By Cory Collins
02 Apr 2014

Google Webmaster Video from Matt Cutts - How does Google separate popularity from authority

Advanced SEO

Matt Cutts released another Google Webmaster video in which he discusses determining popularity versus authority.

The exact question, asked by AJ Kohn of Blind Five Year Old, was:

"As Google continues to add social signals to the algorithm, how do you separate simple popularity from true authority?"

There's a few important takeaways from the video:

  • PageRank isn't a measure of the popularity of the website. PageRank is instead a measure of reputation.
  • Link signals are used to determine popularity versus authority
  • New algorithmic changes will be coming out involving determining authority
  • Social signals aren't used in Google's algorithm*

* - this is implied, but also directly stated by Google elsewhere on the web.

PageRank isn't a measure of popularity - it's a measure of reputation

Matt jumped straight into this, mentioning his frustration with the press confusing the two terms in the past.

"From the earliest days, it would get us really kind of frustrated when we'd see reporters talk about PageRank and say PageRank is a measure of the popularity of websites - because that's not true. For example, if you were to look at sites that were popular, well, for example porn sites are very popular. But people tend not to link to porn sites. On the other hand, if you take something like the Wisconsin real estate board, probably not a ton of people go there, but quite a few people do link to government websites. And so popularity in some sense is a measure of where people go, whereas PageRank is much more a measure of reputation, it's much more a reputation of where people link. And there is a disparity there." -Matt Cutts

So really, PageRank isn't a great indicator of popularity, but rather reputation. So how do they determine authority?

Link signals are used to determine authority

Matt's example of how to determine authority within the video was "topical PageRank." For topical PageRank, Matt's examples revolved around how many of your site's links from other sites related to a given subject, and how many used anchor text related to your subject.

Based on the fact that Matt immediately defaulted to link signals, it's a safe assumption that link signals themselves are the primary indicator for authority. Even AJ Kohn, who asked the question, agreed:

New algorithmic changes will be coming out involving determining authority

Near the end of the video, Matt mentioned that there will be new algorithmic changes involving the determination of authority will be coming out soon, and that he's excited for them:

"So, it [determining authority] is difficult, but it's a lot of fun. We actually have some algorithmic changes that try to figure out "hey this site is a better match for something like a medical query." And I'm looking forward to those rolling out because a lot of people have worked hard so that you don't just say "oh this is a well-known site, therefore it should match for this query," it's "this is a site that actually has some evidence that it should rank for something related to medical queries," and that's something where we can improve the quality of that algorithms even more." -Matt Cutts

Matt isn't very specific about the algorithmic changes, beyond being excited and believing it will further improve the quality of the results, related to authorities ranking over well-known sites.

Social signals aren't used in Google's algorithm

Although not directly stated in this video, it was definitely implied by Matt Cutts brushing the implication away. Furthermore, he's recently stated directly that social signals don't play a role in rankings:

Furthermore, Amit Singhal, Google's head of the search algorithm, recently stated in his keynote at SMX West that social signals aren't used in the algorithm (skip ahead to 8:33):

If you'd like to read more about the pitfalls of using social in search, check out Jon Ball's recent article on Search Engine Watch here.

Personally, I used to believe Google would want to include social signals. However recently I'm not so sure, for three reasons:

  1. Social signals are easier to manipulate than links
  2. Social signals would require Google to rely heavily on 5 or so websites (who may or may not be a competitor to G+), as opposed to the whole web
  3. Anytime Matt Cutts is asked about social signals, the conversation is pretty quickly redirected to links. I think Google is happy with links as a core signal.


Cory Collins

Cory Collins is the Business Development Manager at Page One Power and has been with the agency since 2012. Cory is an SEO strategist, writer, runner, and outdoor enthusiast residing in Boise, Idaho, with his wife, daughter, and (too) many pets.