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The Third Pillar of SEO: Authority

AuthorityPreviously I’ve written about my Three Pillars approach to SEO, and have elaborated on the first two pillars: Technology and Relevance. Today I’ll be digging in to the third pillar: Authority.

Where the first two pillars ensure respectively that your website can be fully crawled, and that your content makes sense to search engines’ indexing process and achieves high relevance scores, the third pillar is all about building up the right signals of trust and authority so that your content can be ranked highly in search results.

Authority is, roughly speaking, the business of links. No matter how great your content is, if no one links to it you’ll never get it to rank.

I’m not going to discuss the ins and outs of linkbuilding, as plenty has been written about that. Instead I want to focus on what you can do on your own website to encourage the acquisition of fresh links; i.e. your website’s ability to earn new links.

In-Depth Content

I remember that for a long time the prevailing wisdom in the SEO community was that content should be short & snappy. It needed to be more than 200 words so you could get a decent amount of keywords in it, but no more than 500 words lest you overwhelm your readers.

I think we can safely say that the era of the ‘500-word maximum’ has well and truly ended. For too long we’ve underestimated our readers’ appetite for content, and we’ve come to realise that it’s okay to write big, in-depth pieces of many thousands of words.

There’s one caveat, of course: your content needs to be good.

There have been a few sources over the years that explore the relationship between content length and rankings. This graph from serpIQ is one of the most popular visualisations of the correlation between content length and rankings:

serpIQ content length vs rankings

As part of the 2014 ranking factors analysis, Searchmetrics also showed that content length correlates reasonably well with the top rankings in search results, and shows a trend towards longer content from 2013 to 2014:

Searchmetrics rankings vs content length 2013 2014

Word count alone doesn’t tell the whole story, obviously. I don’t believe word count is a ranking factor in itself (though it can help your relevance scores). Instead we need to look at what this sort of in-depth content can achieve in terms of authority signals.

First and foremost, in-depth content resonates better with audiences. If you write great in-depth content, chances are your audience will engage with it more. There is some evidence for this, as shown in the following graph from a Quicksprout analysis, which tells us that longer content tends to accumulate more social shares on Twitter and Facebook:

Content length and Social Shares

Social shares are of course themselves not ranking factors either – we’ve beaten that horse to death several times over. We do realise however that social shares play a massively important part in the SEO ecosystem, as they expose your content to more readers which increases the chances of your content earning links from some of those readers. AJ Kohn explained this very eloquently on his blog, it’s worth a read.

The premise is then that in-depth content earns more social shares, which translates to more links in the long term. A 2012 analysis of 500 blog posts on Moz shows exactly that – longer posts tend to accumulate more links:

Word Count vs Links

Now I’m keenly aware of the flaws and fallacies inherent in all of the analyses I’ve quoted and linked to above, but all in all I think the picture that is being painted here is a credible one. It’s hard to test anything with certainty in the online realm, but generally speaking I believe we can be confident that long form in-depth content aids your rankings in search.

It’s by no means a direct causal relationship, but long form content does play an important part in the chain of events that help your website accumulate links and, in turn, establish it as an authoritive source of information that consistently achieves high rankings in search results.

Social Sharing Buttons

As said above, social shares play a part in the chain of events that helps your content earn links. As such social sharing is a cornerstone of your ongoing SEO efforts. Yet when it comes to social sharing buttons on your website, opinions are divided.

Some of the greatest voices in UX design are saying that standard social sharing buttons are not worth it. The weight and load time they add to a page, not to mention the visual clutter they represent, are too costly to have them be a default part of your website.

Social share button performance

Yet others claim that social sharing buttons are a crucial aspect of a piece of content’s ability to generate traffic and readers. The truth is probably somewhere in between.

In 2012 Martin Belam wrote about some A/B tests he’d done on The Guardian website, which showed that different types of social sharing buttons performed better in different positions on the page.

“What intrigued me was the effectiveness of the positions was different for each service, even though they were always all presented as a block together.”

I agree with many UX designers that social share buttons can be clunky, ugly, and intrusive. But UX has a very different set of goals and objectives than SEO (no matter how loudly some people shout that ‘UX is the new SEO’, that doesn’t make it true).

Sometimes you have to be intrusive and ‘in your face’ to get the right result. In the context of SEO, the right result is to acquire links to aid your website’s rankings. Social sharing is an intrinsic part of achieving that result, and that means you need social sharing buttons on your site.

It’s also about putting the right social sharing buttons on your site. In 2012 Smashing Magazine proudly proclaimed that removing Facebook buttons from their pages had increased referral traffic from Facebook.

Smashing Magazine Facebook buttons

The problem with this anecdote should be immediately obvious: they had the wrong Facebook button on their site to begin with. Instead of the standard Like button (which I agree adds precious little value) they should have tried the Share button. I reckon they would have seen even better results from that.

I think that, in the final analysis, Paul Boag and myself agree a lot: it’s not about lazily slapping on some social sharing buttons. It’s about encouraging readers to engage with your content in the right way. Social sharing can play a huge part in that, provided you’ve thought it through and present your users with the right options.

Semantic Social Integrations

Now that we’ve established that social sharing is a good thing and helps SEO, let’s look at ways to improve your website’s visibility in social media. Remember, social sharing for SEO is about encouraging others to share your content with their own networks. That means it’s outside of your control; you have no say in how they share your content.

Semantic social integrations mitigate this problem to an extent. By implementing Open Graph and Twitter Cards, you exert a measure of control over how your website is shown in people’s social streams.

Semantic social sharing

The two examples above demonstrate this perfectly. Both show social sharing of content from websites that don’t belong to the account doing the sharing, and both show how these shares are enriched with visuals, descriptions and, in the case of Twitter, with proper author attribution as well.

It’s very worthwhile to implement these semantic social integrations. Often with a simple plugin your website will have these integrations enabled. Note however that some additional work might be required. Especially with Twitter Cards, you’ll also need to validate your website to enable these rich snippets in social streams.

Often people will have the Twitter Cards code on their site, but not verified their site with the Twitter Card Validator, and as a result the rich social snippet won’t be shown. You can check this easily by taking a page from your site that has Twitter Cards code and submitting it to the validator. If all is well, something like this should be shown:

Twitter Card Validator

Most of the websites I look at have Open Graph code, but don’t have any Twitter Card markup. I think that’s a lost opportunity. I’d always recommend implementing both Open Graph and Twitter Cards, and ensuring they function correctly (for Open Graph you can use Facebook’s debugger to test if it’s implemented correctly).

These semantic social integrations give you a great measure of control over how your content is displayed in social streams, and enables you to experiment with headlines and images to see what generates the most engagement with your audience.

Empower Your Website to Earn Links

There are plenty of mechanisms and tactics you can use to further boost your website’s link acquisition abilities, but you need to lay the foundation for your efforts. First you need to put the on-site building blocks in place that enable you to win new links to your site. Great content and the right social media integrations are vital ingredients that allow your website to perform better by empowering it to earn more links.



Barry Adams is one of the chief editors of State of Digital and is an award-winning SEO consultant based in Belfast, delivering specialised SEO services to clients across Europe.