It's neck and neck.
Through your amazing powers of persuasion and charisma, you have assured yourself the possibility of earning a link from one of two places.
One opportunity has amazing domain (or "site") authority, and the other one has exceptional URL (or "page") authority.
Through some bizarre hypothetical twist of fate that I lack the creativity to imagine, you can only choose to earn one of these links.
Which one do you choose?
Well, for starters, if you actually do have that much precise control over where your link ends up, you're creeping close to the edges of Google's Guidelines and you'd be wise to tread lightly.
That said, as an SEO, your strategy can change pretty dramatically depending on whether you think in terms of earning links from high profile pages, or links from high profile domains. In fact, this same line of thinking can have important implications for the way you approach your on-site SEO as well.
So, when all is said and done, where should you put your focus?
The Myth of "Domain PageRank"
A lot of SEOs seem to believe in the existence of something in Google's algorithm called Domain PageRank.
It doesn't exist.
Back when Google was little more than a research project at Stanford, Sergey Brin and Larry Page published insights about their little brainchild that we would never see today:
Academic citation literature has been applied to the web, largely by counting citations or backlinks to a given page. This gives some approximation of a page's importance or quality. PageRank extends this idea by not counting links from all pages equally, and by normalizing by the number of links on a page. PageRank is defined as follows:
We assume page A has pages T1...Tn which point to it (i.e., are citations). The parameter d is a damping factor which can be set between 0 and 1. We usually set d to 0.85. There are more details about d in the next section. Also C(A) is defined as the number of links going out of page A. The PageRank of a page A is given as follows:
PR(A) = (1-d) + d (PR(T1)/C(T1) + ... + PR(Tn)/C(Tn))
Let me walk you through this.
See, back then Google was not a multibillion dollar publicly traded company, its creators were more than happy to share exactly how PageRank was calculated. While some things have certainly changed, the core idea of PageRank has not.
The original PageRank algorithm was surprisingly simple. It looked at the number of links pointing to a page. Then it looked at the pages that were linking to it. Then it looked at the number of links pointing to that page, and divided it by the number of links from that page. Then it simply continued to work its way backward like this, until all hyperlinks in the index were accounted for.
Why is this important?
Because it has nothing to do with domains.
The original PageRank algorithm ignored domains altogether. The importance of a page was evaluated exclusively based on the pages that were linking to it, regardless of what domain those pages sat on.
In short, the URL that a link points from is the key to racking up PageRank.
So that's the answer to the question then, right? URLs win, domains lose, case closed?
Well, we're not done yet.
What About "Domain Authority?"
While SEOs talk about "domain authority" all the time, Google has never officially used this phrase, or given us any indication that domains themselves have "authority." I sincerely doubt that domain authority actually exists, at least in the way that SEOs envision it.
If you doubt me, try putting a page up on your site without pointing any internal links to it, and see if you can get it to rank any easier than a page on a brand new site. I've never seen any evidence to suggest that you would get any kind of boost.
Just look at all those no-name blogs sitting on Blogger or WordPress.com, ranking for nothing. OpenSiteExplorer says Blogger has a domain authority of 96, and WordPress.com has a domain authority of 100. Is the domain authority helping those bloggers show up in search results?
Now, none of this is to say that domains themselves don't matter.
Here are a few reasons why domains do matter:
- The age of a domain has some influence on rankings, although the difference is very small after the first few months
- A keyword in your domain name can help slightly, although the "exact match domain" update has eliminated most of the benefit that comes from this
- If Google believes a searcher is trying to navigate to your site by including your brand name in a search, results from your domain are more likely to show up (and this is likely the reason that exact match domains ever had a slight edge)
- Your domain likely has some kind of "reputation" with the search engines based on previous user behavior. For example, if users tend to search for your brand name often, especially in relationship to certain kinds of subjects, new pages on your site might be more likely to rank for similar kinds of queries.
- It is possible that Google now views links from pages on domains with a good "reputation" as more valuable than links from pages on domains without a good "reputation," even if both pages have the same traditional PageRank. However, it's important to understand that SEO tool companies don't have access to Google's user behavior data, so none of this is going to be reflected in any measure of "domain authority" that you have access too.
- Google doesn't necessarily count multiple links from the same domain. If Google believes that they are all the "same link," (like a sidebar link) it will only count the link once, though likely from the highest profile page. If Google believes they are different links, they may add additional value, but with diminishing returns. Bear in mind that this is likely true of links from within your own domain as well.
In short, there are various reasons why the domain matters, but not in the way most SEOs think about "domain authority."
So, Is It URLs Or Domains For The Win?
I don't want to give you the typical "well it's both" or "it depends" that you've come to expect from me, so I'll go ahead and nail my colors to the wall and say that it's URLs FTW.
...it's not everything.
When it comes to any SEO metrics you have actual access to, it's the URL. No doubt about it. The actual page that links to you says a lot more about relevance than the domain it's sitting on. The URL is certainly where your PageRank value is coming from, not the domain.
But the domain certainly does matter. The reputation of the domain matters. The number of links you grab from the same domain matters. Your own personal domain "reputation" matters. All of this matters, but no SEO tool is going to be able to help you figure out these domain-level issues.
Image credit: Diego Torres Silvestre