Vanity Metrics & True KPIs

Count What Counts: Vanity Metrics & True KPIs


As an agency, we spend a lot of time reporting to our clients on website performance—and we pride ourselves on being able to distill a lot of data into an easy-to-read report.

However, one look at our monthly reporting makes one thing clear: there are a lot of web metrics we can talk about.

But the real question isn’t just, “What does it all mean?”

It’s also, “Which are worth counting?”

Here’s the thing with web metrics: some are incredibly useful for determining the success of your marketing initiatives and your business overall… and then there are some that look nice, but at the end of the day mean nothing to the success of your business.

These, we call vanity metrics.

When You Say “Vanity” Metrics...

Looks like it’s time for a review of what metrics you can actually measure, and what they mean.

Vanity Metrics Types

Let’s take a trip through the bullpen, shall we?

  • There are simple metrics—clicks, users, sessions, average session duration.
  • There are also some more complicated metrics—impression share, reach, net promoter score.
  • Finally, there are the metrics that should be straightforward, but often still manage to be elusive or hard to calculate—cost per acquisition, return-on-investment, etc.

(As if that’s not enough, just about all of those metrics each have an acronym or abbreviation for you to remember. Good luck.)

Keeping your web metrics in order—and measuring the right data for positive growth—takes a little bit of deep analysis.

How Good Is A Click, Really?

Clicks (or visitors) is often the classic vanity metric. Everyone wants to get a ton of people to visit their website, right?

Well, let me ask you one simple question: If you bring a ton of people to your website—and not a single one of them buys your product, submits a lead, or signs up for your content—what good was any of that traffic?

Users Coming into Website

While one could argue that clicks and users are a great gauge of brand awareness, in reality they mean little in terms of where the rubber meets the road for your business.

On the opposite end of the metric spectrum, however, are some hopelessly obscure metrics that give you some really insightful information… but don’t contribute anything to your bottom line.

So… Not Into Clicks, Huh?

It’s not that clicks don’t have value, it’s just that… SQUIRREL!

Sorry, I got distracted for a moment there.

See? That can happen when we jump into the deep end of web metrics. There are so many available statistics to look at, and once we incorporate date ranges, comparison data sets and any number of external factors that can impact our reporting, it can be easy to fall into analysis paralysis.

When you’re drowning in numbers, it can be so easy to lose focus on the big picture.

Too Many Vs. Too Few

Unfortunately, the same confusion can occur with focus on too few metrics.

So many professionals today lock on to a few select metrics and base their entire decision-making process on those limited data points.  

More often than not, those are the big culprits of vanity metrics: clicks, impressions, and some of the basic engagement metrics like time on site or pages per session.

Reporting is only as useful as the lessons and insights you can pull from the data. By looking at too broad a collection of metrics it is easy to lose focus and lose the forest for the trees in terms of the narrative of your business.

Focus too narrowly on some of the vanity metrics out there, and you risk losing the broader context of that story.

4 Tips On The Right Way To Report On Web Metrics

You can collect data till the cows come home when it comes to your digital marketing, but if you’re looking at the wrong numbers or not keeping those metrics in context, you won’t derive any value from it.

Start With The Basics

Clicks, users, impressions - all metrics that measure traffic to your website; all certainly useful and deserving of a spot in your reporting. But don’t let them become the be-all-end-all of your reporting.

altos vanity metrics blog basic data

Complement those with some basic engagement metrics - pages per session, session duration, bounce rate. These are some of the foundational metrics of website performance, but they’re sorely lacking something: bottom-line impact.

altos vanity metrics blog basic data complement

Dive Into The Real Drivers Of Progress

In addition to those top-level metrics, you also need to look at conversions (or goal completions), cost per conversion, conversion rate, and return-on-investment (ROI). These are the base-level KPIs we look at for every client, every time we look at their web analytics.

altos vanity metrics blog goal completions

At the end of the day, those last few metrics are the real story. Conversions and goal completions—and the measures of rate and cost for those conversions—tell the true story of what’s going on with your business. After that, all the other metrics just tell the story of how you got to those truly valuable measures.

Give A Little Context

Once you’ve got the big data squared away, there’s still a slew of metrics you can use to explain what caused your conversion performance: user location, device type, channel, source/medium.

The metrics go on for days. Just remember that those metrics all should be used to provide context and explain the metrics that truly matter.

Vanity Metrics Narrative

Once you’ve pulled the metrics that truly matter, take a moment to also figure out what the best time frame for your reporting is, whether that is the past week, the past month, the past quarter, or whatever it may be.

Start Crafting That Story

At the end of the day, all these numbers are going to look like a mess to anyone not deeply familiar with web analytics. You have to distill it all down into a single, streamlined narrative.

That’s why it’s important to follow up your number-crunching by really thinking about what comparison will give you the most useful story.

For instance: if you report based on the previous month, does it make the most sense to compare last month with the month before it? Maybe your industry has strong seasonal fluctuations, and looking instead at the same period last year would provide a more accurate comparison.

Vanity Metrics Compared

Think about these things before you start running reports, and the insight you will gain from the data will prove far more valuable.

Vanity Is Fine. Progress Is Better.

Vanity metrics are those metrics that everyone wants to crush, but doing so doesn’t actually guarantee business success.

With the bevy of metrics available these days, it’s become too easy to focus on the wrong metrics—or neglect the right ones—often at the cost of performance, and our own success.

To thrive in the digital world, it’s important to step back and determine how to best “see the forest.” That means finding the true narrative of what’s happening with your business and consistently keeping your eye on that narrative.

Determine the metrics that tell you the real story, figure out what time frame you need to be looking at, and consider what comparison will give you the most accurate context for that data.

The numbers don’t lie; our interpretations of them can.