A Hard & Genuine Look at How to Create Authoritative Content
August 12, 2020 |
It's shocking but in a way not surprising. We have "SEOed" creating authoritative content. What do I mean? We have turned the very task of understanding what it means to create authoritative content into another cliched and superficial analysis filled with endless amounts of buzzwords. It's not only incredibly ironic, but it is quite the accomplishment.
You can already guess what I'm going to do with this post.... I'm going to explain what I think the foundation of actually creating authoritative content is while I rant and rave about some of the outlooks and ideas being floated around out there.
Let's get this fun started.
Why Creating Authoritative Content Is So Hard For Us Anyway?
When you think about it, creating authoritative content is not all that complicated. I mean it's not rocket science or brain surgery or even 11th-grade algebra. Yet, it's something we clearly have a hard time with as instead of getting to the heart of the matter we as SEOs speak endlessly about YMYL, high levels of E-A-T, the need to optimize author bios, rummaging through the QRG, links, and even mentions from high-authority sites and whatever.... I apologize if I left any buzzwords out.
But all of that really has very little to do with actually writing content. In fact, pretty much none of that speaks to the writing part of the content creation process.... You know, where you write the words that the people read... that part.
So basically, we talk in generalities about a bunch of different acronyms while trying to optimize everything but the actual thing that matters... the writing of words. That makes sense...
You have to ask, why we do this to ourselves? How we're approaching the topic seems crazy when you actually verbalize it!
At some point, we've all had to write authoritative content. How many of us tried to fluff our way through a paper in high school? I mean, the better part of our years spent in school has been about what it means to create quality content. I was a teacher, that's literally what I was trying to teach 4th graders. Yet, the concept seems to elude us when it comes to writing authoritative content in the context of Google's algorithm and E-A-T
(Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness) signals. But why?
Because it's qualitative. There's no way to really measure authoritative content. When something sounds substantial to us it's generally because it has a certain tone and feel to it. That's pretty ethereal and pretty hard to measure and incredibly difficult to define. Moreover, it's not really actionable. This means it doesn't fit the profile of what we consider to be good "SEO content." We as readers want tips, content producers want to meet user demands, and so we get a whole lot of content around creating authoritative content that mimics the content we create around backlinks. Except the two topics are of a totally different conceptual construct and treating them both the same way is nonsensical.
The comfort we get in having something concrete is not available to us with a topic like authority. Try to even define the concept of "authority"... it's very hard to grab hold of it, there's almost an ineffable aspect to it. You can't treat and relate to a concept like this the same way as you would the topic of acquiring more links.
That's a very uncomfortable prospect. It means giving up a bit of control by thinking more qualitatively and not quantitatively. So, in a way, it does make sense why we don't treat the concept of authoritative content in the proper way as doing so is a bit uncomfortable and will ultimately demand reflecting inwards which is like the most uncomfortable thing on the planet!
What Exactly Is Authoritative Content?
If our mindset is the problem, it's also the solution. If the way we relate to and think of "authoritative content" is what's preventing us from actually creating such content and of speaking of the process in a substantial way then what is the right mindset to have? It would seem that having the right outlook would serve as the foundation for creating authoritative content. Which as I mentioned above is what makes this topic so hard for us.
Let's, however, start off with a more basic question. What exactly do we mean by authoritative content? This way we can get into the mindset that allows such content to come into being.
We all know it when we read it, but what about it tells us that the content we're reading is authoritative? To get into this I want to ask the question a bit differently.... What about whatever content we're reading tells us that it is substantial
Of course, as SEOs, we'll say it's the length of the content. Leaving aside how dumb that is for a minute, I'm just going to say that defining substance by length is a complete conceptual contradiction as you're trying to measure quality with quantity and while that may have made sense for a machine to do back in the day (i.e., a search engine) for people to think as such is... dumb. I'm glad we got that out of the way.
Getting back on track here, I want to continue playing the synonym game and swap out substantial
In other words, what tells us that content has depth
Answering this becomes much more obvious than answering what tells us something is authoritative or substantial. Content has depth when it strips away the layers of a topic revealing concepts that were at first glance hidden. That's why it's literally called depth.
Imagine it like this (not to get too Platonic & Aristotelian here), every concept has a core, like the earth has a core. And this core is the life source that gives the concept its existence. Let's call this core "the essence" of the concept. The more layers of the topic that you are able to strip away, the closer to its core you get. The closer to the core you get the closer to the concept's essence you are.
In simple terms, depth means getting closer to the essence of something.
In other words, something has substance because it speaks to the underlying elements of a topic.
Think of it like a doctor writing about the symptoms of a disease versus the underlying causality of a disease. One requires far more mastery over the topic than the other. That's not to say writing a broad and comprehensive essay on a disease's symptoms can't be authoritative, it just means there are varying degrees of authority over a topic. However, to really understand the underlying cause of a disease means you have to understand it at its core. The closer you are to dealing with the core of a topic, the more authoritative it will be.
This means that authority is synonymous with mastery over a topic. One cannot strip away the outer layers of something without having mastery over it. How can you get to the root, or closer to the root of a topic, without having mastery over it? Command over a topic or concept is what enables an author to give their content depth.
To bring it home and to put it simply (as simply as I can) authority = mastery and mastery = essential understanding.
If you understand something in its essence, then you have mastery over the topic. If you have mastery over the topic then you can write about it with authority. Authoritative content is content that exhibits mastery over a topic.
(This is going to be a major sticking point to how we go about producing content, but I'll get to that later.)
Signs of Content that Exhibits Mastery
To make this a bit more concrete, I do think there are certain qualities that "masterful" content tends to exhibit. That is, I think masterful content is:
- Nuanced: The topic is explored in a way that makes granular distinctions between the elements that make up the concept/topic being discussed. (For the record, nuance also means that you showcase limitations or are expressive that there is no complete knowledge of a given topic. To this, "complete guides" to anything are intrinsically not authoritative....sorry folks.)
- Conceptual: Practical advice offered is supported with nuanced reasoning that considers resources, circumstance, etc. (You can't just say what to do, you need to explain why that makes sense and when that makes sense.)
- Predictive: The content explores the possible ambiguities or problems it may present to the reader.
I am not saying that all authoritative content needs to have these qualities in equal proportion or that there aren't other qualities such content tends to have. I am merely pointing to some of the qualities I see when I read truly authoritative content.
The Other Problem When Creating Authoritative Content, Mindset
There's having mastery over a topic and there's being able to communicate that mastery. Those are two very different things. It's entirely possible for a person who knows a topic inside and out to communicate that knowledge horribly. This can happen for two reasons:
1) The given expert is a lousy writer
2) The given expert has the wrong outlook on content creation
Let's assume that we're dealing with someone who can string a few sentences together, I don't want to turn this into a clinic on writing... there's a reason why I no longer teach 4th graders how to write.
Why then would someone who knows how to write and who knows the topic create content that is less than authoritative? The answer is mindset. They have the wrong mindset and therefore no notion of what content they should be creating.
I think that quite often, very intelligent people create very unauthoritative content without knowing it due to their mindset. Let's take our industry, SEO, and the very content I was complaining about earlier on the topic of creating authoritative content. While there are some really good pieces of content out there on the topic, I won't say no, a large amount of it lacks substance but yet is written by people of substance.
That's an interesting dichotomy. In fact, it happens quite often within the SEO sphere. I might go so far as to call it prevalent.
What's going wrong and how do we make it right?
From Knowledge to Authoritative Expression
So how do we go from knowledge to authoritative expression?
Well, it's hard, because as I've mentioned it's a matter of mindset. What mindset? Of creating content that adds to a conversation and helps readers (or as we call them "users").
I know it's a bit of a cliche, but a mindset that considers the reader:
1) Prevents you from writing about something you know nothing about
2) Directly leads you to create authoritative content when you know what you're talking about
As cliche as it is, content created while considering the reader looks and feels different than content that considers traffic, clicks, rank, revenue, etc. That's because when you write for these reasons there's no incentive to include any of the qualities authoritative content tends to have (as listed earlier). Whereas when you write to either explore a topic or to directly help a reader, the core qualities of authoritative content are naturally present. How so?
Well, let's run this through. Say you want to create content for the sake of clicks, is there much to incentivize to go deep into a topic or to offer a nuanced take or to predict what problems the reader may have and heading them off? Not really, or not essentially, to be more nuanced myself.
Conversely, if you're writing about a topic in order to publicly explore that topic, as a way of sharing the knowledge that you have, you will do just that. Inherently
, you're going to create content that makes nuanced distinctions as that's what it means to genuinely explore something. You're going to make sure you clarify your points so that they're not taken the wrong way and to that extent try to predict where and when the reader may not be following your train of thought.
Similarly, if you're writing purely to help guide a reader through a topic, you're going to predict where and when that reader is going to have difficulty. You'll naturally look for ways to compensate. If your purpose in writing is to help a reader/user at various points, you'll attempt to predict what problems they'll run into in trying to implement your ideas and advice. In other words, you'll create nuanced content that predicts the user's problems, i.e., you'll create authoritative content.
It's about purpose and it's about mindset. I'll call it the "authority mindset." Creating genuinely authoritative content comes from a mindset focused on sharing knowledge, either for the sake of sharing knowledge per se or for the express purpose of wanting to better the lives of people. That all speaks to a certain relationship to what content is and why it should be written. It's, again, very much a mindset.
Now, of course, we all have conflicting motives and as a result we might use a word that's perhaps too resplendent (as I just did) or fail to predict a problem in comprehension or whatever. That's not my point. Nothing is going to be perfect or entirely pure. However, the main purpose of your content will latently guide it along so that it can be considered to be authoritative overall.
Is There No Place for Considering Metrics Like Clicks, Traffic, Rank, or Revenue?
I'm basically telling you to throw any consideration about the usual suspects (metrics like traffic and clicks) out the window when trying to write authoritative content. As controversial as that may be (and personally it's surprising how controversial that might be), I very much think clarity of purpose translates into clarity of content.
That said, let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater either. Yes, traffic and clicks and revenue obviously all matter. You certainly want to track your clicks and your traffic. You certainly want to see what resonates and what doesn't resonate. Sometimes Google, despite its advancements, can be a bit linear and "optimizing" for that is still a good idea. However, none of that speaks to the reason for creating a specific piece of content. Sure, we create content to bring in traffic and leads so as to increase revenue. However, none of that speaks to why you are creating this specific
piece of content.
While driving revenue might be your overarching goal it should not be the immediate goal behind writing something. Content marketing is a long-term game, the quick wins come with big sacrifices (in this case, lack of overall brand affinity and trust and increasingly lower and lower Google rankings).
The same for keyword research
. Choose a topic because it's something you're an expert in and that you're passionate about or that you feel you can help people navigate, etc. Don't pick a topic, even if aligned with your site's identity
, because it's a "good opportunity to drive traffic." That does not mean you shouldn't research what is and what's not relevant to a topic or what other topics are related to a given topic or even how popular a topic is. What it means is all of those things should support, supplement, and qualify the content you are creating with the purpose of sharing and helping.
At the same time, very few things are a zero-sum game. There might be times you need to write something in order to bring in a certain type of user to your site. I'm not discrediting the entire notion. But a cigarette after dinner once or twice a year is not the same as inhaling a pack of Marlboro Reds for breakfast.
When the Authority Mindset Meets Content Procurement
Remember earlier where I mentioned a real sticking-point that going with an authority mindset will lead you to? Well, this is it. You need to be careful about procuring content. If authoritative content is built on mastery over a topic combined with noble purpose then content churning machines may not be your best source for authoritative content.
The idea that anyone who can write well can write about anything with a bit of research needs to be buried deeper than Jimmy Hoffa. Authoritative content hinges on expertise coupled with a passion to educate. That very much does away with the notion of anyone who's taken Creative Writing 101 being able to churn out some quick and adequately written content.
I'm not saying going to an agency to get some content is a bad idea. What I am saying is, you have to really be careful. Whoever is handling your content has to have some serious knowledge about your topic under their belts and have even just a bit of passion for discussing that topic. That's not an impossibility, but it's not the sense of things I get from the current construct.
Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing
Creating authoritative content is not something everyone can do. It's a skill and as I've mentioned a mindset. So while there are certain things we can "optimize" so that Google thinks our content is authoritative, such as sprucing up an author's bio, these things really have very little to do with creating substantial content.
While a list of "optimizable" elements sounds nice, it's really a very superficial way to approach creating authoritative content. In fact, it's really kind of the opposite approach that Google both publicly and via the algorithm itself, advocates for. That's not to say you should not have a sound author bio and whatever, but that's not the focus.
It's easy to get caught up in a "list" of things we can do to improve our site's E-A-T, but let's not forget the main thing.... actually writing seriously substantial content because no amount of "optimization" is going to help with that!