In the world of SEO, one thing is universally agreed upon – building a strong backlink profile is essential to ranking highly in Google’s search results. But when targeting a potential link, which characteristic matters more? Authority or Relevance?

This debate is an ongoing one, and in a perfect world, every backlink would be highly authoritative and very relevant to a target market. But what if you had to pick one? Let’s take a quick, top-level look at the different characteristics and explore what the answer may be…

Links with High Authority?

When Google ranks websites, a big factor that it evaluates is the authority of the links pointing to your website. In other words, how much weight do the websites that are linked to you carry?

This can be determined a couple of different ways. The team at Web Talent Marketing uses tools such as Majestic and SEMrush to gauge authority using metrics such as the amount of traffic a website gets, the number of backlinks it has, where those backlinks are coming from, etc.

NYTimes.com, CNN.com, WhiteHouse.gov, and school.edu domains are a few examples of authoritative websites. Links from sites like these (while difficult to obtain) will, in turn, make your own website more authoritative!

In a recent poll by Andrew Dennis at Search Engine Land, some experts expressed the opinion that authority was more important than relevance. They said so for a couple of reasons:

  1. There is a potential for a larger audience and greater overall visibility of your link on an authoritative website.
  2. Authoritative links build the credibility of your own site, which helps improve your ranking on Google’s results pages (which is always fun!).

In summary, links from highly authoritative websites will help increase your ranking. They may be difficult to acquire, but can be a strong asset in your SEO strategy in the long run.

Links from Highly Relevant Sites?

Ever since Google rolled out Penguin in 2012, the script has been flipped in terms of what was more important for link building. Before, it was how many links could you acquire, no matter where they came from. Now, it is how relevant are those websites in relation to your own?

If you are in the business of selling cars and you have a link from Harvard.edu and their Anthropology section, you’re in peculiar place. The .edu domain will carry good authority, but the content of their Anthropology page probably has no topical relevance to your own. This may do more harm than good, as Google has gotten smarter at looking at the content of a site in relation to another, and has taken steps to rank accordingly.

Because of this, others say that focusing more on relevance is key. In the same poll by Andrew Dennis, SEO experts gave a few reasons why they believe so:

  1. Relevant websites have the potential to grow and become more authoritative as well (especially true for newer websites).
  2. There is a possibility that if the link is too irrelevant, Google will discount it.
  3. Links from relevant sites have the potential to drive more relevant traffic to your website, which may result in more conversions (which is what we all want, right?).

In summary, having highly relevant links pointing to your website has the potential to not only make yourself look good in Google’s eyes, but to bring in high-converting traffic as well.

So… who wins? Authority or Relevance?

It sounds like a cop-out, but in most cases, it depends on the situation. If you focus on authority too much, you give yourself a lot of “shots on goal” but with potentially low-converting traffic. Conversely, if relevance is too heavily relied on, you could have a niche-specific website that barely brings in any traffic at all.

In SEO, it is important to try and find link opportunities that are both authoritative and relevant. While there is no silver bullet for the process, if you strive for those two characteristics when building links, you are going to like what you see.

I hope you enjoyed this brief overview and invite you to contribute your thoughts on which one may be more important.