The Surprising Effect of Freshness and Authority on Search Results

Image of Google Query

I want to let you in on a little secret about Copyblogger.

We are very competitive. Not in a “we win, you lose” sense, more of the simple “we want to be the best.”

And one area we tend to be a little obsessive about is search rankings — especially when it comes to our cornerstone content.

So, it may come as no surprise that one of those terms we obsess about is “content marketing.” In fact our content marketing landing page ranks very well on Google.

But recently, it didn’t.

Oh sure, that landing page has more than 21,000 links and many social media shares. But on December 22, 2012 all of that SEO goodness no longer mattered.

On that day, another site ranked higher than our page … and they did it with miniscule backlinks and no social media shares.

They accomplished it by being fresh and authoritative.

The content marketing ranking battle begins …

So who was this competitor that set their sites on our prized position in Google for the term content marketing? A group of black hat SEOs? No. In fact, it was much more benign.

You see, Mashable decided to create a category page on their site to aggregate all of their content marketing articles.

From all appearances, this was more of a year-end house keeping job to help properly classify some of their content. In no way did it appear that they where actively targeting the term to rank, since the number of links the category page obtained was less than 30, and it had earned no social media shares.

But when this page was indexed by Google, it suddenly ranked higher than all Copyblogger content marketing posts.

A quick review of clearly showed the vast difference in the core SEO metrics for each page.

Image of Copyblogger Ahrefs SEO Metrics

Image of Mashable Ahrefs SEO Metrics

And yet, while our content marketing landing page clearly had very strong links and shares, the page at Mashable outranked us.

How is this possible in the land of SEO — where links and shares are the very currency of the trade?

The answer lies in two core principles we’ve taught over and over — authority and freshness.

Query Deserves Freshness. Huh?

Unless you’re steeped in SEO terminology, you may not have heard of the acronym “QDF” or Query Deserves Freshness.

QDF, simply stated, is that for every query (“search term”) a search result list should include one (or more) piece of content that’s been recently published.

As we experienced first hand at Copyblogger, the sheer act of Mashable creating a category page on their site completely negated all of the SEO factors we had achieved.

It was as if links, shares, and the age of the page didn’t matter. Because — in this particular case — it didn’t. What mattered more than anything else was the fact that had published the page.

A quick check at SEOMoz shows that the Domain Authority of Mashable is 97 out of 100, with Copyblogger coming in at 92 of 100. Domain Authority is a feature of SEOMoz that “Predicts this domain’s ranking potential in the search engines based on an algorithmic combination of all link metrics.”

In essence, because Mashable had a higher Domain Authority than Copyblogger, Google determined that (for the term Content Marketing) the landing page at Mashable had higher relevance than our page.

This is the true power of QDF. For sites that have a strong Domain Authority, the simple act of publishing content around a particular term could supersede the benefits of in-bound links and social media shares.

But only for a little while …

Losing the battle, but winning the war

Inside Copyblogger, we were a little perturbed by this development.

Not so much that we were going to declare war to gain back ground on the term “content marketing,” but enough to wonder what was going to happen.

You see, while QDF is a powerful benefit to those with authoritative domains, it does not last.

Check for yourself.

Within 30 days of the Mashable page first getting indexed by Google, the listing had fallen off the front page and our content marketing landing page resumed its previous position.

Write with authority, and for the long term

We’ve often shared the principles and value of building authority at Copyblogger.

And, as content marketers, we use tools like our own Scribe content marketing software to research and analyze our content — ensuring that our keyword strategies align with the content and site we are publishing on.

This is one reason why ranks so well for a variety of search terms.

But as our experience shows, a quick spike in a search ranking is not enough. Establishing connections with other authoritative online sources is crucial for long term content viability — helping you build the links and social media shares to your content from authoritative sources.

While tools like Scribe can help identify these connections, it takes time and patience to build those quality links and social media shares.

And in the long run, these temporary ranking spikes due to factors like QDF will be replaced by the authoritative content.

Now, if we could just out rank Wikipedia. πŸ˜‰

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Reader Comments (70)

  1. says

    Thank you for your valuable share and i have noticed this myself when ever i publish new content it increases traffic to my blog suddenly ..

    • says

      Having fresh content on the site or blog with constantly updated quality content which adds value to the users must deserve a spike in the search engine rankings & traffic for the users to get benefited from the latest or fresh content rather than old, authoritative and sometimes the outdated quality content. Almost all the search queries on the search engines deserve freshness except searches for which the solution remains the same at any moment.

  2. says

    Freshness is something I need to work on. Didn’t realize that it can have such a significant affect. Fortunately the long play is better in the end. Things gained by shortcuts don’t last.

  3. says

    I think freshness is really important, I get traffic for some really really competitive terms, but the long tail keywords bring in traffic to those pages. I also outrank many only topic specif sites for these terms, when I have an exact match in the long tail.

  4. says

    I noticed one of my sites outranked wikipedia today. Let me find it again… I was shocked, but pleasantly shocked, I assure you.

    Here it is… “jatukam amulet” was the phrase. These are Buddhist amulets that are said to have some special powers. We have a lot of content about the amulets, and apparently Google knows it and trusts the site. That’s cool. That’s the first time I ever saw that with one of my sites.

    This relevancy thing is the cause of my rankings on different sites fluctuating I think. We have a pattern in analytics that we can follow over time, and then every now and then a big dip, then it goes back up again over the next few days. We see this with our Hawaii site the most. A big site puts out news about Hawaii and we drop down a bit in ranking, and then eventually climb right back up.

    The whole search game is getting a bit too time consuming for me. I’m ready to sell the sites and move on. Anybody want some sites with good authority and rank, seasoned over 5+ years?

    Excellent article – thanks much.

  5. says

    I recently experienced the same thing. One day I was on top, then overnight I stumbled. Thank you for the reminder that content is still king. A week later I was back on top. Goes to show that using tools like Scribe can give you the piece of mind that you’re creating rankings that will last.

  6. says

    Interesting case study. While reading, I was also thinking that if you’re trying to build visibility as an author, this lesson underscores the importance of guest blogging for sites with good site authority.

  7. says

    Great blog! We are also reviewing our website and making sure we keep it fresh and up to date with interesting articles and portfolio slides! Content is key, you have to make it worthwhile for people to visit time and time again. We also wrote an article on our blog about Content Marketing and gave a few tips of our own, feel free to take a look
    Many thanks,

  8. says

    I have never heard a treatment on “freshness.” Always thought “once it is out there, it can keep being found.” Thanks for bumping up my paradigm on this.

  9. Jeremy vest says

    Best SEO article I’ve read all year!!

    In 2013 would you focus your links to your cornerstone landing pages / silos or to the homepage to build domain level authority?

    Thanks Sean.

    • says

      Jeremy, thank you.

      As for your question, I would focus on the cornerstone content since domain links will come to the home page as your cornerstone content builds awareness and people reference your site by its domain.

  10. says

    One of my clients that I do conversion optimization and copywriting for actually outranks Wikipedia on a very competitive term. Of course, it helps that she’s an absolute top-notch authority on the topic but she also combines all of the things that both Copyblogger and Mashable do — provide great cornerstone content that’s updated often.

    • says

      Rafi, not at all. But many people assume they do which is why I alluded to it. Links and shares are important but not the only items to consider. Links from authoritative sites are very important, as well as other factors such as click rates in a search result list, bounce rates back to search result pages, Google Author attribution, etc.

  11. says

    I am trying to understand this completely… Did Mashable outrank Copyblogger temporarily because of the quantity that appeared all at once on its content page, giving the appearance of tremendous volume of freshness? Is it also about the quantity as well as currency? Thanks so much for clarifying this.

    • says

      Mia, it was because the domain of Mashable had a higher authority than Copyblogger, not the quantity in the particular case.

      Or put another way, a basic assumption for QDF is that if an authoritative site recently publishes an item that aligns with the query, then because of the authority of that site, it is given a temporary boost in exposure on a search result page.

      Hence fresh content from an authoritative site gets a temporary increase in exposure, regardless of the quantity of articles related to it. However, over time, sites with high quantity/quality will, in most cases, out rank those with lower quantity/quality.

  12. says

    Now I get it. Someone as recently as last week critiqued my site and suggested that I categorize my pages. Now it really makes sense.

    • Greg Boser says

      It doesn’t always last for a couple of reasons. The first being that it is designed to be temporary. Think of it like Google saying we are going to go ahead and rank this high even though we haven’t had time to calculate all of the 200 + signals used to determine ranking because the source has a long track record of providing trustworthy content.

      The second reason has to do with the fact that queries that qualify as QDF can also be ambiguous and/or evergreen in nature. As an example, during Oscar week, a query for Lincoln might temporarily return results favoring Hollywood gossip sites talking about the movie. A month from now, people searching for that phrase probably won’t want to see content about pre-Oscar buzz. They want evergreen content about the President.

    • says

      Sam, I think there are a number of reasons why it did not last, but a simple way to explain it is this, who is a better authority on Content Marketing – Mashable or Copyblogger? Mashable is a great news site but is the site *about* Content Marketing?

      Remember, a search result list is an ordered list based on a calculation of the probability of “relevance”. While QDF does provide a higher probability of relevance to sites of authority, in the long run, other factors come into play to determine the long term relevance. (And those “other factors” is what the SEO industry tries to tackle).

  13. says

    I’m not an SEO person, so I might be misunderstanding something here. But, QDF seems like it could trigger a rather dangerous proliferation of repeated content. Just as we saw sites stuffing keywords into the bottom of pages to gain rankings years ago, doesn’t QDF encourage the creation of “fresh” pages with duplicate content to maintain the boost in rankings? In effect, this isn’t this what happened with Mashable? They recycled some content onto a “fresh” page and got a boost. If this is the case, it would seem to put a lot of solo bloggers in jeopardy since businesses with larger staff could “outpage” an individual.

    • says

      No, Mashable’s page was a category page, meaning it was an index of their content marketing articles. It seems that Google got around to crawling it, and because of the freshness and authority of the site, temporarily ranked it high. It wasn’t a bad page at all, but all things considered, it doesn’t deserved to be ranked that highly, which is why it no longer is.

      • says

        I will be the first to admit that most of this goes over my head. I do know one thing, I visit Copyblogger more than Mashable.

        Keep up the good work!


    • says

      Robert, what they did was aggregate related pages into a single category based on a single topic. The aggregation page itself was not duplicate content since the page was an aggregation of headlines and descriptions of existing posts into a new page.

      As for the “outpage” issue, remember, Copyblogger was a solo blog for a long time and outranked many of the authoritative sites for competitive key terms before it became part of Copyblogger Media. Even today our editorial team is minuscule compared to the staff at Mashable.

      Quality content over time will always do well; regardless of the number of people who manage or write it (as many solo bloggers who outrank larger staffed sites will attest).

    • says

      Thanks for the follow-up. I’m sorry I wasn’t totally clear…I realize Mashable was just using a category page, not replicating entire posts. I know quality content wins out over time, as it should (yes, I drank the kool-aid…and I like it!). I guess it just catches one off guard (as you note in this article) when something as simple as a category page can change the rankings like that. Thanks again for the excellent post!

  14. says

    Great story! :)
    I thought it would turn out to be a horror one about “How a huge site can beat years of your hard work just by publishing a new page” but I’m glad it was a temporary spike. Doubly glad that your focus on good, regular content is still better in the long run.

    • Greg Boser says

      The thing to understand is that it is really a case of temporarily being temporary. By that I mean where the page sits now is based on a true calculation of all of Google’s ranking factors. But from this point forward, there is a great chance it wil begin to climb again because of the way Mashable links internally to their category pages, and the fact that people love linking to them as a source for quality aggregated topical content.

      As much as I know it pains Brian to hear it, winning a long-term war with Mashable is pretty tough. Especially when you’ve chosen not to use linkable category structure to aggregate all of your content marketing content in a single spot. :(

  15. says

    I suspect this is part of the original thought behind the “Google loves blogs” idea. Content which does change, or I guess, probably more like, a site that gets changed and added to. I think all rankings are temporary, more like running over a trail where you need to adapt to keep your lead; as opposed to running on a treadmill (without a program) where everything is simple and as long as you keep doing more of the same thing, you will stay out in front.

  16. says

    Great write up, and it’s interesting to see that fresh content can push itself onto the first page, even though it may not stay there. I recently saw a post that was ranking top three for a term where every other site had a thousand more links and couldn’t figure out why. Now I know.

    And good luck outranking Wikipedia. Whenever you figure out how to do that, let us know. :)

  17. says

    Good one Sean,

    This also reveals an opportunity Mashable missed doesn’t it?

    I wonder what would have happen if they would have promoted their page from the time they started ranking?

  18. says

    Imagine the 60-year-old biologist who spent their entire career researching Pandas or Penguins. Good luck getting in the first 100 pages of search results for either of those terms…

  19. says

    Hi Sean,

    I wonder if this principles would also apply to the sudden rise of relatively new websites, in particular niche blogs. I’ve heard a number of marketers brag about a first page placement yet a few days later when I went to find them they were nowhere to be found. They would have a very sudden increase of fresh content that probably could drive them to the top. Would that explain it?

    Thanks for another interesting post on copyblogger.


    • says

      Sasha, if there is one thing certain, SEO will evolve. My immediate recommendation is to watch Bing very carefully over the next year. Duane Forrester over at Bing Webmaster Tools has been sharing a lot at conferences about the work Bing is pursuing, in a broad sense. I think the next two years will start to see a shift away from an overt SEO focus on Google to more discussions about Bing and the work they are doing with Facebook, etc.

  20. says

    Loved this article. I’m not an SEO wonk, but I’ve been very familiar with QDF. However, it’s always been a nebulous concept. Until now. This was a wonderful concrete example of it in action. Thank you for sharing.

    Also, I wonder if QDF is responsible for the rapid emergence (and then disappearance) of Google+ posts on news as Chris pointed out in his Blue Glass article The Google+ Effect on Breaking News.

  21. says

    Fantastic article, and it really helps me solidify what QDF does and how it works (much like Demian said).

    And I noticed a grammar error (sorry, can’t help it as an ex-English teacher now writer!). Under the “The content marketing ranking battle begins …” heading, in the third paragraph, you need to change “where” to “were”: “In no way did it appear that they where actively targeting the term to rank,…”

  22. says

    Quality fresh content is what it’s all about these days. I write all my own content now and the problem I have is that I can’t get it out quick enough. I used to use writers but they just couldn’t give my articles the unique voice and style I use. I’ve set myself a goal at the moment to write one really high quality piece of content per month. I work at my site part-time so it takes me that amount of time to research something good, write it and really polish it. So quality writing really is the way forward for me.

  23. says

    That Copyblogger could be outranked for that phrase for 30 days or even 30 minutes is insane. For anyone who has a brain, a list of “must read” content includes content that is decidedly stale as hell. How fresh, pray tell, are the words of The Bard? Machiavelli? Mark Twain? Let’s confine ourselves to the online universe for the sake of argument. Are we to believe that a title cranked out yesterday is more relevant to a searcher than a classic on-line piece that may have been polished, and commented on, and corrected and supplemented since, say, 2004? To send a searcher to the wrong place for even a few hours suggests that the almighty algorithm has exhausted its relevance.
    What kind of search-engine user experience is that? “Oh, you don’t want that old classic Bearnaise sauce recipe, beloved by millions. Here’s a nice fresh one, wrote up just this morning by Ms. Jones on How To Cook Sosses Right Fast in Your Battry-Powered Toster Oven.” How about trying this slogan on for size: QDQ, Query Deserves Quality?

  24. says

    Thanks for the interesting read, Copyblogger! It reinforced what I already learned to be the keys to success; by writing great cornerstone worthy content and building relationships with authoritative sources.

    I didn’t know about Scribe however. Looks like a really interesting tool although the monthly price is a bit too steep for me at the current moment.

    Great read as always!

  25. says

    These kinds of SEO posts (and discussions) and invaluable. Just considering the factors that you can legitimately be conscious of that will help you rank can be huge. I really like the undercurrent that this is not a system you are trying to “game” but rather “understand”. This seems really in the spirit of how google is trying to curate its index, and should produce stable long term results if followed. I guess for me the challenge with content marketing still remains around publishing and researching ideas that are interesting in very dry and boring, and highly commercial fields. And I can’t help but wonder if alot of this behind the scenes marketing you see so much of these days is just content marketing, and ad execs are all just secretly reading copyblogger!

  26. says

    Yea, the QDF thing is interesting.

    You still need some domain authority to get your ‘fresh’ content initially to appear though, right?

    And I think over time these posts/pages come to rest exactly where they’re supposed to be in Google’s index like Greg said, it’s temporary. Your content is only fresh for so long, and if you get the benefit of appearing for a high volume search term (just because of QDF), then that content isn’t linked to, or shared, then it probably isn’t valuable , and exists only for the time it’s fresh. Crappy content, even if bolstered by QDF, eventually dissipates…much like real crap, it attracts the most flies at it’s freshest.

  27. says

    That’s some intriguing information in that article. Creating fresh and quality content is definitely what all of us should be working towards. I doubt that will ever be taken away from the rankings.

    “much like real crap, it attracts the most flies at it’s freshest.” that’s a funny but very good quote when taken into context of website ranking πŸ˜‰

  28. says

    Thanks for publishing this article… we plan on using this as a reference tool to help illustrate this concept to our clients who struggle with understanding SEO and how search engines really work.

  29. says

    What I’ve learned from this post is that both freshness and authority are needed to rank high in Google. It is not just the ranking that matters, but also, the helpfulness to customers. We will start to work on authority for we already post regularly – and that should cover freshness. Thanks for sharing.

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