What is Authoritative Digital Content?
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What is Authoritative Digital Content?

April 2, 2024

Introduction

The internet has become a challenging place, but maybe we can do something about it.

Let’s say you want to solve world hunger. You have a really great solution for how to do it. It’s a proven strategy. But you’re going to need the buy-in of a lot of people – hundreds of thousands, if not millions. You need to be known, and you need to be noticed.

It used to be that everyone watched the same news channels and read the same newspapers and magazines. There just weren’t that many to choose from. There’s a good chance, for example, that a whole lot of well-read Americans of 1973 read TIME Magazine’s cover article about “The Hamburger Empire” – the rise of McDonald’s.

But if you want to be known today,

you have to navigate the abyss that is the internet. It’s nearly infinite.

But if you want to be known today,

 you  have  to  navigate  the  abyss  that  is  the  internet.  It's  nearly  infinite.

Somewhere, the internet must “end,” but if it does, no one has ever reached it. All the old mainstays – TIME, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, The Washington Post – have mostly moved online. And then there are the online news platforms that once started as television, like CNN and NBC News, and there are the blog platforms like Medium and Substack, and the online magazines like Bustle and The Cut and Vulture, and your friend’s travel blog, and social media sites and so much more.

All of them are publishing content constantly

and all of them are trying to be the thing that people find when they’re searching online.

The Wild West of Search Engine Optimization

It’s a fiercely competitive landscape, and competitive for a reason. Unless you know exactly what you’re looking for, to get to almost any content found online, you need to go through a search engine – namely Google. (Yes, Bing and Yahoo and DuckDuckGo, too, but Google accounts for over 91% of searches globally, according to The Wall Street Journal).

The data backs it up:

  • As of 2023, Google processes over 8.5 billion searches per day. That works out to about 99,000 searches every second
  • Google drives roughly 60% of all traffic on the web. Ten times more traffic than social media.
  • Google dominates the search engine market with around 92% global share in 2023.

Decades ago, when Google came on the scene, they took the information on the web and turned it into an organized, searchable, highly relevant database. They weren’t the first to do it, but they were the ones who did it the best to the point where their brand name is synonymous with searching online – “Why don’t you just Google it?”

Like it or not, the reality is that Google is the primary internet search platform for users all over the world. They determine how search works, they determine what gets ranked, and they determine what doesn’t. The reality of the matter is that if you want to be found online, you’ve got to play the game by Google’s rules or suffer the consequences.

The problem, of course, is that Google really doesn’t make the rules of the game very clear, and they can’t. If they were to reveal the inner workings of their ranking algorithm and the 200+ factors that make it up, they wouldn’t be a business anymore.

So their solution is to provide broad, high-level documentation, thousands of pages, to help guide users on the type of content that their search algorithm looks for and rewards with a higher position in search results.

The exact number of ranking factors in Google's algorithm is not publicly known, but estimates suggest it's well over 200.

This gave birth to an entire industry of professionals, called search engine optimizers (or SEOs), who have made it their life’s work to understand Google’s algorithm and create content in a formulaic fashion that is almost guaranteed a high position in search engine results.

There is a narrative that if your articles are written a certain way, if your website has the right number of backlinks, if you include the exactly correct keywords, then your article will experience a meteoric rise to the top of search results. That simply isn’t the case. Genuinely great content goes unseen, while seemingly less helpful content holds its position.

Let’s get back to world hunger. If you want to know about hunger today, the first thing you’re probably going to do is search for the term “hunger.”

What comes up? The IMDb page for a 2023 horror movie called “Hunger.” It’s about a woman running a noodle restaurant who ends up trying to survive in the cutthroat world of fine dining. Sigh.

The second result is a Wikipedia page about hunger, which is promising. But, wait, no – it’s actually the page about the movie “Hunger.” That’s search engine optimization, and companies work really hard to hold the coveted first position.

The first five results on a search page receive nearly 70% of clicks.

Holding a high thought-leadership position in organic search is critical, since the first five results on a search page receive nearly 70% of clicks. But organically ranking on online search engines is fiercely competitive, and it can be frustrating. The serious, change-the-world stuff often seems to get buried by Hollywood and Taylor Swift and cute photos of kittens, leaving people with genuinely good content raising their hands in confusion about how the work they’re creating can get seen by the right people at the right time.

The Helpful Content Update

In 2022, Google announced what they deemed their “Helpful Content Update.” Google makes updates and modifications to its algorithm all the time; some estimates say even daily. But a few times a year, Google will roll out a major update that is intended to make a fundamental shift in the way that content is found.

Most of the time, these updates are centered around stopping bad actors from trying to game the system in order to have spammy or unhelpful content gain a high position in search results.

However, the Helpful Content Update was different. Likely in response to a massive influx of AI-generated articles that were essentially saying the same thing and formulaically built to have the best opportunity to rank, the Helpful Content Update was intended to reward content that was written for people, not for search engines.

Not long after the update rolled out, companies that had invested substantial amounts of time and money into search engine optimization and content efforts saw dramatic shifts in their website traffic – some even going from tens of thousands of visitors a day to almost none, with no clear rhyme or reason as to what exactly Google was defining as unhelpful content.

Ranking isn’t something that’s left entirely up to the search engine oligarchs at Google; there is something that its algorithms look for and something that they will reward. The question becomes, what is it?

Is Search Engine Optimization Dead?

With the recent algorithm updates, many people have declared that SEO as we know it is dead, and it’s unclear what ranking well in search engines moving forward actually looks like. But that’s not exactly true.

Search Engine Optimization in the way that it has been known is changing, and the tactics that used to provide predictable, actionable results may not anymore. But people are still searching online, and Google still needs content experts, thought leaders and high quality content to be shown on its platform. Ranking isn’t something that’s left entirely up to the search engine oligarchs at Google; there is something that its algorithms look for and something that they will reward. The question becomes, what is it?

The answer: think like a human.

Google has proclaimed one message time and time again for the last decade: Write for people first. It’s simple, but makes sense when you think about your own search experience online.

Imagine that you’re trying to figure out how to patch a hole in the drywall of your house. You might go to Google and ask, “How can I patch a hole in drywall?” As a consumer of content, you are looking for something very specific and actionable.

Now, imagine you click on the first result on Google with the helpful title, “How to patch a hole in drywall: the ultimate guide [2023].” You navigate to the page, and you’re confronted with a 2,500-word article detailing the history of drywall going back to 1916, the chemical components that make up drywall, tables of all the different brands of drywall and so on. That’s not helpful content to you; that’s content written for a search engine and intended to rank well for a broad number of keywords.

In the past, SEO content has been primarily focused on casting a wide net by helping answer lots of questions that people ask. That’s not necessarily a bad thing to do, but it’s also not very helpful for the person who is reading your article.

Essentially, Google wants to be out of your mind when you’re writing content for your target audience and, to a degree, that’s not a bad way to think about what and how you’re writing. But at the same time, you can’t simply pretend that the very tool that you’re wanting to use to drive traffic to your website isn’t there. It is, and it would be futile to write the best content in the world and throw it out to the wind and hope that people find it.

No, the way forward needs to toe the line between technical best practices and genuinely helpful content.

But what does that look like?

Introducing Authoritative Digital Content ™ (ADC)

Authoritative Digital Content ™, or ADC, is a marketing philosophy that is aimed at creating unique and thought-leading content for your target audience that is not just “findable” but is genuinely valuable to them.

There is so much competition online, and that competition is only growing with the introduction of AI content. In 30 seconds, you can type a prompt into ChatGPT and create a technically proficient, search engine optimized article that provides absolutely no value to your audience.

Creating content that is technically proficient and follows SEO best practices is only part of the battle. The other and more important consideration is what are you saying and showing to your audience that is leading, unique and immersive?

Authoritative Digital Content ™ is content that seeks to merge those two worlds together by creating content that isn’t focused on gimmicks or quick tricks but is built and crafted to overwhelm your audience with the best and most helpful content possible on a very specific topic.

ADC is made up of three main components:

A Authoritative

The term authoritative often gets translated into “long-form,” which isn’t necessarily correct. In an ADC philosophy, authoritative means comprehensive. It means that the content sufficiently discusses and explains the topic in question from a unique perspective. Sometimes, the best explanations are short and easy to understand; sometimes, they require more background and context. Either way, the goal is not to hit a certain word count but to create content that is original and thought-leading, not found elsewhere, and is related to the website’s overall content and purpose.

D Digital

ADC is built for a digital medium, which means that it needs to be technically proficient. Your content can be beautifully authoritative, but if search engines can’t technically crawl it, they won’t find it. If your website is riddled with errors and isn’t accessible on mobile devices, users won’t enjoy it. Your content, and by default, your website, needs to be technically proficient and able to help search engines and readers find your content and have a pleasant experience while reading it.

C Content

ADC content is written with your audience in mind. Remember you’re writing primarily to an audience that lives in the digital world and is accustomed to fast-paced content. Getting them to slow down and invest in your website requires content that is not just high quality but is also engaging. Walls of text often get skimmed, but content that engages visitors in immersive ways, with more than just words – like motion graphics, video, interactive maps, charts and more – can get them to stay and help them better understand what you’re trying to say.

Let’s go back to the example of you trying to figure out how to patch a hole in your drywall. What are you, dear human, actually looking for in your search?

Well, it doesn’t take an algorithm to guess that you’re looking for instructions on how to patch your drywall! But what specifically would be helpful to you in that journey? Perhaps a step by step guide with instructions on how to patch the hole, a video walking you through how to do it in detail, perhaps a downloadable image that you can save to your phone so you can see the instructions while you’re working.

To you, that is helpful content. It was written with you in mind, and it accomplishes the purpose for which it was built. You’re going to spend time on that page. You’re going to reference it as you’re working, and, in the future, when another hole inevitably needs to be patched, you’ll know exactly where to go.

You have just reaped the benefits of Authoritative Digital Content ™ firsthand, and you have just become top of the funnel traffic for a business that took the time to teach you how to patch your drywall.

“Trendy” rankings come and go. The content that will continuously rank the highest is the thought leadership content that aims to be a valuable resource for a reader – not content that tries to game the system. In the long term, credible, authoritative, valuable articles will find their way to the top of search engines, not because they were written for them, but because they deserve to be there. You want to be the mainstay on Page One, not the “one-hit wonder.” The best way to do that is to create the right kind of content.

How do you develop Authoritative Digital Content?

There are no shortcuts to creating authoritative content; that’s what makes it authoritative – ChatGPT and SEO scanners aren’t going to help you much here. Authoritative Digital Content is typically built in the following steps:

#1 Determine the topics that you want to be known for.

You can’t be known for everything online, and you don’t necessarily want to be. Determine the four or five things that make the core of your work and set those as the “pillars” that guide all the authoritative digital content that you create. Content pillars are the starting point for developing comprehensive articles that position your company as a thought leader. Pillar content may incorporate original research, unique perspectives or just an exhaustive review of a topic. Everything that you produce should, in some way, shape or form, point back to those four or five topics and help cast further light and expertise on them.

#2 Have something unique to say.

There are billions of blogs on websites all over the world; adding another blog post to the fray isn’t going to get you very far. Authoritative Digital Content is hinged on having content that is worth sharing with the world.

The great news is that you are very likely already an expert in the field that you want to be known for; the challenge is discovering how you can add something new to the conversation that’s happening online. Your perspective doesn’t necessarily have to be new, but it should be unique and add to the conversation versus simply regurgitating someone else’s thoughts. Proprietary research is an easy way to bring something new to the conversation.

#3 Say it in an immersive way.

Consider ways that you can add interactive or immersive content to your page. How can your research be visualized? How can people see and interact with what you’re trying to explain to them? Giving people the opportunity to stop and watch, explore and play with the content on your page means they’re much more likely to spend time on your website and keep coming back for more.

What else is required for effective ADC?

Collaboration.

Like all brand and marketing initiatives, the more integrated your ADC content is with other marketing initiatives, the better. For example, if you’re conducting original research, ADC should be engaged to tell a story around the research. That content should then be shared through digital marketing and over social platforms. This ensures the marketing orchestra is playing from the same sheet of music and the brand sound is amplified in an organized, harmonic way.

So, with earned media, for example, the messaging developed for interviews or op-eds should be consistent in how concepts are explained and keywords or key topics used.

Performance tracking.

ADC is a process of continual improvement. Search engines are constantly scraping the web for great content, and search rankings change all the time. So it’s critical that as part of an ongoing thought leadership content strategy you track content performance in order to generate new audience insights, and understand topics are driving the most traffic and engagement and how the content compares to competitors and industry benchmarks. This drives the ongoing development of content and strategy.

Your imagination.

The possibilities around ADC content are only limited by your imagination. The more engaging and comprehensive your content is, the better.

Work with us.

Authoritative Digital Content is more than a blog post optimized for search engines. It’s about
building content that integrates strategy, design and storytelling for your audience that will draw
them to your site and keep them coming back.