What would you rather be? Clever or popular? Ideally, it would be nice to be both, but in Google world, the algorithm needs to distinguish between the two. Authority and popularity are both ranking signals, but authority, ie, sites with a lot of topical anchor text on the inbound links, are increasingly being given more weight.
So posed with the question of how Google actually separate popularity from authority, Matt Cutts, head of Google search spam has recently stated that the algorithm is going to be adjusted to help Google work out what topics a site is a particular authority on. This should, he explains, help move results away from well known sites, and instead match the query more effectively to sites providing value and authority.
In a recently released video explaining the difference between the two, Matt uses the example of porn sites to make the point that ‘popular’ does not always mean ‘valuable.’ So PageRank, says Cutts, can never be a measure of popularity. Although there is an argument that sometimes popularity will provide a better result (a restaurant for example), changes to the algorithm which place more emphasis on authority should provide better matches and improve search quality. So as long as the content you create stays on topic, then once the algorithm is adjusted you could see improved ranking for your site as a result.