Building Authority & Setting Expectations

Authority is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “a person or organization having power or control in a particular, typically political or administrative, sphere”. For our purposes, we also understand that “authority” conveys a sense of trust and influence. Searchers generally want authoritative sources to engage with. They want to be able to trust the sources they visit.

Naturally, this means being an authority ranks pretty high on the “must do” lists for most businesses. But becoming an authority, as noteworthy a goal as it is, isn’t an easy task.

Some folks simply start referring to themselves as a “thought leader”, “an expert” or an “authority” on a given topic, with the hope it catches on and others start referencing the same way. The trouble with this approach is that eventually, you’ll fail. Someone will ask you a question you don’t know the answer to, but that you would if you were an actual authority, and the jig, as they say, will be up. The fall from grace will be hard, the landing brutal.

In reality, the proper approach to being an authority starts with work. Lots of plain old boring work to learn the topic so in-depth it becomes second nature. You find yourself talking about it over dinner, with friends after work and mumbling about it in your sleep. You steer conversations in its direction. You start to selectively scan for references to anything related to your topic at parties and join conversations to share your thinking, knowledge and learnings. Well, you get the idea.  It’s bound to become a part of who you are.

You could also inherit authority as you bring a well-respected offline business onto the Internet, but retaining it will still take a lot of work. Those visiting your website will expect to have the same level of service, access, information and integrity as displayed in your bricks & mortar locations. And while you might have competition a few miles away in your offline community, online your competitors are a simple click away – much tougher bar to crest.

And there is no let up. No rest, no breaks. Building yourself into an authority and maintaining that position takes constant care and feeding. You need to think through every step carefully: sharing on facebook? Keep personal biases out of the conversation (unless that IS your target market, to the exclusion of others). About to Tweet something? Be careful the wording doesn’t offend. Could your few words be misinterpreted? Was that winky smile inclusive or exclusive from your customer’s POV? So much detail to manage that you might think it simply isn’t worth it.

But it is very much worth it.

Being an authority is something search engines look for. Yes, you still have to pass a number of trust hurdles, but the bottom line remains: more authority and more trust usually sees higher rankings. Thus exposure, traffic and gold coins follow! OK, maybe not so much on the gold coins. There are a lot of unshareable details that go into the behind the scenes work the algorithm does, obviously, but simplified it’s pretty clear. People trust authorities. Authorities are easier for engines to trust when ranking. Therefore being an authority is a good idea.

Though it should be noted that your expectations need to be realistic. First, pretty much anyone can step up and become an authority on a topic they choose. So tomorrow might see you outranked by someone with an authoritative edge. This happens every day in life, and so it goes in search, too. By far, though, the biggest issue around authority building is that people vastly underestimate the amount of time and work it takes. We’re not talking about getting an article published. We’re talking getting dozens published. We’re not talking about getting mentions on blogs, or a scattering of interviews, we’re talking winning peer-chosen awards and being a go-to resource reporters turn to for their stories. We’re not talking just blasting out articles via social media, we’re talking taking the time to engage in conversations, answer questions and solve problems via social media. Treating that person on Twitter as if they were physically right in front of you. You must overcome the technology bias to understand that social media is a form of in-person communication.

You can approach this effort directly, with a detailed plan to build your credibility and authority over time, and you can also take a more passive approach. Just do what you do best, blog for example, and let those in your chosen field call out your excellence in their own time. Both perfectly valid approaches.

Both can lead to what you really want – authority. The right to stand among your peers and be acknowledged as one of the best. That little edge that helps the search algorithm choose you over another site, which sees you sitting on top of the stack as THE resource on the topic.

Duane Forrester
Sr. Product Manager