Rankings Correlation Study: Domain Authority vs. Branded Search Volume

Posted by Tom.Capper

A little over two weeks ago I had the pleasure of speaking at SearchLove San Diego. My presentation, Does Google Still Need Links, looked at the available evidence on how and to what extent Google is using links as a ranking factor in 2017, including the piece of research that I’m sharing here today.

One of the main points of my presentation was to argue that while links still do represent a useful source of information for Google’s ranking algorithm, Google now has many other sources, most of which they would never have dreamed of back when PageRank was conceived as a proxy for the popularity and authority of websites nearly 20 years ago.

Branded search volume is one such source of information, and one of the sources that is most accessible for us mere mortals, so I decided to take a deeper look on how it compared with a link-based metric. It also gives us some interesting insight into the KPIs we should be pursuing in our off-site marketing efforts — because brand awareness and link building are often conflicting goals.

For clarity, by branded search volume, I mean the monthly regional search volume for the brand of a ranking site. For example, for the page https://www.walmart.com/cp/Gift-Cards/96894, this would be the US monthly search volume for the term “walmart” (as given by Google Keyword Planner). I’ve written more about how I put together this dataset and dealt with edge cases below.

When picking my link-based metric for comparison, Domain Authority seemed a natural choice — it’s domain-level, which ought to be fair given that generally that’s the level of precision with which we can measure branded search volume, and it came out top in Moz’s study of domain-level link-based factors.

A note on correlation studies

Before I go any further, here’s a word of warning on correlation studies, including this one: They can easily miss the forest for the trees.

For example, the fact that Domain Authority (or branded search volume, or anything else) is positively correlated with rankings could indicate that any or all of the following is likely:

  • Links cause sites to rank well
  • Ranking well causes sites to get links
  • Some third factor (e.g. reputation or age of site) causes sites to get both links and rankings

That’s not to say that correlation studies are useless — but we should use them to inform our understanding and prompt further investigation, not as the last word on what is and isn’t a ranking factor.


(Or skip straight to the results!)

The Moz study referenced above used the provided 800 sample keywords from all 22 top-level categories in Google Keyword Planner, then looked at the top 50 results for each of these. After de-duplication, this results in 16,521 queries. Moz looked at only web results (no images, answer boxes, etc.), ignored queries with fewer than 25 results in total, and, as far as I can tell, used desktop rankings.

I’ve taken a slightly different approach. I reached out to STAT to request a sample of ~5,000 non-branded keywords for the US market. Like Moz, I stripped out non-web results, but unlike Moz, I also stripped out anything with a baserank worse than 10 (baserank being STAT’s way of presenting the ranking of a search result when non-web results are excluded). You can see the STAT export here.

Moz used Mean Spearman correlations, which is a process that involves ranking variables for each keyword, then taking the average correlation across all keywords. I’ve also chosen this method, and I’ll explain why using the below example:


SERP Ranking Position

Ranking Site

Branded Search Volume of Ranking Site

Per Keyword Rank of Branded Search Volume

Keyword A





Keyword A





Keyword A





Keyword A





Keyword A





For Keyword A, we have wildly varying branded search volumes in the top 5 search results. This means that search volume and rankings could never be particularly well-correlated, even though the results are perfectly sorted in order of search volume.

Moz’s approach avoids this problem by comparing the ranking position (the 2nd column in the table) with the column on the far right of the table — how each site ranks for the given variable.

In this case, correlating ranking directly with search volume would yield a correlation of (-)0.75. Correlating with ranked search volume yields a perfect correlation of 1.

This process is then repeated for every keyword in the sample (I counted desktop and mobile versions of the same keyword as two keywords), then the average correlation is taken.

Defining branded search volume

Initially, I thought that pulling branded search volume for every site in the sample would be as simple as looking up the search volume for their domain minus its subdomain and TLD (e.g. “walmart” for https://www.walmart.com/cp/Gift-Cards/96894). However, this proved surprisingly deficient. Take these examples:

Are the brands for these sites “cruise,” “wordpress,” and “sd,” respectively? Clearly not. To figure out what the branded search term was, I started by taking each potential candidate from the URL, e.g., for ecotalker.wordpress.com:

  • Ecotalker
  • Ecotalker wordpress
  • WordPress.com
  • WordPress

I then worked out what the highest search volume term was for which the subdomain in question ranked first — which in this case is a tie between “Ecotalker” and “Ecotalker wordpress,” both of which show up as having zero volume.

I’m leaning fairly heavily on Google’s synonym matching in search volume lookup here to catch any edge-edge-cases — for example, I’m confident that “ecotalker.wordpress” would show up with the same search volume as “ecotalker wordpress.”

You can see the resulting dataset of subdomains with their DA and branded search volume here.

(Once again, I’ve used STAT to pull the search volumes in bulk.)

The results: Brand awareness > links

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