be encouraged.