Purpose The purpose of this paper is to analyze the similarity of intra-indicators used in research-focused international university rankings (Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), NTU, University Ranking by Academic Performance (URAP), Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) and Round University Ranking (RUR)) over years, and show the effect of similar indicators on overall rankings for 2015. The research questions addressed in this study in accordance with these purposes are as follows: At what level are the intra-indicators used in international university rankings similar? Is it possible to group intra-indicators according to their similarities? What is the effect of similar intra-indicators on overall rankings? Design/methodology/approach Indicator-based scores of all universities in five research-focused international university rankings for all years they ranked form the data set of this study for the first and second research questions. The authors used a multidimensional scaling (MDS) and cosine similarity measure to analyze similarity of indicators and to answer these two research questions. Indicator-based scores and overall ranking scores for 2015 are used as data and Spearman correlation test is applied to answer the third research question. Findings Results of the analyses show that the intra-indicators used in ARWU, NTU and URAP are highly similar and that they can be grouped according to their similarities. The authors also examined the effect of similar indicators on 2015 overall ranking lists for these three rankings. NTU and URAP are affected least from the omitted similar indicators, which means it is possible for these two rankings to create very similar overall ranking lists to the existing overall ranking using fewer indicators. Research limitations/implications CWTS, Mapping Scientific Excellence, Nature Index, and SCImago Institutions Rankings (until 2015) are not included in the scope of this paper, since they do not create overall ranking lists. Likewise, Times Higher Education, CWUR and US are not included because of not presenting indicator-based scores. Required data were not accessible for QS for 2010 and 2011. Moreover, although QS ranks more than 700 universities, only first 400 universities in 2012-2015 rankings were able to be analyzed. Although QS's and RUR's data were analyzed in this study, it was statistically not possible to reach any conclusion for these two rankings. Practical implications The results of this study may be considered mainly by ranking bodies, policy- and decision-makers. The ranking bodies may use the results to review the indicators they use, to decide on which indicators to use in their rankings, and to question if it is necessary to continue overall rankings. Policy- and decision-makers may also benefit from the results of this study by thinking of giving up using overall ranking results as an important input in their decisions and policies. Originality/value This study is the first to use a MDS and cosine similarity measure for revealing the similarity of indicators. Ranking data is skewed that require conducting nonparametric statistical analysis; therefore, MDS is used. The study covers all ranking years and all universities in the ranking lists, and is different from the similar studies in the literature that analyze data for shorter time intervals and top-ranked universities in the ranking lists. It can be said that the similarity of intra-indicators for URAP, NTU and RUR is analyzed for the first time in this study, based on the literature review.