How to recognize and avoid vanity metrics
When you assess the performance of a business or project, it’s easy to lean on numbers that don’t actually represent what works and what doesn’t—vanity metrics. Unlike actionable metrics, which directly examine your results and inform your strategy, vanity metrics make a project look successful by taking unrelated but impressive numbers out of context.
Using online marketing as an example, let’s take a look at what makes a statistic a vanity metric, how they hurt your business strategy, and what you can do to avoid them.
What are vanity metrics?
A vanity metric is any metric that appears to measure performance, but is not actually an indicator of whether a project is achieving its goals. Claiming your page saw 10,000 views sounds impressive, but it’s missing the context you need to assess whether the page is a success. How long did viewers spend on your page, what was the conversion rate, and how long did it take to rack up those conversions?
What’s the problem with vanity metrics?
When you assess a project based on vanity metrics, it’s easy to misjudge why it’s succeeding—and even whether it’s succeeding. Vanity metrics look nice, but they don’t actually gauge actionable metrics like conversion rate or engagement, and can easily lead to a project being mislabeled a success.
Examples of vanity metrics
A vanity metric can be almost any number that fails to accurately represent performance, but some are more widespread than others. Let’s take a look at a few examples of commonly used vanity metrics in online marketing, where the goal is to market using digital channels such as websites and social media.
Although follower count may seem like a great metric for a social media account, it says nothing about how engaged those followers are. Today, most people subscribe to so many pages and forms of social media that having followers no longer directly translates to having visibility.
On YouTube, for example, only a small number of subscribers click the bell that will notify them of new content from a channel, and even fewer will click a video. An account that performs poorly due to low engagement can still boast an impressive number of followers, while an account with fewer followers might have much higher engagement and perform better overall.
A bounce rate measures the number of users who leave a site without viewing more than one page. A page’s bounce rate can be useful information, but like any other statistic, it can easily become a vanity metric if taken out of context.
On pages that are intended to be a one-stop-shop, a near-100% bounce rate doesn’t mean the site isn’t working. Likewise, on a page intended to funnel users to an external site, a low bounce rate might be a bad thing—your visitors are getting stuck on a poorly designed gateway page.
Ahrefs’ Domain Rating / Moz’s Domain Authority
Domain Rating (DR) and Domain Authority (DA) are weighted scores that range from 0 to 100, made up of several variables that represent the strength of a website’s backlink profile.
DR and DA give higher scores to sites that have more popular backlinks but don’t account for their topical relevance, which is key to whether the site will perform better. Internal links—which DR and DA don’t include—can also have a huge impact on SEO visibility, meaning that a particular DR or DA is no guarantee that a site’s pages will or won’t rank.
In a ranking distribution, a domain’s rankings for many keywords are sorted by which page they appear on in a Google search, typically from 1 to 10. A ranking distribution suggests that the more a domain appears on higher pages, the better it will perform.
Since ranking distributions don’t measure the quality of the keywords being checked, they aren’t useful in practice. Often only a few keywords are truly relevant to a site’s performance—and in a ranking distribution with a high percentage of Page 1 keywords that appears great, those few relevant keywords that matter might be hidden in the lower pages. Dozens of Page 1 rankings for keywords that are rarely searched or don’t fit search intent won’t improve a site’s performance, while rankings on Page 2 and below for keywords that actually matter will generate barely any traffic. None of this nuance is visible in a ranking distribution.
How to avoid falling into the trap of vanity metrics
To identify a vanity metric, consider whether it identifies a way for you to reproduce your desired result and whether its context is included or could be manipulated. To avoid vanity metrics entirely, you can focus your assessments on actionable metrics, measurements tied directly to your project’s success.
Actionable metrics: the opposite of vanity metrics
An actionable metric is a direct assessment of your project’s performance that can be used to inform your strategy going forward. While not all actionable metrics are quantifiable, they provide a clear path towards improving your approach by identifying what works and what doesn’t, and are key to effective business strategies like the lean startup method.
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Examples of actionable metrics
Actionable metrics may vary, but a few are useful tools for nearly any digital marketing project.
A conversion can be different depending on your project—it might be a sale, a job application, or an email lead—but it’s often your end goal and the most actionable metric you can observe. Define what a conversion means for your goals and measure whether your efforts are paying off. When a page or campaign is intended to convert, don’t let high view counts, follower counts, or DR fool you into thinking it’s a success.
When conversions don’t apply, interaction is a key direct measurement of success for many projects. By assessing the average time a visitor spends on your content or the number of active interactions it receives, you can determine if it’s actually reaching your users—or if they’re simply clicking away immediately when they realize it doesn’t meet their search intent.
YouTube is a great example. The number of users clicking the bell for notifications and leaving likes or comments on your videos are better gauges of the health of your channel than subscribers, who may never see your content in their feed or no longer use their account. The tone of online interactions is also a key indicator—examining the emotional content of comments, reviews, and emails through a method like sentiment analysis can reveal a lot about how viewers see your content. By comparing videos with higher average viewing duration to those that visitors quickly closed, you can even identify what is working and what isn’t in your content.
Search intent may not be quantitatively measurable, but it’s key to creating a webpage that ranks. Keywords alone can’t carry a page to the top of Google’s results—it must also meet the search intent of the users searching for those keywords to continue to rank. Approaches like Search Intent Hierarchy Analysis (SIHA) are key to identifying and meeting search intent.
To achieve topical authority, a website aims to publish a thorough and accurate web of content that positions it as the go-to resource for a particular subject. On a site with topical authority, a user can answer each of their questions on a topic through intuitively interlinked pages—all without needing to consult another website.
Domain authority, which measures the strength of a website’s backlinks, fails to consider whether a page will actually meet search intent and achieve its goals when clicked. Websites with a low DR or DA score can still outperform pages with much higher DR or DA scores by creating content networks that position them as a topical authority within their niche.
While vanity metrics can easily obscure the actual performance of a project, you can identify them by considering all your statistics in their proper context and focusing on direct, actionable metrics like conversions and engagement.
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