Avoid the Vanity Metric Trap: Focus On Search Metrics That Matter

Hundreds of measurements and data points exist in search marketing. While it’s important to pay attention to all these metrics directionally, don’t let yourself fall into the vanity metric trap. Instead, laser focus on those search metrics that will move the needle, that will drive the best performance. Of course, this comes down to your budget, category, customer and business goals, but generally if you laser focus, you’ll be successful in search. Before you even think about specific search metrics, identify your primary goal and objectives at the start. If they’re not clearly defined and set initially, you can easily exhaust your resources on metrics that conflict with each other, which can hinder your success. It’s like rowing a boat. If one oar is rowing toward a ROAS goal and the other rowing toward a SOV goal, the boat may move, but not in the direction intended. Instead, you’ll waste energy, effort and investment rowing around in circles and never get to your destination. When you have a clear understanding of your objectives, then you can  determine the key performance indictor (KPI) that most aligns with effectively measuring a primary performance goal. Paid search goals fall into three categories: 1. Traffic-Focused Goals These goals drive more customers to engage with your brand and website. Metrics that align with traffic-focused goals include impressions, impression share, lost impression share due to budget or rank, clicks and click-through rate (CTR). CTR is the ideal standard KPI because it will measure the efficiency and effectiveness of your ad, the relevancy of your keyword and the traffic driver. Optimization and performance management can directly impact CTR while impressions and clicks rely largely on the searcher’s behavior and the budget. However, it’s important to note CTR may not be ideal for advertisers with small or strict budgeting parameters as low click volume can skew the percentage-based metric. For traffic-focused goals, watch out for these potential vanity metric traps such as exit rate, bounce rate, time spent on site, SEO rankings, site content, metadata, view-through impressions, session duration, screenshots and mockups. 2. Cost-Focused Goals These goals help you spend your budget effectively and efficiently. Consumer search behavior and interest drive the search channel, so seasonality plays a crucial role. Metrics that align with cost-focused goals include lost impression share due to budget, media cost, average cost per click (CPC) and cost per action (CPA). If you want to track advanced metrics, look at budget impact, the point of diminishing returns and budget incrementality testing. CPA is the ideal standard KPI because it will effectively measure valued actions as a result of budget spent. CPC is not the best KPI for search because it can fluctuate wildly with every single keyword search participating in a real-time blind auction for ranking. Watching CPCs, bidding and market rates by category is helpful when optimizing and leveraging bidding strategies, but you don’t have the direct control to force CPC rates. Budget impact and point of diminishing return evaluations are costly and require significant volume to be statistically sound. So while these metrics are important for enterprise-level investments, they may be overly sophisticated for your current business economics or budget bandwidth. For cost-focused goals look out for vanity metrics such as CPM, cost per thousand, (no cost for paid search impressions, so this metric is null and void), service fees, tech pass-through costs, revenue per search, lifetime value, production costs and creative costs. 3. Performance Goals These goals drive customer actions that lead to performance results. Metrics that align with performance goals include conversions, sales, leads, phone calls, cost per lead (CPL), revenue, profit, CPA, return on investment (ROI) and return on ad spending (ROAS). To track advanced metrics, look at attribution modeling, media mix modeling and cross-functional lifts. Profit, ROI and ROAS are ideal standard KPIs because they measure the return on your investment. Unlike the other two metric groups, any of these measurements can be a strong KPI depending on the brand and goals. If CPA is your KPI, first evaluate and determine a baseline with the volume of those actions, leads and conversions. For performance goals, watch out for vanity metrics such as page views, and don’t focus much on metrics in other goal groups. All metrics are important to the larger program in some way, but paying too much attention to any of these can distract you from spending time optimizing toward your primary KPI and can derail your campaign’s overall quality and performance. To produce results and ensure industry excellence, optimize your primary KPI and spend your time and effort on paid search lead and lag measurements toward quality, relevancy and account performance that matter and make the largest impact. Paid Search Lead Measures Relevancy and Quality Ad Rank: This calculation is incorporated with your bid with each real-time auction. Ad rank quality components are used in several different ways and can affect auction eligibility, CPC costs, ad position in the SERP, eligibility for ad extensions and other formats. Overall, higher-quality ads typically lead to lower costs, better ad positions and more advertising success. Health and Optimization Optimization Score: This score gives you an idea of how well your account is optimized, set up for success and leverages best practices. It pulls out recommendations and what impact those optimizations may have on your account. Targeting and Settings New Feature Adoption: Testing out and adopting cutting-edge and innovative new features that leverage machine learning can help you evolve in the digital space, and getting familiar with new features early will help you prepare for wide rollouts, releases or phaseouts. Paid Search Lag Measures Relevancy and Quality Quality Score: A high-quality score tells engines the ad and landing page are relevant and useful to someone looking for your brand. The relevancy between the keyword, ad copy and landing page is what is considered a great user experience. This relevancy relationship is what earns more clicks, a higher position in the SERP and brings you the most success. Health and Optimization Account Health Scores: With our constantly changing industry and seasonality considered, these scores help you see how healthy your account is over time and bubble up suggestions to improve your overall account health. Ultimately, healthy accounts perform better and produce results. Targeting and Settings Standard Feature Adoption: If you understand the standard feature fundamentals, you can lay a good foundation and set your account up for success.

With so many measurements and metrics, oftentimes the optimization levers you’re pulling to achieve one goal can directly conflict with another. Consider this scenario:

An eCommerce athletic clothing company wants to drive online sales and has selected ROAS, a performance metric KPI, for its paid search program. After a marketing meeting, the client wants to ensure the brand is serving in top position for the general keyword “fabric masks.” That’s because there’s an internal initiative to build content and research around which fabric is best for preventing the spread of germs. But this mask initiative, with conflicting measurements and metrics, doesn’t align with the brand’s primary goal. Fabric masks are also an aspiring content play for this client and not hyper-relevant to its existing brand or product offering. Pulling levers to drive ROAS versus the mask initiative differ and could negatively affect performance in both areas, impacting overall account quality and health. To avoid the vanity metric trap, intentionally set meaningful goals and pay attention to the search metrics that matter most. This will keep you on track and focused on what’s truly important so you can make the most significant positive impact on your overall marketing program’s quality and performance. Want more paid search tips and expertise? Become an Industry Insider and get digital media news and ad tech insights delivered biweekly. Or if you need a partner to help you successfully plan, coordinate and execute your next paid search program, reach out today.