Over the past decade, I’ve experienced and navigated through dozens of Google updates and led SEO operations for many big brands. Throughout my SEO career, there has been no ranking factor that’s as debated as backlinks. The mystique around backlinks has led many people to believe that all you need is a high domain authority (DA) to rank competitively on search engines.
This has led many people in SEO to use DA or domain ranking (DR) as the primary factor for search engine rankings. Backlinks are one of the most important ranking factors for search engines, and they are difficult to get, but that doesn’t mean they are the only factor that determines your rankings.
In this post, I want to cover the common fallacies and false beliefs held around domain authority and uncover why it is not enough to rank well for a given keyword.
What is domain ranking/domain authority?
Before diving into the different intricacies, it’s important to understand what domain ranking is. Domain ranking, also referred to as domain authority, is a metric that helps indicate the authority of a site. More specifically, it is an estimate of how authoritative a site is based on the number/quality of backlinks. Backlinks are a very powerful ranking factor on search engines, and the domain authority of a site will help indicate how much authority a site has
According to Ahrefs, domain ranking is a metric that indicates the relative strength of a website’s backlink profile. According to Moz, domain authority is a search engine ranking score that tells you how likely a site ranks on search engine results pages SERPs. Ahrefs’ DR ranking and Moz’s DA ranking are the two most popular ways to quantify domain authority. With DR and DA, a site is given a ranking from 0 to 100. The higher that number is, the more authoritative a site is.
To give some context, here are the DR and DA rankings of some well-known sites:
HubSpot.com (DA 93, DR 93)
Nintendo.com (DA 91, DR 89)
Porsche.com (DA 88, DR 86)
Fallacy #1: High domain authority guarantees that you will outrank competitors
One of the most common myths about SEO is that high domain authority will immediately allow you to outrank competitors. It’s very easy to look at SERP results and immediately assume that higher DA sites are ranking better than lower DA sites. In most cases, correlation does not equal causation. The reason that many high DR sites still outrank other sites is that they perform all of the other on-page SEO and technical work in addition to link building. It doesn’t matter if you have a higher domain authority if the content you produce is poor and your site is slow.
Here’s a great example that illustrates this. Below are metrics for the top five sites that rank for the keyword “email marketing agency” on Ahrefs:
Site 1: Clutch.co: DR 89, UR 20
Site 2: Soapmedia.co.uk: DR 59, UR 18
Site 3: Thebrainsmakreting.co.uk: DR 47, UR 13
Site 4: Digivate.com: DR 45, UR 15
Site 5: Digitalagencynetwork.com: DR 76, UR 13
Although Clutch.co is outranking other sites, you can see higher DR sites are being outranked by lower DR sites. This isn’t an anomaly because there are other factors that account for why a site ranks well. If you look beyond the SERP results and click on the specific blog articles, you’ll find the higher-ranking ones offer more content, and they’ve optimized their on-page SEO better. You will see similar results for most other keywords because high domain authority does not guarantee your site to outrank your competitors.
Fallacy #2: You can rank for competitive keywords without topical expertise
If you have a high DA site, and you write one blog post about a primary keyword, the chances of you ranking competitively are slim. It’s easy to rank for content that has low search volume and is not competitive, but that traffic is not going to move the needle. In order to rank for competitive keywords, you need to show Google that your site is an expert on a specific topic. To do this, you need to develop a library of content that’s topically related. Without this, you will be outcompeted by sites that have better and more content covering your niche.
A great example of this would be a site like Marketwatch.com trying to rank for a keyword like “gestation period of a rhino.” Even though Marketwatch.com has a high DR (93), it’s not going to rank well for this keyword because it does not have anything remotely related to rhinos. If you look at the top results for this keyword, you’ll see tour sites and animal sites that have been publishing content for years.
You can extrapolate topic relevance to higher-difficulty keywords like “best VPN” or “best CRMs.” Generally, the more difficult a parent keyword is to rank for, the more supporting blog posts you’ll need to build topical relevance and ultimately rank better for all keywords.
Fallacy #3: You can make up for poor content with high DA
Another dangerous practice of some high-authority sites is skimping out on content. Although high DA sites may get more impressions and clicks on search engines, readers will bounce quickly if the content is poor. If a site isn’t nailing searcher intent and optimizing its on-page SEO, having high domain authority will accomplish nothing. The vast majority of content teams understand this, but few thoroughly understand what poor content is. Understanding this is essential to prevent your site from falling into the trap of low-quality content.
Examples of poor content include:
Thin content: Thin content is the most common form of poor content. There’s a place for thin content (like definitions), but most of the time, you should be producing more in-depth content. If you’re writing on a primary keyword (e.g., “What is content marketing?”), your content should be over 1,000 words. A good litmus test is to see the top-ranking pages for a keyword and compare the word count. If most of them are over 1,000 words, you know you need to produce something similar.
Content that’s regurgitated from other sources: A common criticism of SEO is that many sites on the SERPs regurgitate the same content. If your content has the same headers, same formatting and same ideas as other sites, it will be categorized as regurgitated content. If you’re going to take content from other sources, make sure to cite them, restructure them, and add your unique point of view.
Content that’s not well-written: A telltale sign of poor content is content that is not well-written. This encompasses AI-spun content, content with many grammatical errors and content that’s hard to read. If a reader lands on your page, and the writing is hard to read and unnatural, it’s poorly written.
Avoiding these types of content on your site will help improve the quality of your writing and give you a better chance to rank on SERPs, regardless of your domain authority. Some advanced content teams use a variety of internal checklists and software to ensure that their writing is up to par; you can create and use a similar process for your content operations.
As illustrated by some of the examples above, domain authority is not the be-all-end-all ranking factor for SEO. Although backlinks are a very important part of SEO, they’re not enough to overcome little to no effort in content and optimizing your site. If you’re trying to rank for a specific keyword, take the best possible measures instead of relying purely on backlinks. Make sure your site is fully optimized, you have enough content to cover the topic and that your content is high quality. By continuing to invest in all aspects of SEO, you’ll give yourself the best shot possible for ranking for any keyword you desire.