For the longest time I assumed that a site with a higher domain authority (DA) would have higher traffic. In my head I believed the following equation to be true:
Higher DA = showing higher up in Google Search results = More clicks = More traffic
This is because a website’s Domain Authority is a proxy for how likely a site is to rank for a specific keyword or search term. If you appear higher in Google’s search results when someone is searching, then you should get more chances of people clicking on your link and ending up on your website.
However, after looking at data from over 300 blogs, I realized that my hypothesis is correct but there is no immediate correlation between DA and total traffic to a site.
In other words, knowing the domain authority of a site, which is publicly available, is not enough to determine a site’s traffic volume. What is more, a lower DA site could have much higher traffic than a higher DA one. My own blog, this one you are on, being a good example. I have 75,000 monthly page views, mostly coming from organic searches on Google, but a DA of just 36 (in November 2017).
To understand this further, Let’s first look at what determines domain authority and what determines the traffic to a website and then at the specific data sample to determine why the two are not correlated.
- What is Domain Authority
- Why is Domain Authority important
- Relationship between domain authority and traffic
- Why is traffic not correlated to domain authority
- Should you still care about Domain Authority?
- What you should take away from looking at the correlation between domain authority and traffic
- Wrapping up
What is Domain Authority
Domain Authority (DA) is a logarithmic score calculated by Moz and publicly available for all websites online. In the online world, DA is used as a proxy for Google’s ranking of a website on a scale from 1 to 100.
When Google stopped updating its Pagerank scores in 2013 because it was illegitimately used by online marketers in doubtful link selling practices, Moz came up with its own score to replace it. It has remained the industry benchmark since.
In the PageRank times (fun fact: the name PageRank does not come from the word page, as in a site’s page, but from Larry Page’s surname), Domain Authority was important because it was the agreed measure of a site’s authority provided by the ranking engine itself. The higher it was, the higher the specific site’s pages would rank in Google results for a specific term it was trying to target. Moz has since attempted to do the same.
But why does it matter to rank high on Google’s search results?
Ranking high on Google’s results pages matters because it is the easiest way to drive traffic to a site. The higher the search terms a site can rank for, the higher the likelihood of people clicking to read this page’s articles.
However, while that is true at the level of a specific search term, it may not hold true for an entire site for several reasons.
Firstly, Moz has only partial data. Google does not publish what goes into determining its ranking but we know it is made of over 200 signals and inputs and there are plenty of experts who have tried to double-guess what they are. This SEO table by Search Engine Land is a good example:
Because this calculation cannot be replicated, Moz proposed a simplified version using 40 factors to try to guess the “rankability” of a site, as Moz calls it. Moz’s DA is a good proxy but misses out on thousands of the signals Google uses.
Secondly, even if Moz had access to Google’s list, it would probably not be able to replicate the calculation because the raw data that goes into it is not publicly available or is the result of advance processing machine learning. As Google becomes more and more focused on machine learning and AI, the gap between Moz’s domain authority estimates and Google’s ranking will only widen.
Thirdly, even for the known ranking factors like number and quality of inbound links to a site, Moz (and any other online tool for that matter) does not have the processing power of Google. It is believed that Moz only accounts for about 10% of the backlinks pointing to a site because it cannot process them all.
The three challenges above are not the only issues with DA and are not to be brushed of. However, DA is still a widely used score that has become the de-facto industry metric used by brands and advertisers to put a dollar-value next to a site.
Why is Domain Authority important
Looking at the above challenges, you could think that relying on Domain Authority as the metric to measure the value of a site could lead to significant under or over valuation. And that is a real risk.
However, for anybody with a website and an intention to monetise, DA can end up being the single most important metric to track. It is an industry standard, it is easy to understand and it is publicly available. Let’s look at why domain authority matters.
DA is an industry standard
DA is a widely accepted industry benchmark metric for many SEO consultants and digital marketers to determine how valuable a website is. This is because it has been around for a long time and because it is a well-respected source for calculating a website’s authority. Even if you wanted to look for an alternative, no real contender to Moz has so far managed to dethrone them.
As a result, if you are looking to monetise your authority online by selling ad space, advertorials or referrals on your site, DA is all that matters, even if your traffic is low.
DA is easy to understand and actionable
DA is a proxy for Google’s ranking we can understand. Although the specific list of items used to calculate it is not public, Moz does provide some details on the factors used. As a result, if you are looking to increase your DA, you know what you can do to achieve that.
That is, with perseverance and hard work, you could reach a domain authority of up to 50 by focusing on having a fast, well-structured site with lots of inbound links, authority and trust.
For most people, solely focusing on building backlinks is the key to a higher DA. If the number, diversity and quality of your inbound links increases, so will your domain authority. That hypothesis holds true for almost every site.
This actionability and possibility to affect the DA is what has made it the choice of metric for website owners.
It’s freely and publicly available
DA is a freely available public score so it can be used by anyone to “brag” about their website’s success. Moz DA can be checked in their free Link Explorer (former Open Site Explorer) tool (maximum of 3 queries per day) or by adding their Chrome extension (unlimited queries).
I prefer to use the Chrome extension because it passively show me how pages rank and that has given me a lot of aha moments.
In recent years, Majestic Trust Flow has started to be used by some SEO experts instead of Moz DA but it has yet to dethrone Moz as the preferred industry benchmark. In general terms, Majestic and Moz are thought to be correlated but Majestic is thought to crawl a larger database of links to determine its Trust Flow than Moz. However, their metric is not as easy to understand as domain authority so Moz continues to prevail.
If we assume that DA is a good proxy for ranking, it would be fair to assume that a higher DA would generate more clicks and more traffic to a site.
Hypothesis: Higher Domain Authority = Higher traffic
I believed the above equation to hold true. However, I now have the data to qualify that assumption and see how domain authority and traffic stack.
In order to understand how little correlation there is between DA and traffic, I used data compiled from over 260 bloggers in the travel and lifestyle segment all over the world. The data was provided by the bloggers themselves as part of the blogger outreach services I provide to brands and digital marketing agencies.
Although the data is self-reported, I assume it to be correct and double checked for anomalies with the blog’s owner. I also checked the DA numbers with Moz’s Chrome bar.
I have removed two outliers who had very high traffic and very low DA and were skewing the results and the below is a chart that plots traffic vs. Domain Authority.
As these are all blogging websites, there are no domain authority figures above the 63 mark. As DA is a logarithmic score, it is disproportionately harder to jump from 30 to 40 than it is to increase from 20 to 30. Very few blogs manage to reach DA above the 50 mark. Even well-established, decade-old blogs like Nomadic Matt or The Planet D have DA of 70 and 76 respectively and they are the highest authority travel blogs out there. Bottom line, it is very difficult for a personal blog to have a domain authority higher than 50. Possible, but very hard.
In my data set, the lowest DA blog has a score of 1 (newly created), and the highest has a score of 53. This histogram shows a distribution of the DA in my data set.
Now let’s look at the data on domain authority and traffic.
As you can see, sites can have any level of traffic regardless of DA. A site’s domain authority does not seem to bear any correlation to its traffic.
Some sites have traffic above the 50,000 monthly pageviews even with DA below 30. The opposite is also true. You can have very high DA and still not manage to attract a relevant amount of pageviews.
See a drill-down into the data for sites with DA between 40 and 50:
There seems to be a correlation at an average level, but not at an individual level, as there are varying levels of traffic at all DA levels.
My two blogs are very good example of this dichotomy.
This blog’s domain authority is only 36 yet it receives 75,000 monthly views and the majority of them come from Google’s search results. My other blog, Singapore n Beyond has a DA of merely 23 and monthly page views of 25,000.
There are many blogs on my data set with much higher DA than mine but a fraction of the traffic.
In this article, I wanted to try to understand the reasons why blogs with low DA are able to attract much higher traffic than blogs with higher DA. This can be explained by a number of reasons. Let me explore this further in the next section.
The most obvious explanation for the lack of correlation between domain authority and traffic lies in the definition of the term Domain Authority as previously mentioned.
While DA is a good proxy for rank, it is not complete. You could be thinking that your website is ranking high on search results because you have much higher DA than your competitors when, in reality, they outperform you on some of the signals Google is considering which Moz hasn’t included in its DA. See the image below for an example of how a site with a DA of 17 can rank higher in a Google search than a site with a DA of 46.
For the purpose of this article, let’s consider that Moz’s DA is a good proxy for Google’s ranking. Beyond the obvious consideration above, there are several other factors that determine traffic and which are not considered in DA alone. Let us explore each one by one.
Ranking high for low volume terms
A website’s DA could be very high for search terms that have low volume. That is, you are an authority on a topic that is very niche and is searched for very few times every month. Even if you are showing number 1 on the search results page for that term, that could still mean very low volumes.
For example, maybe you are an authority on vegan fashion in Kenya. You may have a very high DA and are a recognized website on the topic with many other sites linking to you when talking about vegan fashion, but this is a topic that attracts very few searches every month, thus your traffic is low. You are capturing a high market share for your niche but the overall pie is small.
In fact a Google Adwords Keyword Search shows no data for the keyword “vegan fashion in Kenya” as it is too niche. Even for the suggested “similar” keywords in Keyword Planner (which are not really similar) the volumes are very small.
Trying to compete in a very competitive niche
A lot of blogs, like the ones in my data set, are not necessarily niche in their topic but rather targeting a very competitive segment. For example, some are focused on adventure travel, or backpacking, or Europe, or couple’s travel. These are relatively large niches with a large readership but also with some of the largest online ecommerce companies trying to compete for eyeballs. The blogs might struggle to compete with the big guys.
Freddy, Founder and CEO of the Digital Marketing Agency In Marketing We Trust and good friend of mine, pointed me to a great example. Let’s take the term Bali, in the travel niche.
Travel is one of the niches that is most represented in my data set and also one of the most prolific ones when it comes to blogs. Something to do with the dream of becoming a digital nomad and traveling the world.
Here is a table with some data from Google AdWords on search volumes and competitiveness of some of the terms related to Bali travel. Competitiveness here indicates how aggressively advertisers like Expedia or Booking.com are bidding for these terms.
Freddy was explaining this to me further.
“When trying to rank for a highly competitive term like Bali holidays which is also called a ‘fat head’ bloggers will be competing with all the high DA sites so they will struggle to outrank them and will get very little traffic”.
In this segment you are fighting with all the “big boys” in online travel like Expedia, TripAdvisor, Agoda, Hotels.com, etc. all of which have DA that would far outrank most blogs. Although I have some of my posts in this realm, they do indeed rank low and receive little traffic. I know this to be the case for every post I write about “Best luxury Hotels in XYZ destination”.
These are in my niche completely, I am an expert on the subject and I have far better and more insightful content than most travel sites which publish desktop researched articles, but I am always outranked and it is almost impossible for me to appear in the first page of Google’s results.
Or even on the second for that matter. I still write them because they are in my niche and I have a lot to share, but I know they will bring me little traffic. Sure enough, almost none of these posts appear in my most read articles”.
After the “fat heads” come the “torso” terms, Freddy continues. “If you try to rank for a mid competitive term like Bali Villas Seminyak, the sites targeting this search term are usually in the mid-DA level so a well-established blog with an authority in that topic might also rank high and stand a chance”.
In order to stand out in this range, Freddy suggests to choose a great title that makes people curious and attracts them to your post. The chance to win here is medium, just like the search term competitiveness”.
“Lastly, most blogs compete in the long-tail keyword range. That is, they rank high for low to mid competitive terms which, by definition, have low search volumes and as a result, low traffic”.
This is why you could have a high domain authority but try to compete in a highly competitive niche and get no traffic because the others are much bigger than you. It is very hard for a blog to have a DA higher than 50 whereas most of the large companies online have DA scores above 80.
This is a fun graph from Track Maven that shows the average Moz Domain Authority by industry so that you can see how you compare.
The battle in the lower DA levels
As I was just mentioning, most personal blogs struggle to reach DA higher than 50. As a result, my data is highly skewed toward the lower end of the DA world. If the higher DA sites were included, the correlation would probably be stronger. As DA is a logarithmic calculation, it is more than twice as hard to go from 30 to 40 than it is to go from 20 to 30. If DA scores above 50 were included, sites could be competing in the mid and high traffic keywords (the “fat heads” mentioned above) and so traffic numbers would be higher.
I estimate that the correlation between DA and traffic holds true for higher DA but is weaker in domain authority levels below 50 like the ones in my data set.
The domain authority of a site can be built independently of the amount of content that site has. I could manage to have a high DA even if I only had 20 articles on my blog. Unless the site is a niche site with extremely long form posts targeting very niche terms with low competition, for most sites, the more content there is the higher the traffic. Again returning to my long-tail keywords vs. the fat heads, if blog can mostly succeed at lower-competition lower-volume keywords, the more content they have the more traffic they can generate. Ultimately, a domain authority bears no correlation to the amount of keywords a site ranks for or the traffic they generate per month and so it cannot predict the traffic the site will generate.
Gaming the system
There are many other things to consider when looking at DA beyond competitiveness and search volumes.
As indicated at the beginning, the elements that make up Moz DA score are not publicly available but largely understood to be strongly correlated to the number, quality and relevance of a site’s inbound links.
As the number of inbound links is something that site owners can influence, acquiring such links is the most obvious and common practice for almost everyone in the online world.
Much has been written about how to do that in a more or less legitimate way, so I will not delve further. The fact that it is relatively easy and cheap to do in ways that are not genuinely representative of a site’s authority on a topic means that DA could be artificially inflated even if the site does not hold authority on a subject. This poses two problems.
Firstly, this practice could (and in fact does) build a site to a Moz DA of 50 thanks to many acquired inbound links. However, that site could not be ranking high in Google because Moz over emphasises inbound links in its DA calculation whereas Google is increasingly relying more on Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning elements to determine a site’s authority. Google is increasingly going beyond what goes into Moz DA and choosing to rank another site with a lower DA higher in search result.
Secondly, a site’s overall domain authority does not apply to all the pages of that site. This explains why, sometimes, the results on the first page of Google when searching for a term show a website with a low DA but with a great article on the search topic you were looking for. Google always tries to show you the best result and is increasingly become exceptional at deciding what that is well beyond DA.
For example, my Singapore n Beyond blog has a relatively low DA of 23 (in November 2017) but is entirely focused on lifestyle in Singapore and curated itineraries in Asia. For some of the destinations, we rank in the first page of Google search results despite the low DA. That is because Google considers our content of high quality and shows it when people search for destinations like Belitung or Best resorts in Bintan. For those, we outrank other large travel sites.
It is not rare to see low DA sites on the first page of Google when they are an authority on a niche topic. The more sophisticated Google’s algorithm is and the more ML and AI components it includes, the higher the likelihood of a lower DA site ranking high for a specific term it is more knowledgeable on. This is obviously my assumption but one which I feel is very plausible.
Other sources of traffic beyond Google
Some of the sites in my data set have large social media followings and, with that, a source of traffic not related to the site’s DA. This could explain why a lower DA site has higher traffic than a higher DA one.
Blogs, and websites in general, can drive traffic by promoting their content in many channels beyond just being discovered in a Google search. For some websites, direct traffic (i.e. people directly typing the URL of a site) is the primary source of traffic and so DA is not able to predict how high their traffic would be. For example, news sites are probably accessed directly by users and drive a lot of traffic directly.
Pinterest has been named by many bloggers as their main source of traffic, even before Google’s search. So far, the platform has not muddled with its algorithm so much that it becomes a pay to play environment like Facebook, but nobody can guarantee this will not be the case in the next 12 to 18 months. Flipboard is also able to drive a lot of referral traffic with spikes for some bloggers.
Facebook used to be a great traffic source for me. I had a very engaged audience and I used to be able to drive 10% of my traffic from Facebook but those times are long gone. The social media network is still a great referral source for my Singapore n Beyond blog. I never boosted a post there and I have a highly engaged audience able to drive a lot of traffic.
Twitter, where I have almost 85,000 followers, has click through rates that are lower than display ads, so despite the fact that I get 800,000 impressions a month, of which maybe 30% is about my own blog’s articles, I manage to convert less than 1% of that into website traffic.
Some bloggers are managing to continue to drive quality traffic via Facebook groups. But who is to say that Facebook will not amend the algorithm of groups and that traffic will be gone as well.
If you have a large social media following or an engaged audience you could have a low DA and generate high traffic not related to how much of an authority Google thinks you are.
Other search engines
To most of us in the West, it may seem strange to consider any other search engine beyond Google. However, in some countries other search engines are more widely used. For example, Yahoo is still huge in Japan and iPhones come with it as the default search engine. And Google is not available in China. In my case, 3% of the traffic is coming from other search engines that are not Google. This number could be much larger if I had a bigger audience in countries where Google is not the default search engine.
Most SEO tools usually compare ranking on Google’s search results but not on other search engines. Even if you are outranked on Google, you could still rank high on Bing as the two use different algorithms and data to determine ranking.
Should you still care about Domain Authority?
Given all the challenges above and the fact that DA does not seem to be a good predictor of traffic for a blog, should you still care about it?
If you are a brand looking to advertise, you should look well beyond just the DA of a site. DA is easy to game and you could be choosing the wrong site if you only look at that. In my blogger outreach efforts on behalf of brands, we look at many other metrics like the number of links, the age of the site, the traffic evolution, the progression of a site, the number of keywords it ranks for, the spam score, etc. With all these, we prioritise quality lower DA sites over higher DA ones that do not fulfill the criteria.
If you are a website owner, you should still care about DA because that is still what brands look at. Sadly, the world of online advertising is still very undeveloped and Moz DA is the simplest and most widely used metric. If you are looking to monetise your blog you have no choice but to work on it. But I would strongly recommend doing so in a quality and legitimate manner instead of simply trying to game the system by going into aggressive link swapping, guest posting or any of the many borderline link building strategies. Instead, try to get genuine links to your quality content, get clients to mention you, get media outlets to feature you, etc.
If you are a brand looking to engage with bloggers, you should consider the following when looking at metrics.
1. Evaluating a blogger based on DA only provides a partial assessment
As a brand, if you are looking to engage with a blogger you may do so for various reasons. You may just want a link placed to in turn increase your DA by linking back from a high authority site. Or you may be looking for the brand awareness and promotion on the bloggers channels and audiences. Although you may be tempted to think that for a link, the higher the DA the better, it would be a shame to dismiss a blogger with a lower DA but higher traffic. This is because higher traffic also gives the brand the opportunity to reach a wider audience who in turn may provide natural and unpaid links back or become customers.
2. A higher DA does not mean a higher quality site
Although some sites have a high domain but a lower traffic for valid reasons (i.e. too niche or low number of well written articles in low search volumes niches), a high DA with low traffic could be indicative of unnatural practices like aggressive link swapping, frequent and intensive blog commenting, etc. there are many ways to build links en mass.
With Google constantly improving its algorithm and making it more and more intelligent with Machine Learning capabilities, it is only a matter of time before these practices get detected and the value of these links discounted. As a brand, you would not want to be featured in a site whose authority decreases over time.
3. Moz is not Google
At risk of stating the obvious, Moz has created an easy to understand tangible score but it has done so trying to emulate Google’s complex algorithm. But Moz is not Google and a high Moz score will not be a sure proof of a high Google rankability.
Google’s RankBrain, in use for all queries since 2016, has become a very sophisticated tool that considers a lot of elements and is already the third most important signal for Google to determine the ranking of a website for each query. Brands should take DA as just one of the signals used to evaluate a site. RankBrain is powerful and focuses on understanding the intent of the person searching for a topic. It compounds lots of signals to understand what site is best positioned to answer a query including bounce rate, time on the page, etc. It also includes context. For example, if I am searching best restaurant in Macau, Google considers that I am on mobile, my location and the time of day to bring up the right results. If I was on my desktop in Singapore, I would probably get different results than if I were elsewhere in the world.
Moz is not capable of replicating RankBrain (and probably never will because Google’s Machine Learning capabilities cannot be matched), so the gap between Moz DA and Google’s real ranking of a site can only widen. That is obviously my personal unfounded opinion but I’m not the only one to say that backlinks and as a result Moz DA may not be the most important ranking factor in the new world of machine learning, check out the infographic below by SEMRush.
4. Investigate further
If you are a blogger with low traffic and high DA, this article should give you some hints to look further into your data from Google Search Console and Google Analytics to try and see where you could improve.
Are you ranking for low volume search terms? Are you in a very small niche? Did you build your authority legitimately? Are you leveraging all marketing channels like social media to promote your content?
After almost four years blogging, three of which without a single care for SEO, domain authority, backlink building, affiliates or monetisation, what I have learned is that everything will always change and one should not obsess over a number, or many numbers for that matter.
Ultimately, the best content, the best answer provided to a reader’s need, and a holistic strategy focused on content AND its marketing, is what will drive success in the longer term. Sure, do pay attention to DA and do consider the constant changes in algorithm to tweak your content but, if you are doing genuine work and have unique content to share, I believe you will do well in the long run. Focus on the user, and you will prevail.
Are you a blogger looking to work with brands? Reach out to me to be included in my database for blogger outreach.
Where do you stand and how do your DA and traffic stack? I would love to read your thoughts below.
Read further: You might also be interested in my 2019 Professional Content Creator Survey which shows exactly what a content creator does and how they work, busted the myth that they are all sipping cocktails on the beach.
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