What is authority? How is authority identified, formed, and lost? These are questions we would like to answer with our study ‘Authority in Germany: Who follows whom?’. We have received quite a number of inquiries and comments and are going to answer these step by step. Today we focus upon why we refer to Google.
Yes, we have to admit that we also ‘blame’ Google for our interest in wanting to find out more about authority. For Google and its business model, the question of authority and how a search engine can possibly detect it is essential.
The developers in Mountain View had to make sure that the most significant sources of information related to a search item appeared at the very top of the hit lists. And they have overcome the initial obstacles quite well. Today, the page or domain authority of a web site displaying the search item is one of the criteria to indicate if web content has enough substance. They call this EAT: expertise, authoritativeness, and trust.
The Google standard: expertise, authoritativeness, trust
For Google, web pages and content that deserve being listed at the very top upon a query are supposed to demonstrate a clear expertise that provides credibility, confidence, and authoritativeness (as Americans call it). We will get back to this later.
These are initial clues of how search engines and their developers are able to evaluate content when it comes to authority. These clues are further explained in a 160-page ‘Search Quality Evaluator Guideline’ linked to our study. This guideline explains how difficult it can be to assess whether the content of a web page is useful or not. Some of the criteria are:
- The reputation and expertise of the author (education, competencies, positive references and citations by others etc.)
- The quality and substance of content (presentation, argumentation, foundation, etc.)
- The credibility of information (e.g., a patient’s statement about the effect of a therapy for a certain disease can possibly be more valuable than studies and expert opinions; the same statement, however, is also a non-representative, individual experience).
Authority matters – especially with health, security, and money
This short list of criteria demonstrates how complex the subject-matter is. And it is also much more controversial than it appears to be at first sight.
When it comes to questions about health, money, and security (Google uses the formula YMYL – Your Money, Your Life), content and recommendations without authority may cause serious damage.
Especially when someone believes in information that has been provided without any expertise and reliability. These explanations and recommendations should rather not be adopted.
How to identify a person’s authority?
However, if search engines ‘read’ signs and signals that help assess the authority of a web page or its content, what would be the code we use to figure out whether another person deserves being considered an authority?
This question is crucial and also controversial as following people with what they think, say, and do in social media or other channels has become quite common. People with ‘authority’ are called ‘influencers’. However, with everyone influencing others we need to ask ourselves these questions:
- Do these people deserve being considered an authority?
- Do range and popularity of ‘influencers’ really constitute authority?
- What about the EAT (expertise, authoritativeness, trust) of these people?
- When, where and why could it be worthwhile to follow their explanations and recommendations?
- What could we really learn from them?
- What intentions justify our following them? What could we possibly expect?
Whenever people are able to decide voluntarily whether they want to follow others or not, they need to ask themselves these questions. This happens much more often than we may assume. We may not have a choice indeed with traditional groups of authority like parents, teachers, and managers. However, whether we want to follow them in practice, is up to our free will these days. Nobody really has to follow influencers.
In search of the authority code: two starting points
From our research, we have construed two starting points that are quite close to Google’s EAT criteria. The first one: Human beings also interpret signs and signals in order to determine whether they could possibly consider the other person as an authority. In our study, we cluster these signals that may indicate authority:
- Substance (signals of knowledge, skills, and experience)
- Habitus (signals of appearance and behavior like language, speech, and gesture)
- Status (signals of standing, function, role, and tasks as well as titles and awards).
The second one: Whenever it is important to demonstrate authority based upon an outstanding expertise, we would rather use the term ‘authoritative’ like Google does – as authority more often than not has a smack of ‘authoritarian’. Many people assume that a person with authority might use force and arbitrariness in order to place and position his or her teachings and recommendations.
However, this is not the case when people follow others because they attribute authority (i.e., authoritativeness) to them based upon more knowledge, more experience, and superior skills. These authoritative leaders – maybe teachers, parents, or managers – are able to convince others with cutting-edge and role model behavior. People follow them voluntarily – or rather not. In our study, we provide some further insight into these phenomena.
We are happy to send you the survey documentation by mail. Just leave a message on our web site or send an e-mail to connect[at]auctority[dot]net with your contact details.