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I Fight Authority and Authority Always Wins. (And What IS Online Authority Anyway?)

guest post by Kelly Diels

I have a problem with authority.

Step inside my echo chamber. I’m a blogger, and apparently now a ProBlogger (just quit my job and I’m making money!) so I’m keenly interested in bloggers who blog about blogging. Especially bloggers who blog about blogging for money. ‘Cuz, like, I like to eat. And I figure that reading and digesting and applying the bloggingforcash lessons of those who have climbed this hill a little longer, for a little more money, is a good idea.

And up high on the meta-blogging mountain they yodel: get thee some authority-y-y-y.

Yet every time I read that I need to get authority, I recoil, I cringe, I raise my feminine fist to the heavens and wail and curse and gnash my teeth.

My neighbours don’t love this. I’ll probably hear from the authorities, soon.

What’s my problem with authority?

In really precise and technical terms, it icks me out.

First, in real life, my aversion to authority is a philosophical, political, feminist, and don’t-wanna-be-bored thing. I don’t want to do what I’m told because a lot of what we’re told to do by institutions, experts, parents, teachers, bosses, friends and lovers is just patently bad for us as human, feeling, thinking, interesting people.

Second, when it comes to blogging authority, I don’t understand what we’re talking about:

  • What is this authority of which we speak?
  • How do we get it?
  • Why do we want it?

Online Authority. What Am I Talking About? I Have No Idea.

Let’s start at the beginning.

Here’s what I’m talking about:

It might be worth stating that the type of blog that I’m talking about in this series is a blog that isn’t purely about profit or traffic – but a blog that has influence in its niche.

It is certainly possible to build a profitable and/or well trafficked blog without Trust – in fact I know a few bloggers who blog purely for Search Engine Traffic who don’t really care about influence, brand or loyal readers but who just want traffic that they can convert to cash…

What I’m on about is helping bloggers to not only be profitable and have traffic but to build blogs that have profile, influence, authority, credibility, respect and a brand that opens up opportunities beyond quick profit. - Darren Rowse


Good blogging creates authority, plain and simple. Writing consistently about your area of expertise makes you an authority figure within your industry and niche. You will enjoy a definitive advantage over competitors who do not blog, and likely even over those who have been blogging for shorter time periods.

Professionals and other business people have long been writing for trade publications and newspaper columns to build authority, coupled with networking in the community and at trade shows and conferences, all in an attempt to build word-of-mouth referral business. With blogging, you’re building authority and networking all at once, and on a global scale if your business model benefits from that kind of reach.

The goal is not to be on the A-List as determined by the Technorati Top 100 Blogs. Your goal is to be on the A-List for your niche, geographic region or industry. - Brian Tracy

It’s much slower and harder with an authority blog to develop traffic as you have to be more choosy. It’s not enough just to do linkbait or SEO tricks, you have to attract the right people and delight them with your content so they subscribe and come back. Here you actually need to get to know your audience and what they like. You have to treat them as individuals rather than a herd of potential ad-clickers. -Chris Garrett

Authority. The Common Ground (I think). It Is Male Territory (I think).

What do these guys have in common?

  • they’re guys (this might have been obvious from the question) and white, male and pretty ones
  • they ranked high on Google for “blogging and authority”
  • they were who I was thinking about when I was thinking about blogging and authority, because I’ve read them and learned from them
  • and I still don’t know what they’re talking about.

I’ve got a theory about why I don’t know what they’re talking about and it all starts with liberal arts. I’m slandering Socrates right now.

I went to University for a long time and during that time the title of nearly every book and academic paper started with “Beyond ________.”

Beyond Pluralism. Beyond Democracy. Beyond Feminism. Beyond Macrophysical Marathoning and Towards Paper Mâché. I just made that up.

My point: all of the writers arguing beyond a concept were reacting to a history or an asserted wisdom that constitutes the canon. They were suggesting that there was more to their field than the regular, accepted arguments and outlines.  They were saying, yes, that’s true, but there is so much more to this story.

I have a suspicion that the reason I’m not grasping ‘authority’ is because that’s what these bloggers and social media thinkers are doing, here, too, with online authority. They’re saying things like “it is not enough to…”, “the goal is not…”, and “isn’t purely about profit or traffic” – all of which makes me suspect there is a discussion or core knowledge animating these beyond-ish arguments.

So I’m convinced that they all know something I don’t – which is easy, because I know nothing. And I know it. Thanks, liberal arts.

(For this I paid an average of $17,000 a year for six years. Ah, higher education.)

And because I think there is a core idea underneath these discussions, I keep asking this question: when we’re talking about online authority, what are we talking about?

Is authority

  • internal, like mastery of your subject and therefore of your domain and possibly the world?
  • an external perception, assessed by others based on your contribution?
  • Empowerment?
  • Knowledge?
  • Expertise?
  • Reputation?
  • Search engine rankings?
  • Some bundle thereof?

Questioning Authority and The Tautology Thereof.

So I asked, directly.

I went to the Misters and the Masters (because sometimes – a lot of times – they are the same and I know this from real life and Women’s Studies, thanks liberal arts) and asked them by e-mail,

What is authority and why do we need it?

Yes, I questioned authority by going to the authorities on authority for advice about authority. Ahem and a’men. All men. Again.

Chris Brogan: Is authority the same as trust? A great question. No. Authority is that sense that someone knows enough about something as to be useful. Trust means that PLUS the sense that you’d take this advice, implement it, and follow one’s recommendations on some things (not necessarily all) without much question. I think authority is to the left of trust on a spectrum, so to speak.

Chris Garrett: Authority could be credibility, could be based on your expertise, experience or results, but it is often simpler than that.It is the answer to the question “why should I listen to YOU?”

Can you demonstrate that you have valuable knowledge, insights, ideas? Have you done something that I would like to be able to achieve too? Do other people look to you as the go-to person in your subject area?

What it absolutely is not is beating people over the head with your credentials and calling yourself an expert – in fact that would work against your authority rather than in favour of it. Labels do not create authority because what a badge gives we can undo in moments as soon as we open our mouths :)

Chris Guillebeau: Authority matters! All authority is perceived authority, meaning that it is determined largely by personal interpretation — but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. When people look to you as an expert and trust what you say, you have a powerful relationship with them, either as a blogger, a marketer, or just a human being. Credentials for credentials sake aren’t that important anymore, but authority is here to stay.

Jonathan Fields:Depends who’s asking. If you’re a kid, it’s the folks who make the rules. If you’re a grown up, it’s the people who refuse to be constrained by the rules. Those who question authority, create their own paradigms, push envelopes and buttons, then bring others along, opening doors, expanding world views, crafting experiences and solutions and, most importantly, walking the walk.

Real authority is also about aligning words with deeds. It comes from those who dare to live. Those who dare to be judged. Those who open themselves to failure and swap spewing for doing. Real authority takes work and risk. Because if it was easy, everyone would be doing it…and everyone would be an authority, leaving the word so diluted as to have no import.

Honestly, I’m Still Not Getting It. WTbadword is Authority?

These are some smart answers from some very smart people – but I’m still not getting it.

So I posed the question to my friends, family, lovers and stalkers who then proceeded to break Twitter and blow up my blog comments.

Neat fact: the people who answering my question “what is authority and why do we need it?” are not all men (nor are most of them named “Chris”). Holy revolution.

Authority to me, and based on my experience, is that you believe what someone says without having to verify it from a 2nd source. It’s half trust, and half faith that someone knows what they’re talking about. - Nathan Hangen

Authority is earned on some level. Chris Brogan became a social media authority when everyone believed he was. My question is…when did HE believe it? - Kelly Livesay

Authority is also respect. Have learned that, (in my culture anyway.) a person must choose between authority & respect…or will we choose rapport and communication and transparency? Rapport encourages connection, a lack of fear and a sense of security. But there is a cost – often a loss of respect comes with rapport if it’s chosen over authority, especially if that person is a woman. - Franis Engel

Authority is in the eye of the beholder - Mary H Ruth

“Authority” squelches innovation, originality, unconventional acumen. It keeps us looking 4 the same answers in the same places.  “Authority” says that “they” are experts when actually “they” might just be louder or more privileged, male, white, pretty.”Authority” can have sumptuous merit – lived experience, deep digging, TRUE interest. It leads tribes. Bottom line: ALL AUTHORITY NEEDS TO BE QUESTIONED, including one’s own, for true freedom and creativity. Never stop asking. - Danielle LaPorte

I think we are moving to a new place about what constitutes authority, so I am glad you are writing about it. The etymology of authority goes back to the word “autor” -from the Old French for “father”. So there are the patriarchial roots….My new definition of authority is authenticity + clarity (haven’t figured out what to do with the o yet). When I show up as fully myself – with my beautiful flaws and mistakes and fears, and say “this is my truth” from a place of clarity – that is worth listening to. This type of authority is on the rise. If your authority means getting people to listen to you, to follow you, that’s fauxthority. You’re just looking for clones. If it means showing people the possibility of authenticity + clarity to find their truth, now we’re talking. -Lianne Raymond

Authority and Women. That’s a No Go, Boys.

Rich, gorgeous stuff, yes?

And a bit thematic and consistent.

Did you notice a point that kept emerging from the women weighing in on authority?

Authority might be a bit off-putting to women: it feels pretty linear, competitive, male,  and exclusive. And – again with the precise language – kind of icky.

(Bloggers and internet marketers, take note. There is an ISSUE here. More than one woman talked about how authority doesn’t resonate with them, or how it signals all the wrong things. It might be as simple as speaking a different language or it might be more.)

No wonder I can’t get my head around what authority means. We all mean different things by it, and it resonates and triggers wildly different associations in each of us:

  • Credibility
  • Trust
  • Respect
  • Experience
  • Rapport
  • Influence
  • Connection
  • Social Proof
  • reputation
  • Accountability
  • Google

I don’t really know what to do with that. How does one systematically go about attempting to manufacture influence and manipulate perceptions?

(Actually, I think this is called “branding”).

Still: fertile ground.

Wherein It Turns Out Online Authority is Way Simpler and Less Sexy and Sexist Than I Thought.

Buried in all of this yummy, complicated, thinky hummus were two great potatoes:

Authority is landing on 1st page of Google for search term. Preferably in the top 3 - Dave Doolin

Normally “Authority” online is a reference to how Google values your website / pages. Google considers a Site more authoritative if it has the keyword in question in the site’s URL, if it is an older site, if it has plentiful backlinks from other sites considered to be high value sites, and if the content relates well to the search (among other things). Not too differently from how one might look for an Authority on a topic — who does everyone else look to / listen to (link to) for information on a specific topic? - Bruce Nunnally

Oh well, okay then. Now we’re talking. Now we’re sheering off all the emotion, politics, genitals and gendered intersections and just talking about results.

Search engine results.

I think we just figured out the old school (really old school – as in Platonic) online authority that everyone is obliquely telling us to get beyond.

Authority is the Goddess Google via John Mellencamp. Worship Accordingly.

So at its most basic, Platonic level, online authority is search engine results.

And contained in this most minimal of definitions is an action plan. Here’s how you get online authority:

  • backlinks (guest posts)
  • backlinks (commenting on other blogs)
  • backlinks (great content and value aka “linkbait“)
  • backlinks (community. Play nice.)
  • backlinks (relationships. Be nice.)
  • and all the stuff bloggers advise you to do to build traffic, dominate SERPS and create online authority is about…backlinks

I must confess that my inner feminist, idealist and fist-shaker just died a little for the 47 millionth time since I started this essay approximately six hundred years ago.

Fortunately, all of my alter egos are resilient. And persistent.

So is John Mellencamp, from whom I unabashedly stole the title of this piece. His 80s old school words of wisdom, in song:

I fight Authority, Authority always wins
oh, I’ve been doing it since I was a young kid and I always come out grinning.
I fight Authority. Authority always wins.

And Authority is Google and I’m pretty sure she’s a woman.

To woo her, you’ll need backlinks. To keep her (and her friends, the ones she very kindly sends your way), you’ll need plain ol’ likeability, credibility, and respectability.

You know, exactly what everyone was telling me but I just had to keep questioning. Curse you, liberal arts.

_____________________

Kelly Diels writes for ProBlogger every week. She’s also a wildly hireable freelance writer and the creator of Cleavage, a blog about three things we all want more of: sex, money and meaning.

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Comments

  1. Excellent post.

  2. Marie says:

    I love you, Kelly Diels! (Did I say that out loud?) I am pretty new to blogging, and I subscribe to the Problogger newsletter, which is awesome. I’ve never posted a comment before (I’ve thought about it). But for some reason (many reasons) I felt compelled to actually comment on this one. Who knows why? (I have a suspicion it’s because I too am suspect of authority…) Regardless, I want to thank you for your insight, your passion, and your prose. Oh, and most of all your wit.

    P.S. You’re an authority in my eyes (whatever that means, and for whatever that’s worth…lol)

  3. Kelly — Thanks for including my quote. Good article.

    Sorry to hear your “…inner feminist, idealist and fist-shaker just died a little…”. I think a good thing to add to your action plan is “Content, Content, Content”. Quality content is crucial to being successful at the rest of the action plan.

  4. çiçek says:

    Nice long post! Kelly really very useful, this article makes sense

  5. Dave Doolin says:

    Thank you Kelly.

  6. Dave Doolin says:

    I do have one quibble.

    Mr Rowse is NOT pretty. He may be handsome. He may be attractive (I don’t know, don’t swing that way).

    But he is not pretty.

    I, however, am pretty.

    But I’d rather be an authority.

    At least, an authority on something other than being pretty.

  7. To me, authority in the blogosphere is number one Great, quality content, networking within your niche, and fulfilling the needs of your readers content wise on a constant basis.

    I don’t believe you have to have a metal that states that you’ve completed X amount of years of experience in your niche, No that’s not authority to me.

    Authority can be as simply as using your life experiences and applying it so that you can share lessons that you’ve learned with others to prevent help them to not have to go through negative experiences.

    Great post, thanks for sharing.