Most of us think of Google as a giant convoluted mess of secret algorithms created by people with glasses who ride around on Segways all day. How it actually works is a mystery to the vast majority of us. We assume it’s a big ugly technical problem. And a big ugly technical problem requires a big ugly technical solution.

Don’t worry. I’m not going to spend the next few days chewing your ear off in an effort to explain what goes on behind the scenes of that search you just did for “how to remove a pencil eraser from your nose.” Not today anyway. Not because I don’t want to. But because I don’t know.

Like most people, I really don’t care about all of the technical who-ha that has to happen in order for things to work. I’m more interested in the results. And in order to get the results I want, I really don’t need to know every intricate detail of how it works. It’s unnecessary. A basic understanding is more than enough to get the result I need.

For example, I couldn’t explain to you the inner-workings of a combustion engine, yet I know that if I get in my car, turn the key, put it in drive and step on the gas I will head off into the sunset.  Knowing more than that offers very little benefit towards my ability as a safe driver.

The same holds true for Google. Approximately 99% of how it works will leave you looking at me like a dog looks at a ceiling fan and no better off because of it. But that 1%? That’s the a-ha moment where all of this starts to make sense.

Here’s the Part You Should Actually Care About

With a little creativity we can break down this multi-billion dollar behemoth into a very basic theory. One that will pull back the curtain just far enough to give you a glimpse of how it all works without causing your head to explode.

It goes something like this.

When you perform a search online, what you are essentially doing is asking Google a question. It doesn’t matter if it is research for a paper, a tip on how to fix something or even help in finding someone or something to fill a need. Whatever it is, there is a question behind it. And rather than just asking any old schmo out there, you chose to ask Google. Your smarty-pants friend. The one who has all of the answers without acting like an arrogant little jackass about it.

At this point, it is Google’s job not just to respond with an answer, but to respond with the very best answer it can possibly find.

For example, when someone does a search for “New York City Wedding Band” they are essentially asking Google “Who is the best wedding band in New York City?” If you don’t have a good enough answer to that question, it is unlikely Google is going to choose your website as one of the ten best answers. The wedding band that serves up the best answer to that question will likely win the war. And maybe even the client. It doesn’t mean they are a better band, it just means they have a better answer.

When we look at search engine optimization from such a simple perspective of questions and answers, we have no choice but to alter the way we approach it. Rather than asking ourselves “how can I get ranked on page one for <insert keyword phrase here>?” we must ask “how can Google see me as the best answer to <insert the question that your keyword phrase is really asking here>?”

Do you see the difference?

One approach suggests that you trick Google into thinking you are more important than you are. While the other approach suggests that you work with Google in order to become more important than you are.

With that as our guide, we can significantly improve our ranking with just two simple words: relevance and authority.

Relevance and the Tale of Sushi and Donuts

A few years ago I was in Boston and passed a storefront for a Dunkin Donuts that also sold Sushi. Now, I know what you’re thinking. Why did it take so long to combine these two forces of deliciousness into one meal? Or maybe not.

If you really wanted a donut, would you buy it from a place that also sold raw fish? And if you really wanted sushi, would you buy it from a place that also sold donuts? Of course not.  It doesn’t connect on either level. Is it a good choice for dinner? Not really. How about dessert? Not really. In other words it’s not at all relevant for either.

Search works much in the same way.

Relevance is what keeps Google from returning results about divorce attorneys when you are searching for a car mechanic. It’s the part of the search process that answers the question the person searching is asking.

But here’s the thing. Not any old answer is going to be the best answer to the question. You need an extraordinary answer. Google has a goal of rewarding the best answers with a page one ranking. A $5 article written by someone who has a poor grasp of the English language and little knowledge of your industry is not going to be the answer you need. It’s not going to be the answer your visitors are searching for. And it’s not going to be the answer that impresses Google.

By consistently creating content that is thorough, informative and adds a ton of value, you are able to answer more questions making your website more relevant within your industry. The more relevant content you have, the more opportunities you have to show up when someone searches.

But just being relevant is not enough. There is one more factor we must consider.

Authority and the Importance of Being Important

While relevance is the quality of your answer, your authority is how important that answer is. It’s Google’s version of an online popularity contest. It gauges how credible your website is and how much online equity it has compared to every other website on the Internet.

Think of it this way. Suppose we had a scale of zero to ten. A newly registered domain would have an authority of zero because it has no history and has yet to offer any value to the marketplace. It’s not important. It has not proven itself. And so it holds no authority whatsoever. On the other hand, a site like Amazon.com has a high authority. Because it has proven itself for well over a decade and offers an enormous amount of value with a very rich history, Amazon.com is going to have an authority of ten.

Even with a ton of relevant content on your website, without any authority getting ranked on page one will be a difficult process. Just to give you an idea of how important the authority of your website is, suppose you just graduated from medical school and opened a new practice as a local proctologist.   Because your website has no history, it has no authority. This makes it extremely difficult for you to rank well which means people who need a…well, you know…are going to have a hard time finding you. In the end (get it?), you will likely be lost somewhere 100 pages deep  and it will take months of effort for you to move up in the ranking.

On the other hand, what if Amazon.com saw this as a big potential profit center and decided to break into the proctology market.  Because Amazon.com has such a high authority online, they would likely be found on page one within hours, even though those same keywords might take you months. Not because the contents of that box is better than your eight years of education. Not because their answer is more relevant. Or because they did more keyword research and built more links to that page. But because Google thinks they are more important.

You both may be equally as relevant but Amazon.com has a higher authority, so they win.

Don’t blame Google. They are only mimicking the way we as humans think. Suppose you were looking for a specific product and found two possible solutions, both of which were of the same price and quality. One was being sold through a major retail chain while some guy in a parking lot was selling the other. Most of us would be more likely to purchase it through the big retailer because they have earned our trust. We’ve heard of them. We’ve used them. Our friends have used them. We’ve seen their commercials. We have a history with them.

They have more credibility or authority with us than the guy in the parking lot.

Now, I know it seems a little unfair to compare your site with a 500-pound gorilla like Amazon.com, but this is what competition looks like nowadays. Before the Internet, you were only competing with the other guy in town who did what you did. If you were nicer or cheaper, you most likely won. But not anymore. Now you are competing for something much more than business. You are competing for attention. So, when you start thinking it’s unfair for you to have to compare the authority of your website with a behemoth like Facebook, understand it’s not only fair, it’s reality.

The difficult part about authority is our lack of control. While we have full control over how relevant our site is through the content we write, we can’t control our authority. You can’t give yourself authority. You can’t buy authority. You can’t outsource authority. You can only earn authority. It comes from other people and places (websites) that point to us as being important.

So, Which One is More Important?

Neither. Relevance and authority work hand in hand. Think of them like your kids. When asked which one is your favorite, do you answer? Or do you smile and say that you love them equally? Maybe you shouldn’t answer that.

You won’t rank well just by focusing only on one or the other. You need both. Because of that, it is important for you to maintain a well-rounded approach towards your relevance and authority online. It’s an impossible combination to compete against.

(This post is an excerpt from the ebook “Search Engine Humanization: The Art of Turning Ordinary Words Into Extraordinary Clients” and can be downloaded for free here!)