The quest to understand how Google arrives at its globally-influential rankings is a never-ending one, with people in the SEO industry forever working to uncover secret formulas for success. Despite what we may want to think, a lot of it consists of guesswork — educated guesswork, yes, but guesswork nonetheless.
But though there are so many things about search rankings that we don’t (and maybe even never will) understand, there are some things that we can be fairly certain about, because they’ve been explicitly mentioned by Google on numerous occasions.
Two of these are relevancy and authority, and they’ve held positions at the heart of the SEO industry in some form since the inception of SEO as a pursuit. In recent years, the rise of myriad additional factors (some say 200, but, again, it’s guesswork) has muddied the water, leading some to conclude that these venerable factors are no longer as vital as they were — but that conclusion is incorrect.
In fact, the contrary is true. Relevancy and authority are not only still essential search ranking factors, but they’re now more essential than ever before. Why? Allow me to explain.
Semantic search has deepened relevancy
It’s taken as established that keywords aren’t as significant as they once were, and there is some truth to that. Meta keywords used to be important for rankings, but were removed as factors because they were rampantly abused through keyword stuffing. And in general, the Google algorithm’s ever-improving ability to parse searcher intent regardless of specific wording has lessened the impact of particular terms.
But relevancy isn’t something that can only be determined through collecting keywords, which is the crux of this point. Relevancy is far more complex — it is contextual, depending not on the exact search but on the desires of the searcher. Google doesn’t necessarily care what exactly makes a page relevant. It only cares that it is relevant, and the searcher is satisfied with it.
As such, numerous other ranking factors all factor into the concept of relevancy, without any one of them having overbearing importance. Everything must be collated to reach an overall decision about the value of a page. Is it possible for an irrelevant page to rank for a certain term? Technically, yes — but how long can it last before Google adapts to whatever method was used to force the issue?
Authority is a key part of Google’s Quality Rating system
The recent Google algorithm update has been widely referred to as the Medic update because of the extent to which it affected medical sites (along with other sites that are considered YMYL — your money or your life), and a notable change was made to Google’s Quality Rating guidelines.
Google may primarily be algorithm-driven, but it requires human assistance to keep things moving in the right direction, and that feedback is handled through its Quality Rating system. It tasks people throughout the world — potentially thousands — with reviewing ranked sites in accordance with the provided guidelines.
Following the Medic update, those guidelines prioritize EAT (Expertise, Authority, Trust). Does a site’s content show expertise? Was it created by an authority on the subject? Can the site be trusted? Take medical copy, for instance. A guide to dealing with a particular disease might contain expertise, but if the writer isn’t an authority on the topic, Google won’t consider it very sensible to rank that page highly (thereby implicitly endorsing it).
Since I write primarily in the ecommerce field, I’ll give you an ecommerce example of how to demonstrate authority. As an online marketplace, Exchange displays a range of websites for sale, something that demands a lot of credibility — after all, anyone who might spend thousands of dollars on a website needs to know that the company they’re using is trustworthy. To demonstrate this, the site has an informative blog, a help center, a free buyer’s guide, and a “How It Works” section. The user is thus reassured that they can proceed with the relevant ESCROW protection.
Quality Raters don’t directly affect rankings, of course, but they do influence development of the algorithm, and thus the factors it takes into account. If Google doesn’t already look closely at the author of a piece of content when ranking it, it certainly will soon. This is just one reason why choosing medical marketing carefully is a must.
They persuade users, affecting on-page SEO
Let’s imagine for a second that someone, against all rationality, these two factors were wholly discarded by Google, and they openly announced that their rankings will no longer seek to determine relevancy or authority. In that scenario, they would still be worth pursuing by content marketers. Why?
Because users care about them. If you visit a site and the content doesn’t answer your questions, it doesn’t matter how highly it was ranked: you’ll leave. If you happen upon an ecommerce store that doesn’t seem a trustworthy authority in the online retail world, it will make no difference whether it was the top result or the hundredth: you’ll go elsewhere.
And no matter how radically Google changes its formula, it will always prefer websites that hold user attention, earn social shares, and produce conversions. Sites that cannot realistically exist without solid levels of both relevancy and authority.