Welcome to the third and final installment of my series on relevance versus authority, exploring which link has more value.
To really tease out the argument of relevance versus authority, I asked industry experts the following question:
“All other metrics being equal, would you rather have a high-authority link with lower relevance or a highly relevant link with low authority?”
In this last part, I’ll present responses that discussed how it varies depending on the unique situation.
Expert opinions: Varies depending on situation
So, here are the respondents who cheated. Just kidding!
As I mentioned before, this is a complicated question with no real right or wrong answer. These experts spoke to the merits of both relevance and authority as metrics, explaining how choosing one over the other can depend on the specific situation or context.
These experts explained that they lean toward authority in general but noted situations where they would pursue a more relevant low-authority link.
“Relevance is a pretty subjective term. For example, a link from The New York Times may not be seen as highly relevant (as the site covers many topics), yet I’d love to get that link. So in that situation, I’d lean towards authority. But, if the relevance gap is large — such as getting a link from a high-authority site where neither the page nor the site are relevant to my site — I would probably lean towards the higher relevance. Not a single answer to your question, because there are a lot of nuances to it!”– Eric Enge, Stone Temple Consulting
“At the end of the day I would value (as a blanket statement) authority over relevancy.
“Why? A high-authority site tends to have a much broader ‘relevancy umbrella’ anyways, but the value is (or should be) obvious and immediate to anyone with an SEO background regardless of the number of themes being covered through the various categories of a site. Relevancy takes care of itself a bit as well because as a best practice you shouldn’t approach a site like this — high-authority site, with broad categories — without specific intent. This means you know what kinds of topics and tone are appropriate and the editor or webmaster will clearly be able to see that and appropriately place your link (for example, guest articles or a resource) in the relevant section, or your ask will be rejected for missing the mark and audience.
“However, let’s come back down to reality, where many clients are likely never going to be an appropriate fit for the kinds of sites I am talking about when referencing high authority (major media, news, entertainment, government and city sites, etc.). In these cases, do I still value authority over relevancy, even when I know the authority bar is much lower? No. In cases like this, target site relevance and topical relevance are going to trump authority, specifically because the authority metric will likely not be anything to write home about.
“Although I would love, just for the sake of conversation, to draw a hard line in the sand and radically shout a decisive winner between relevance and authority, it is and always will be a sliding scale filled with exceptions and nuance — just like SEO and link building should be. That’s ultimately why a human element is so essential, because truly great SEO work takes human thought and critical thinking.” — Amy Merrill, Page One Power
“Right now, I’d generally want the higher-authority link as it will likely have more impact and be seen by more people. Traffic and exposure are important, too, and have secondary impacts. There’s a case to be made for more relevant links driving more business impact, however, so it just depends. Over time, I think Google will get better at understanding content and determining relevancy, possibly by tagging and weighing different topics within content or for a whole website, then it will just depend on how they decide to weight the different factors and it could go either way.” — Patrick Stox, StoxSEO.com
“It’s more hypothetical, and all else is never equal, but I’ve seen a discrepancy between what we hope is rewarded more, and what actually is. In isolation, I’ve seen the high-authority/low-relevance link have more of an impact than a high-relevance/low-authority one. The best place to see this, and where the trade-offs of authority/relevance are most made on a link-by-link basis, is on the local level.
“But with that said, my approach is to not be going after high-authority/low-relevance links in any serious volume for a long-term campaign — higher relevance links are more “defensible” and are the ones that build more foundational link profiles. But in the end, it’s never this clear-cut, and any theoretical debate here may be counterproductive.” — Jon Cooper, Point Blank SEO
Depends on the content
Much of what you do in link building depends on the content or assets you are promoting. This can determine which links some of our experts would pursue.
“This is not a simple question because high authority is a straightforward quality, but relevance isn’t. Whether you use a tool such as Ahrefs or a metric such as unique visitors, a high-authority link equals a number. Relevancy is not as mathematical; it will depend on the page the link is pointing out to and the context that surrounds the link.
“If my client is a real estate agent and I’m building links with a piece of content about TV homes, then real estate sites will be relevant to the client while entertainment sites will be relevant to the content.
“Now, I know that your question is about authoritative vs. niche links. Having that in mind, I will prefer highly relevant yet lower authority links when working with content that is niche and close to the client because those are the people who will actually care enough to take action. However, high-authority links will be a priority when working with editorial content that has potential to be featured on big online media outlets.
Depends on clicks
If everything is truly equal, some experts would lean towards whichever link would actually get clicks.
“If those are the only metrics I can take, I’d take the high-authority, low-relevance link. If, however, the relevant link were lower authority, but sent more direct traffic, I’d take that one!” — Rand Fishkin, Moz
“This is a tough question to answer. I have seen small sites get a a few links from non-relevant sites that actually seem to help with rankings significantly. I would like to answer with a third option. I would like to get the link that is most likely to send me referral traffic.
“There are two reasons for this. The first is that I may drive some business from people who click on that link. But, the second reason is because of a theory of mine. I really do think that one of the ways in which Google can feel confident about devaluing links with Penguin is that they have algorithms that value links based on how likely they are to be clicked. Now, I don’t think it’s as black and white as saying that a link that never gets clicked on will have zero value. Rather, I think that people clicking on links is just one of the ways in which Google can determine whether the link is valuable.
“If all things were equal, and both of these links were likely to get clicks, then I’d choose the link on the authoritative site even if it weren’t relevant. But, if the link on the less authoritative site was much more likely to drive traffic, then I’d take that one.” — Marie Haynes, Marie Haynes Consulting
Some experts indicated that they would of course want both links but would prioritize highly relevant links first.
“Which link to take, an authority link or a relevant link? Of course I’d take both! What I wouldn’t do is pursue the authority link first though. A high-authority link coming from nowhere to a new site raises a red flag to Google. It looks unnatural.
“A highly relevant link with low authority is much more likely to be organic and not built artificially. Thus, I’d favor the relevant links and seek an occasional authority link while at it.
“When doing outreach I always go after similar sites and don’t try to convince huge influencers to link. It takes much longer and is very often unsuccessful. I can get 10 highly relevant links while still striving after one authority link.” — Tadeusz Szewczyk, Onreact.com
So, who wins the battle of relevance versus authority? Here’s the breakdown of responses I received:
- Total respondents whose answer varies depending on the situation: 8
- Total respondents who chose relevance: 13
- Total respondents who chose authority: 8
I didn’t expect to come away with a singular answer, and the experts I contacted made compelling points for both relevance and authority.
Relevance got the slight nod, with 13 respondents leaning toward relevance versus eight who chose authority and eight who essentially said their answer changes based on the situation.
This is truly a complex question that can be answered in a variety of ways.
Reading through the great responses, I had some takeaways:
- Link building has evolved and become more marketing-centric. I noticed that all of the respondents — regardless of which side of the debate they fell on — focused on how the link would be valuable, from a variety of perspectives.
- The prospect of qualified referral traffic — and potential conversions — appeared to be a common benefit experts pointed to in favor of relevance.
- Many of the experts concluded that links from trusted, authoritative sites have the biggest impact on search rankings.
- There is no definitive answer one way or the other; evaluating link prospects must be done on a case-by-case basis. Factors such as competition level, what you’re promoting for links, the links you already have in your backlink profile, and so on, all play a role in deciding which links to pursue.
- We have an awesome, open-minded industry where people are willing to take time out of their busy days to answer hypothetical questions and debate philosophy, because they are invested in fostering an informed community.
Finally, I want to thank all the folks who responded to my question. I know it’s a complex issue, and I appreciate how candid people were with their thoughts and opinions.
The topic of relevance versus authority remains an integral part of link building, and I hope this post will continue to push the debate forward. I’d love to continue the discussion on Twitter, and you can tweet me here.
Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.