Domain Authority vs. Relevant Links: Which Has More Value? [A Data Driven Answer]

Has it ever occurred to you why Google hasn’t updated PageRank since 2013?

Something tells me it wasn’t Google’s way of endorsing Domain Authority.

Still, in my conversations with clients and other link builders, DA and PR come up all of the time.

For example: I was recently contacted by a prospective client who asked me, “If we go through with a link building campaign with The Upper Ranks, can you guarantee us an increase in Domain Authority (DA)?”

That prospective client was well meaning. I understand where they’re coming from and it’s a question I receive fairly often in one form or another. Domain Authority is indeed a cool metric.

Who doesn’t like to see what a website scores out of 100? It can be a pretty useful metric sometimes, too.

But DA is not a metric I rely on to determine SEO success.

I replied, “In terms of success, I don’t use an increase in DA as a metric of a successful link building campaign. It’s a tricky metric that doesn’t always tell the full story. Just as an example, the latest DA update pretty much brought everything down across the board. Yet, our clients saw increases in both their rankings and traffic.”

Domain authority doesn’t tell the full story. As such, it cannot be used as a metric of a successful link building campaign.

I’ve seen instances where an update in the algorithm lowers DA across the board. Yet, our clients continue to see an increase in their rankings and traffic.

Obviously, rankings and traffic are the most important metrics to measure the success of a link building campaign.

But when I’m prospecting websites?

When I’m asking for a link?

Relevance wins, every single time.

An irrelevant domain with a high DA score can’t hold a candle to a site that’s firing relevancy on all cylinders.

Of course, it’s possible that there will be sites that boast a high DA number and are incredibly relevant to any given site. Those are the unicorns of the internet.

Let me say this, though:

Both relevance and authority matter.

Both should be evaluated in link-building.

But if I have to choose one to focus on, I would take relevance any day over domain authority. That’s not to say that Domain Authority isn’t sometimes useful, however.

Let’s get into a few reasons why I choose relevancy over DA, but DA still has its place.

Why domain authority is good

We’ve already established that DA isn’t the end-all, be-all.

So what is it?

What role does it play in link building?

Here’s what Moz has to say:

“Domain authority is 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.”

Many factors are included in this calculation.

Some include the number of total links, linking root domains, and several other signals (more than 40!).

The kicker is, we don’t even know what all 40 of these signals are.

And no matter how good your SEO efforts are, expect this score to fluctuate.

So what is considered to be a ‘good DA’ score, you ask?

There isn’t an easy answer and ideally, you should just use Domain Authority as a comparative metric and not an absolute parameter to score the success of your link building.

This means that a “good” DA score depends on the score of competing websites or the industry average.

But since you asked, here are the average DA scores by industry:

Average industry Domain Authority to benchmark your business against Smart Insights

Let’s get into the benefits of a solid DA score.

1. Domain authority is tangible

That’s the primary appeal of the DA score.

As human beings, we’re obsessed with percentages, stats, and comparing numbers. A score out of 100 is tangible and concrete.

It makes the life of marketers easier. You can put one site up against another and see which one emerges on top based on a simple score.

Of course, like most grades, it doesn’t paint a complete picture. However, it’s still an important indicator of search engine ranking power.

I’m also big on keeping business goals specific and measurable.

A DA score makes it easier to keep your SEO efforts accountable to a specific number.

You put in the work. You improve all aspects of your SEO.

And there it is staring right back at you:

A big fat number that explains how “good” your site is.

That’s worth something.

2. High-authority increases your credibility

Put simply, people respect authority.

The more of it you have, the more credibility you command in your space. And we all know that credibility is good for business.

For one, it has massive competitive value.

If you have a higher DA than your competitors, you’ll be seen as the dominant and most trustworthy voice in your industry.

A high DA has a similar effect as social proof. It’s an endorsement of your site.

The result?

When marketers are seeking backlinks, you’ll be the ideal target. Sure, they may choose to go after low-hanging fruit as it makes for a more achievable target.

But ultimately, the perceived value of a link from your site will be higher.

Similarly, if they’re looking for relevant content to substantiate their own, marketers will likely choose a more authoritative site to link to.

That’s a sweet position to be in.

But to the regular website user who doesn’t know about SEO, this isn’t much of a ‘benefit’ at all since you’ll probably live out the rest of your life never hearing of the term ‘Domain Authority’ in the first place.

3. Domain authority has some weight on link value

I’ll admit – in a competitive space, it’s hard to rank without authority.

In fact, it is one of Google’s ranking factors.

The importance of Google Ranking Factors Wpopal

As we’ve seen, many factors go into the DA calculation. Some of these signals are unknown to marketers.

It means you can’t easily influence authority with just a few tweaks.

On the other hand, you can use on-page optimization to influence the relevance of a highly authoritative link.

That, coupled with the greater overall visibility of an authoritative link makes DA a reliable metric to pay attention to.

More eyes mean more referral traffic.

But if we’re talking about hyper-targeted traffic, relevant links are superior, hands down.

4. Landing a link from an authoritative domain can mean easier access to subsequent links

Authoritative sites are high-value targets for link-builders. That means it’s difficult to land such a link.

If you have a high DA score, you’re doing something right. It’s a fair indicator of the quality of content on your site.

So if someone can get a link from you, it means that their content has lept over a significant quality-control hurdle.

Securing more links would be easier from that point.

Now that you know the benefits, here’s how to check the DA score of your site as well as that of your competitors:

There are several tools to do this but the most straightforward and useful is the MozBar. It’s a free tool that displays the DA score on the search engine results page.

First, download the tool.

MozBar Moz

Then, install it as a Chrome extension.

MozBar Chrome Web Store

When you conduct a search, you’ll see the DA and some other metrics displayed on the results page.

Like this:

organic search traffic Google Search

You can take it a step further and perform a link analysis on Open Site Explorer.

Just click “Link Analysis,” and you’ll get a detailed breakdown:

Open Site Explorer Link Research Backlink Checker Moz

You’ll also see the inbound links to that particular web page.

Open Site Explorer Link Research Backlink Checker Moz 1

This is excellent for picking targets when you’re seeking links.

If a site has an affinity to content similar to yours, they’ll likely be more receptive to giving you a link.

Pretty useful, right?

Why relevant links are better

With all the benefits of DA laid out, it should never be the sole determining factor when you’re pursuing a link.

After all, DA doesn’t determine the relevance that one site has in relation to another.

When you’re building links, relevance is paramount to anything else since these are the links that are genuinely in their natural habitat. These are bona fide natural links.

That’s essentially what relevance refers to.

A link where the destination page is on topic and useful.

There are several layers of relevance:

Link to page relevance

This refers to the relevance of a link in relation to the content surrounding it.

Let’s say you’ve linked to a car insurance company, but you have no substantive on-topic content surrounding that link.

That would make no contextual sense!

It would come across as unnatural and manipulative.

Page to page relevance

The destination page should be related to the page you’re linking from.

It would be unwise both from an SEO and user experience perspective to link to a page that is unrelated to yours.

Domain to page relevance

It’s true – every single page linking to your website may not be relevant to the site as a whole.

That doesn’t make it a bad link. It can be relevant on another level.

But here’s the bottom line:

Ideally, the domain should be relevant to the page linked. That context is as much an essential part of SEO as the content itself.

Domain to domain relevance

This is exactly as it suggests. This type of relevance refers to two sites being in the same industry or niche.

Of course, relevance on this level isn’t an absolute necessity.

So are all layers of relevance created equal?

No, but you should strive for relevance across the board.

Here’s why.

1. Relevance yields targeted referral traffic and conversions

It’s easy to get caught up in the technicalities of link building and SEO.

The problem?

Most people forget that all these strategies are there to do one thing.

Serve your business.

More specifically, it should fuel the marketing and sales pillars of your business by influencing conversions.

Highly targeted referral traffic is the first step in that process.

The more quality traffic you have coming in at the top of your funnel, the more efficient your whole system will be.

I can say with all certainty that relevance is better for driving the type of traffic that leads to conversions.

But can’t higher authority sites drive even more traffic?

Perhaps, but with no relevance, you have zero chance of converting customers.

I’ll tell you why.

Relevance means context and a link that makes contextual sense is always better from a user’s perspective.

Put yourself in a user’s shoes for a minute.

Your average website visitor doesn’t even know what DA is.

They’re on a website consuming content or researching a product or service. When that user clicks an external link, they have a specific intent and expectation that the destination page will satisfy that.

Domain authority has no weight in this case. It is a relevant link that will ensure that the user receives information that is useful and on topic.

Anything short of that and you’ve lost a potential lead. By extension, you’ve lost a potential customer.

This is also an issue of user experience.

The way that a visitor interacts with your site is critical not only for SEO but for conversions.

The destination page isn’t relevant? They leave.

The content isn’t useful? They leave.

Don’t just take my word for it.

Statistics show that if 100 online consumers have a bad experience on a website, 88 of them won’t come back.

10 stats that demonstrate the ROI of UX Usability Matters

2. Relevance is a stronger ranking signal

That top spot in organic search is prime real estate.

Every marketer wants it, but securing it is a tall order.

Many people make the argument that relevance isn’t as powerful a ranking signal as DA because it isn’t as concrete.

Perhaps in an SEO realm where the user doesn’t matter, that may be the case.

But it’s an incredibly misguided view.

Think about it.

A relevant link makes the most sense for a user because it is likely to match their intent. If the information on the given page has more utility to the user, it’s undoubtedly a more click-worthy link.

When you’re in the top spot of organic search, your click-through rate is several factors higher than the guy in number two.

Comparison of Google clickthrough rates by position ChartoftheDay Smart Insights

Isn’t it in the best interest of search engines to display the most relevant content at the top? Sure it is.

The same logic applies here.

It makes sense for users, and that means it also makes sense for search engines.

It’s a good, high-quality link, regardless of DA. When a user clicks on it, they’ll be pleased with the results.

That’s the whole purpose of a link – connecting and bridging pages of the internet to create a better overall user experience.

Top ranking content is dependent on what the user will find most useful to their search query.

Stick to that principle, and you won’t go wrong.

3. The DA metric is not a sure thing

Do you know the other big problem with authority?

The value is merely a prediction or an educated guess.

We can appreciate it from afar, we can find comfort in its measurability, and we can use it as a part of our prospecting strategy.

However, we can’t base everything on DA.

There are sites with a low DA score that provide a rich content experience to users.

Should you not link to such a site because they don’t have that magic number attached them?

Of course not!

But let’s look at relevance. It’s a sure thing.

Imagine you’ve got a highly authoritative link, but it isn’t at all relevant.

Can Google discount it? Absolutely.

In fact, you can bet on it.

As we’ve seen, the search engine’s job is to do right by the user. The surest way to do that is to ensure that your links are relevant.

4. Relevance is more scalable

I’ll tell you what.

Tangibility is not always a pie-in-the-sky quality.

It has its faults. For one, if it’s measurable, it means it’s always in flux.

Domain authority can go up and down. Considering we don’t know every single factor that goes into the calculation, these fluctuations may not always be of your own doing.

This could either be catastrophic, or positive.

Let’s focus on the good – you can work towards increasing your authority. So, relevant links have the potential to become authoritative over time.

And that’s what I mean by scalable.

But that’s not all.

As you know, high-authority links are rare and difficult to land.

It is infinitely easier to gather a big list of relevant links in your niche than it is to find authoritative links.

If you decide to target only authoritative sites, you’ve immediately narrowed your prospect pool.

You’ll have less links and the likelihood of them being relevant to your site is just as small.

If we’re talking about high-impact and low-effort, I’d put my confidence in relevant links any day.

That’s not to say that landing relevant links is always easy and effortless.

But you’ll certainly get more value for your work.

5. Relevant links are more organic and sustainable

You can’t talk about link-building without bringing up sustainability.

Relevant links are the ultimate natural link. They are as a result of having quality linkable assets as opposed to deliberately manipulating Google’s algorithm.

The superficial metrics can take you so far, but ultimately it boils down to two things:

  1. Creating content worth linking to
  2. Linking to content that is useful to your user

Placing a bull’s eye on relevance is the surest and most organic way to hit these sweet spots.

In fact, relevance has a domino effect. Your authority will  increase, and your entire SEO profile will be strengthened if you focus on quality linkable assets.

Is relevance always the decisive winner?

Do you know what?

As much confidence as I have in relevance over authority, the choice is not always black and white.

They are some grey areas in which case you have to consider the specific situation.

Authority is a straightforward tangible metric. Relevance, on the other hand, is subjective.

This means that the content and context which surrounds the link should have weight in what you decide to pursue.

In addition to content, other factors may have a hand in which type of link is better for your specific circumstance.

Competition and existing backlink profile are some of these factors.

Let’s illustrate with a few scenarios.

Scenario #1: You’re working with editorial content.

Editorial content is content that doesn’t have a direct sales goal. It’s often in the form of news or thought leadership articles.

It means that you’re not necessarily going after conversions. In that instance, being featured in a highly-authoritative and heavily trafficked media outlet would be more impactful.

Scenario #2: You’re going up against a Goliath competitor for a top spot in organic search results.

There are no two ways about it.

Organic search is exceptionally competitive. If you’re going to focus on organic search traffic by trying to outrank giants in your space, authoritative links will give you that edge.

Scenario #3: You can get more targeted referral traffic from an authoritative link.

Hands down, relevant links are excellent for driving targeted referral traffic.

But let’s imagine that you can land a high-authority link that will also send you those ideal visitors.

Wouldn’t you jump on that opportunity? You bet.

These are just a few circumstances to give you some food for thought. There are several other instances may require an analysis on a case-by-case basis.

Recap

DA is a reliable metric.

I respect it, and it’s certainly good for a few things.

If I can build a relevant link on a site with a high DA score, I’ll choose that option in a heartbeat.

If you have the opportunity to have skin in both sides of the game, jump on it. I’ve laid out all the reasons why in this article.

But given that these instances are rare, DA shouldn’t be the focus.

I know, because the relevant links I build are the real success stories. Trust is maintained for both sites and these are the links that skyrocket rankings and fuel traffic, every single time.

Link building has also evolved to be more than just SEO-centric.

It’s about users. It’s about marketing. And most importantly, it’s about how the link serves a business goal.

When it comes to finding target sites for a link building campaign, nothing beats good, old-fashioned relevance.

That is where the most significant business impact lies.

Which type of link do you think has more value?