Domain Authority: listen up, this is important!

Education is a big part of what Flax Digital does. When we build your next website or help you rank in Google, we want you to understand what we’re doing and be a part of it. Sure, we could just say “trust us” and take your money, but we’d rather not.

One of the things we often need to explain is Domain Authority.  That’s one of the terms used for how likely a website is to rank in Google’s search results.  It’s also not a bad first approximation for how reputable a website is.

A little history lesson

B.G. (Before Google)

If you’ve been around on the Internet for a while, you might remember older search engines like Alta Vista, Lycos or HotBot. Back in the 90s, there were a proliferation of these, and they almost all worked on the simple system of, “What words appear on your website?

in the days before Google, keywords ruled supreme

Settle in, kid. Let me tell you a story about the old days.

You could put the keywords in the text of your page, in the meta keywords tag, or various other spots and the more often you used them the better you’d rank for them.

These keywords didn’t even have to be related to your business. If you filled your website with repetitions of “britney spears naked” (hey, it was the 90s) you might hope to get some traffic from it. Admittedly it’d be irrelevant, poorly qualified traffic, but in those days, page views were everything. Spammers loved it.  It got really awful for a while there.

Google’s PageRank

In the late 1990s, Google launched a search engine based on their “PageRank” algorithm and everything changed.

PageRank says, in short, that we don’t trust individual websites to tell us what they’re about. We rely on third party links to your webpage instead.

Google can infer two things when someone links to your website:

  1. The other website owner thinks yours is worthwhile in some way
  2. The words they use to link to your website tell us something about what your site’s about

For example, if I link to a free online encyclopedia, the United States’ first black president, or the largest city in Asia you can infer that the pages I’m linking to provide information on those topics, even if those exact phrases don’t appear on the pages in question. Later, if someone searched for those terms, you could give them the linked pages as an answer.

pagerank measures connections and links across the web

Ideally you want to be at the centre of the web, connected to everything.

The more websites link to a particular page, the higher its PageRank is.  But also, the higher the PageRank of a page, the more value it would pass to pages it linked to.

It’s like getting a good movie review from a world-famous film critic, as opposed to some drunk guy in the pub – more people trust the former, so their recommendation carries more weight.  (This is also why you should be wary of anyone selling you hundreds of SEO backlinks. Quality is more important than quantity.)

Initially, PageRank was the main, if not the only technique Google used to sort its search results.  Over time they’ve added many more, and PageRank is just one of over 200 ranking signals to determine which pages should show up at the top of the search engine results.

PageRank in the Google Toolbar

For many years, Google distributed a browser toolbar which displayed a simplified PageRank of each website you visited. The toolbar PageRank was simply a number between 0-10.  The world’s top websites had toolbar PageRanks of 10, while toolbar PageRanks of 5 or more were generally considered pretty good.

Toolbar PageRank was useful to many people in the online marketing world. For instance, PageRank was a great thing to show off about if you were selling online advertising. “Our website is PR 7” was a handy, if imprecise, way to publicly demonstrate that your site was well-regarded and would have lots of visitors.  PageRank was also very important in SEO, because gaining links from a high-PR site would have a greater impact on your own ranking than links from a low-PR site.

However, Google updated the toolbar PageRank numbers irregularly, and then over time this happened less and less often. In 2016 Google killed off toolbar PageRank entirely.  The PageRank algorithm is still part of their behind-the-scenes calculations for how to rank websites, but it’s not visible to the public.

Farewell PageRank, hello Domain Authority

Here’s where we stand today: Google’s PageRank is no longer made visible to us mere plebs via the toolbar. Instead, we rely on third-party measures of search engine rank-worthiness.The most popular of these is Moz’s Domain Authority.

Moz (formerly SEOMoz) is a highly reputable company that develops tools for Search Engine Optimisation. Some of these, which you can try out for free, include:

All of these use Domain Authority as an important measure of how likely a website is to rank in Google.  Here’s their official definition:

Domain Authority (DA) is a search engine ranking score developed by Moz that predicts how well a website will rank on search engine result pages (SERPs). A Domain Authority score ranges from one to 100, with higher scores corresponding to a greater ability to rank.

Domain Authority operates on a logarithmic scale. That means it’s much easier to get from DA 10 to 15 than from DA 90 to 95.

domain authority is a number between 0 and 100

A domain authority in the 20-40 range is pretty good for a local small business.

Alternatives to Domain Authority

Moz’s competitors have their own versions of Domain Authority. Perhaps the best known is Majestic’s Trust Flow and Citation Flow.  These are also good measures, perhaps technically superior in some ways, but Domain Authority is more widely used. Domain Authority also has better free tools for our clients to use (like those linked above), which makes it more accessible to people outside the SEO industry. That’s why it’s what we most often use when talking to clients.

What does this mean for you, the website owner?

If you’re like most of our clients, you’re mostly relying on other people to build and manage your website. Domain Authority isn’t something you’ll have to think about on a day-to-day basis. Still, understanding DA can help you in a number of ways.

Track your website’s improvement over time

When you first launch your website, it’ll have a DA of zero. Over time, that should grow. With solid foundations and good SEO (most importantly, gaining links from other high DA sites), you should see steady improvements over the first year. Not at all coincidentally, you’ll also see more traffic from search engines.

Tracking domain authority is important for any online business

You can’t improve what you can’t measure.

Track your competition

Plug your competitors’ websites into Open Site Explorer and compare their DA with your own.  This gives you a benchmark to work against. For instance, we’ve learned that you can rank among Ballarat’s best local websites, which have DAs in the 25+ range, in around 4-6 months of concerted effort.

Make smart marketing decisions

When you’re looking to promote your business online, aim for places that have high DAs, like established institutions or major news outlets. A link from a high DA website will bring more benefit than from a low-DA one.

Protect yourself against scams and ripoffs

If someone’s trying to sell you something (like directory listings or reviews of your products) a quick check of their site’s DA will help you know if they’re reputable or scammy.

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Alex is the owner of Flax Digital, a website consulting agency based in Ballarat, Australia. Alex has over 20 years' experience developing websites and digital strategy for businesses and non-profits in Australia and internationally.

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