We are often asked what the most important thing to measure in PR is and what best-in-class PR reporting looks like. It’s difficult to boil everything down to one number; the nature of attribution analysis is that there are often many variables which influence someone’s decision to buy something. Our client programs can also differ drastically in goal, from awareness, to sales enablement, to repositioning and beyond.

However, if we distill down the essence of public relations, it’s to build awareness and trust in a brand, such that people want to share it, talk about it, and ultimately buy from it.

The biggest problem brands face – for the most part – isn’t negative press. It’s complete absence from the customer’s mind. Apathy and ignorance are far worse than negative sentiment. No coverage at all is the worst possible outcome, because it says our company doesn’t matter. Our company isn’t in the game. Our company doesn’t even cross our potential customers’ minds.

So, what measurable trait helps us determine the effectiveness of PR?

Branded non-negative search is the most important metric in public relations today. If you had to measure only one thing (you don’t), measuring branded non-negative search would be it.

What is branded non-negative search? It’s any search traffic our company website earns from brand search terms that isn’t negative.

For example, “SHIFT Communications” would be a branded non-negative search. Our brand name is in the search. Other examples of branded non-negative search would be things like “Toyota Prius reviews” or “Netscaler SD-WAN features“, individual product brands within a company that are important enough to our audience that they search for them by name.

“Acme Widgets CEO arrested” would be a branded search, but it’s obviously negative. So would “Acme Widgets defective product” or “Acme Widgets returns policy” – these are searches with negative sentiment attached to them, a sign that something’s gone wrong. We should track them and refer them to the respective departments in our company to address.

We find branded non-negative search in two locations. First, in any reputable SEO tool, we’ll find a list of searches by month for our brand and many variations on it:

seo tools

We keep a monthly log of branded non-negative searches broadly from SEO tools, to judge how effective we are at reaching the overall audience, whether or not they click on any search results.

Second, we measure in our website traffic, using Google Search Console, for branded non-negative terms:

google search console

We keep daily, weekly, monthly, and quarterly logs of branded non-negative search volume.

What should we look for? Increases. We look for increases in branded non-negative search over time. The more it increases, the greater true awareness of our brand exists in the minds of our audience.


One caveat of branded non-negative search is that many factors contribute to it.

  • Advertising creates mindshare.
  • Word of mouth creates mindshare.
  • Public relations creates mindshare.

At the end of the day, public relations is measured solely on awareness, whereas other channels are measured on more tangible metrics like feet in the door or online form fills. Additionally, even if all other channels fall down, as long as they’re not causing reputation damage, their impact can be zero and public relations should still show an uptick in branded non-negative search.

A second caveat of branded non-negative search is that it has no indication of context. Obvious searches such as “Acme Company sucks” indicate sentiment, but other searches lack context. Is someone searching for our brand because they want to work at our company? Because they want to buy something? The branded search by itself doesn’t necessarily indicate that.

However, all things being equal, branded non-negative searches are a far better way to determine how present we are in the minds of our audience than other traditional PR metrics (especially impressions, which are worthless).

A final caveat is that branded non-negative search is the best metric for PR to measure today. As with everything else, technology advances over time; we may discover new, better metrics in the future – so we shouldn’t become so wedded to one number that we ignore new advancements.

Measure what matters

Focusing on branded non-negative search is one aspect of measuring what matters. When we focus less on activity and more on outcomes, we manage our public relations programs better. When we measure not what we did, but what results we created, we create more value for ourselves, our brands, and our customers.

Measure what matters.

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