By Michael Johnson
30 Jun 2021

What Makes a Link "Authoritative?"

SEO Strategy     Advanced Link Building     Advanced SEO

You may answer this question by reciting a website’s domain authority number or referring to the trust flow score. But what if I told you these metrics have nothing to do with Google and their definition of authority? Where else can you look to determine a link’s authority? 

You can start by looking at the search engine itself. 

Google’s algorithm prioritizes users — that is, searchers. Although links to other websites can feel like an automatic and robotic process, it’s important to remember that there are real humans behind the screen deciding to link to your website. Google’s goal will forever revolve around user value. Relevancy is another key indicator for quality. It’s the glue that holds a link building campaign together. By making relevancy your focus, you’ll create better linkable assets that real audiences will want to link to. The outreach continues with them when their own audiences are provided with a value that’s genuinely relevant to them.

Your overall search engine optimization (SEO) strategy should include link building strategies for your content from various sites across the web. The introduction of PageRank saw Google do something different than what search engines had done up to that point. They moved away from primarily using keywords as a ranking factor and started implementing more links instead. Nowadays, because of this shift, inbound, outbound, and internal links are extremely beneficial to your SEO goals

Of the three types, inbound links hold the greatest SEO advantage. If a site owner decides to link to another site, it shows that the website they are linking to is a credible and authoritative source of information. However, not all inbound links are created equal. As a site owner, you will want to ensure that the website linking to yours has a reliable reputation with good authority. 

So what makes an inbound link authoritative? It starts with letting go of third-party metrics and using relevancy and human value as your proverbial North star. 

The Problem With Third-Party Metrics

Throughout the SEO industry, you may hear talk of different types of metrics including:

  • Domain authority
  • Page authority
  • Trust flow
  • Citation flow 
  • Domain Rating 

I’ve had countless conversations where potential clients start asking about minimum domain authority (DA) on links. While aiming for just the minimum has become a bit of a standard across the industry, this line of thinking is misguided. 

These metrics may serve to fill a void in the SEO knowledge database, but it’s important to note that these are third-party metrics, and they are not associated with Google. These metrics were created by Moz, Majestic, and Ahrefs — leaders in the SEO industry — and are only estimates of a site’s ranking power. Since Google does not give out their “secret sauce” for ranking, these sites try to fill that knowledge gap with metrics of their own. In addition, there are other problems related to third-party metrics: 

  • The metrics can be easily manipulated
  • Third-party sites don’t have the same resources as Google
  • Changes to URLs can skew the metrics
  • Many marketers only rely on these metrics

Because of these potential problems, along with variances among the sites, marketers should not fully rely on third-party metrics when pursuing link building efforts. 

Relevancy

Pursuing relevant links can help show search engines what your site is all about while staying within Google’s guidelines. Before Google enforced the Penguin update, link volume played a large role in ranking. However, many webmasters used and abused this method by participating in black hat link building tactics causing many low-quality sites to rank in the search engine results page when they shouldn’t have. 

Just recently, Google’s John Mueller was asked if the total number of links on a site affected rankings in Google. Though he talked about a few different factors, the only quality factor he mentioned was relevancy: 

“We try to understand what is relevant for a website, how much should we weigh these individual links, and the total number of links doesn’t matter at all. Because you could go off and create millions of links across millions of websites if you wanted to, and we could just ignore them all.”

Google uses relevancy as a benchmark for rankings because it helps cut through the clutter and nonsense and filter out the websites that don’t match up with the kinds of sites that make sense for you to have in your backlink profile.

Through the implementation of the Penguin update, Google made sure that the types of links mattered. Now, webmasters need to earn links that are natural and relevant because irrelevant links have become a red flag for Google as well as human readers. For example, if a pizza parlor recommended a certain hair product, you may not take their recommendation seriously. Links work the same way. 

To determine relevancy, look at four different levels:

  • Domain to domain: The site linking to your site is relevant; it’s in the same niche or industry. This is the weakest form of link relevancy. 
  • Domain to page: The page linking to your domain is relevant. If the page linking to you is irrelevant, there’s a possibility it won’t make contextual sense and it could be considered manipulative. 
  • Page to page: The page linking to your page is relevant. This relevancy level can help point to service pages or product pages that are normally hard to link to. 
  • Link to page: The link is relevant on the page. The link must fit in with the content around it or it could get flagged by both Google and human readers. 

By running inbound links through every relevance layer, you can best determine which links are relevant for your site. 

Human Value

Search results must answer searcher intent and ultimately keep people using the search engine. By focusing on the human value of their search engine, Google dominates the search market. SEO experts can also benefit from focusing on human values through their backlinks. 

I once had a client send me over some examples of sites that another firm built for him. They looked like good sites on the surface, had high-authority scores, and appeared to be at least somewhat relevant. However, when I looked at the articles being published on the site, I noticed a trend. Every article on the site had exact-match, anchor text links pointing to promotional pages on other sites. 

Very quickly, I realized what was going on. Someone had built up the authority of a site so they could sell links. This wasn’t a real site linking out to what their audience found valuable — this was a link mill! This is why it’s important to look for signs of human engagement, interaction — sites that provide real value to humans. 

To incorporate human value into your link building process, keep these three best practices in mind when pursuing links:

  • Connect with the webmaster
  • Show that you understand their audience
  • Show them how your piece provides unique value 

When measuring the effectiveness of your link building efforts, infuse human value into them by remembering to:

  • Set specific goals.
  • Focus efforts around those goals.
  • Benchmark where you started.
  • Monitor your progress. 

By combining human value with your link building efforts, you ensure that you’re obtaining links from sites that have real audiences and serve a purpose outside of SEO.

Where do Third-Party Metrics Fit in?

When Google was first created, people used PageRank’s metrics to discover valuable sites. However, PageRank was hidden by Google because people were focusing too much on the metrics. Even Google can see the dangers of using only metrics to measure the authority of a site. If you solely rely on metrics for finding authoritative sites, you could miss out on valuable backlink opportunities. 

For instance, if you find a relevant site that your link could add value to, but dismiss it because it has a low DA, that’s a missed opportunity. Instead, these metrics can be used as guidelines for measuring authority — but by no means should they be the “end all, be all” for your assessments. A lot of niche sites have lower DA’s and can be highly relevant. These are valuable sites for backlink profiles and for establishing topical authority. 

Why This Approach Improves Your Link Building

By keeping relevancy and human value as your main focus to find authoritative backlinks, you effectively widen the pool of available websites. In this way, you can use third-party metrics as a guide to determine engagement, backlink profiles, content quality, and other authority metrics. Still, relying on third-party metrics alone will narrow your view and weaken your link building strategies. As you monitor your results from your link building campaign, you may discover different benefits like increases in rankings, traffic, and engagement — all this while your authority metric stays the same. This is common and another reason why it’s important to look at all link building metrics, not just one. However, would you trade real traffic and rankings for third-party metric growth? Not many would. 

If you want to rank in the SERPs, you’ll have to play by Google’s rules. Google holds relevant links, not just backlinks, in high regard for ranking. Even though Google is run by algorithms, the heart of the search engine lies in human value.

Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson has been pairing Page One Power's clients with the right organic search solutions for the past 8+ years. During that time, he's created strategies that help all types of businesses reach their goals in search, from local organizations to Fortune 500 companies. When he's not talking about link building you'll find him anguishing over Arsenal FC or listening to vinyl.