Website Traffic Rankings & Alexa: A Magical Mystery

by Ginger Marin

Web site “watchers”, those people who profess to be in the know about all things Internet have a tendency to rely on a traffic ranking site called Alexa. These watchers will refer to Alexa to get such information about a web site such as type of site, links to the site, number of people going to the site, page views, etc. While there is some valuable information being offered at Alexa, it is seriously limited as you will soon see.

I have discussed Alexa and traffic rankings with a number of people and there is one very important bit of information that many people simply do not understand. For example, Yahoo! is ranked number 1 by Alexa; Youtube is number 2 and Google is Ranked #3. That means any other web site ranked by them is going to have a higher number. To be popular in Alexa’s network, you would need to have the lowest number possible, not the highest. It seems simple, but trust me, some people just don’t grasp this.

Following are some paragraphs taken from the Alexa website. Read them carefully and you will see what I mean about its limitations. I have highlighted the pertinent sections and made my remarks in italics under them. Additionally at the very bottom, you’ll see a list of Alexa disclaimers. Read them carefully too. It makes one wonder if there is any value at all to Alexa. Oddly, it’s a brilliant scam of sorts. People by the masses, including allegedly smart industry people, have bought into Alexa’s nonsense.

“About the Alexa Traffic Rankings A listing of all sites on the Web, sorted by traffic…
Alexa computes traffic rankings by analyzing the Web usage of millions of Alexa Toolbar users. The information is sorted, sifted, anonymized, counted, and computed, until, finally, we get the traffic rankings shown in the Alexa service. The process is relatively complex, but if you have a need to know, please read on.”

My comments: People surf the web all the time and may visit many different sites in a given day or the same site everyday. Alexa can only measure a web site’s viewership and popularity based upon a person having previously downloaded the Alexa toolbar. This means that a web site’s traffic ranking is based only within the Alexa “community”, not within the entire activity of Internet usage.

“What is Traffic Rank? The traffic rank is based on three months of aggregated historical traffic data from millions of Alexa Toolbar users and is a combined measure of page views and users (reach). The three-month change is determined by comparing the site’s current rank with its rank from three months ago. For example, on July 1, the three-month change would show the difference between the rank based on traffic during the first quarter of the year and the rank based on traffic during the second quarter.”

My comments: This is patently untrue. I have the Alexa toolbar and I have personally seen the same web site’s ranking drop from a high of 140,000 to a low of 76,000 in a single day. The next day it was 76,000 in the late morning and it moved up to 188,000 before dusk that same day. Then the very next day, the ranking went from 188,000 in the morning to 197,000 just a few hours later. A few days after that it went from 197,000 to 195,000. About four days later the numbers jumped again to 199,000.

“Some Important Disclaimers” (my comments: how many people actually READ these before they bow to Alexa, the phony god of the internet? These disclaimers are quite important. Here’s another good example. I was speaking on the phone with a potential client who was precisely one of those people who really knew nothing about Alexa’s limitations simply because she hadn’t even bothered to read the page I am referring you to. On that occasion, each of us was looking at her web site’s ranking at Alexa and each of us saw an entirely different number with a variance of over 100,000!)

“The traffic data are based on the set of toolbars that use Alexa data, which may not be a representative sample of the global Internet population. Known biases include (but are likely not limited to) the following:

* Our users are disproportionately likely to visit sites that are featured on such as and, and traffic to these sites may be overcounted.
* The extent to which our sample may overcount or undercount users of the various browsers is unknown. Alexa’s sample includes users of Internet Explorer, Firefox and Mozilla browsers. The AOL/Netscape and Opera browser is not supported, which means that sites operated by these companies may be undercounted.
* The extent to which our sample may overcount or undercount users of various operating systems is unknown. Alexa sample includes toolbars built for Windows, Macintosh and Linux.
* The rate of adoption of Alexa software in different parts of the world may vary widely due to advertising locality, language, and other geographic and cultural factors. For example, to some extent the prominence of Chinese sites among our top-ranked sites reflects known high rates of general Internet usage in China, but there may also be a disproportionate number of Chinese Alexa users.
* In some cases traffic data may also be adversely affected by our “site” definitions. With tens of millions of hosts on the Internet, our automated procedures for determining which hosts are serving the “same” content may be incorrect and/or out-of-date. Similarly, the determinations of domains and home pages may not always be accurate. When these determinations change (as they do periodically), there may be sudden artificial changes in the Alexa traffic rankings for some sites as a consequence.
* The Alexa Toolbar turns itself off on secure pages (https:). Sites with secure page views will be under-represented in the Alexa traffic data.

In addition to the biases above, the Alexa user base is only a sample of the Internet population, and sites with relatively low traffic will not be accurately ranked by Alexa due to the statistical limitations of the sample. Alexa’s data come from a large sample of several million Alexa Toolbar users; however, this is not large enough to accurately determine the rankings of sites with fewer than roughly 1,000 total monthly visitors. Generally, Traffic Rankings of 100,000+ should be regarded as not reliable because the amount of data we receive is not statistically significant. Conversely, the more traffic a site receives (the closer it gets to the number 1 position), the more reliable its Traffic Ranking becomes.” blah, blah, blah!

My comments: Alexa will give you a snapshot of what a web site looks like and some other pertinent information, but if you are using its traffic rankings as some sort of true measure of a web site’s worth, you are being fooled or you’re trying to fool someone else. My suggestion is that you get a really good stats program installed on your site and trust your sales and revenue and even the number of people on your email list. That will determine how popular you are and it will be for real!

Author Ginger Marin is an actor, freelance writer and storyteller.  You can also find her on Google+

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