Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Alexa traffic rank - demystified

Writing this article I’m not thinking about seasoned SEO experts who may find it shallow or na├»ve – it is written for beginner bloggers or web-site owners who get puzzled by internet ranking system, and in particular, by Alexa traffic rank.
Not trying to cover whole topic of internet ranking, I need to mention that despite huge number of resources that report value, traffic and other statistical characteristics of any selected web site, most of them pull out their information from fingercount of sources, alexa.com being one of them.
Among multiple more detailed site stats, alexa.com maintains one most important value, called “traffic rank”. In a nutshell, Alexa rank is an inversion of relative number of visitors to the site – site with most visitors is ranked #1,  next most popular site - #2 etc., with web sites that are barely visited getting ranks 10,000,000 and more.  Intended usage of this rank is dual – for site owners and administrators it supposed to help in measuring how changes to the site impact popularity, while for potential advertisers and alike traffic rank meant to assess relative value of placing an ad at the particular site.
I personally bumped into alexa.com about a year ago, first as an internet user, trying to raise my own awareness of popularity web resources I’m using. For this purpose, I have installed a simple toolbar that shows Alexa rank directly in the web browser window – like this:

At that time I was actively building my own digital photography web site, and got confused by drastically different results reported by Google analytics and Alexa.com. I have compared my Alexa rank (which was about 3,000,000 at that point) with few other hobby photography sites and found them to be in the same range, so I (incorrectly) assumed that Alexa stats are irrelevant for low traffic sites and finally lost interest and uninstalled the toolbar.
Few months later I decided to do a major rearrangement of my hobby site and set a separate subdomain for the personal blog.  As usual, during the setup I’ve got few invitations to post advertisements on the new blog or monetize it in other ways – one of the offers was to post reviews on my blog that would “get paid if my Alexa traffic rank is greater than…”. Even though I was not really interested in any of such offers, I checked Alexa rank of my site and found it pretty deep in 10,000,000 zone – much worse than it was few month ago.
This was surprising, because while I was paying some attention to this rank it was slowly climbing, and other analytics kept showing small but steady traffic. Once intrigued, I tried to google the reason and found quite few sources (i.e. http://www.shoutmeloud.com/how-can-i-improve-my-alexa-ranking.html) that explained some mechanics of Alexa ranking.
Obviously, no web resource can track visits to arbitrary other site by the virtue of monitoring all of internet traffic – not only it is unreasonably costly, it is also requires intercepting and decoding internet packets to obtain necessary information, which is arguably legal.
Analytical tools like Google analytics or StatCounter gather traffic information by asking webmaster to put specific HTML- or JavaScript code on the tracked site – when site is visited, piece of the code embedded into the web page “calls home” and records information about fact and the source of the visit.
Alexa.com, however, does not use this method. Or, more accurate, it lets owner of the web site to opt-in into similar, code-based tracking feature. There is a caveat, though: unlike many other options, code to track analytics accurately is provided by Alexa.com only to paid customers.
At this point you may ask “if web master opted not to pay Alexa for tracking, how his/her site can be tracked at all?” Well, there is an answer to that – remember the “Alexa rank toolbar” I mentioned earlier? If computer visiting a web resource has Alexa toolbar installed, toolbar itself will “call home” and record the fact of the visit into Alexa database, even though website itself has nothing to do with it.
In summary, Alexa traffic rank is populated by two totally different sources of data – it may come from all visits counted on web-sites participating in paid certification program, or it may come from tiny fraction of visits counted because visitor of the resource have Alexa toolbar installed. As a result, “paid” sites have significantly better rank – just because they pay for all traffic being counted.
The same google search I have quoted above, mentioned third way to get all visits to your site counted – by adding “Alexa widget” directly to your site. “Alexa widget” is provided for free, for example, at www.blogger.com, but that tiny piece of code can be easily copy/pasted into any web page. What this widget does, it shows Alexa rank of the site directly in the body of web page – like this:

Because in order to fetch the rank web page now needs to visit alexa.com, it automatically makes the visit counted by Alexa traffic analyzer, making rank go up – to more accurate reflection of the traffic for the site that has widget installed.
Few articles I have looked at were agree in explanation of mechanics and it stating that placing Alexa widget on the site should improve the rank by making Alexa to count more accurate stats – but none of them were any specific in how much increase one can expect for this small widget.
Partially for the sake of experiment, but also preferring my site stats that are counted anyways to be accurate, I have installed both Alexa toolbar in my browser and Alexa widget on my site. After gathering statistics for few months I have figured how much traffic was missing, and results are pretty impressive:

Chart shows trend of Alexa rank for my hobby photography site as well as couple of similar in nature web sites.
Note few remarkable point on the aqua-colored line representing traffic of my site. In July I have removed Alexa toolbar, and – presumably I was the only one regular visitor to my site with the toolbar installed – rank went down to miserable in couple of weeks. I have reinstalled toolbar in September, and rank slowly started showing signs of life – pretty small signs, given it was likely counting only my own visits. In October, I have installed Alexa widget, and rank started steadily improving (remember, smaller rank means more traffic). As of right now, Alexa traffic rank for my site is around 460,000, while similar sites keep fluctuating in 2,000,000 – 5,000,000 range.
It worth mentioning that this #460,000 Alexa rank is measured based on ~50 actual average daily visitors (based on google analytics and StatCounter reports). 
It is also interesting to compare this rank to ranks of some other sites with more or less predictable popularity. So, taking my personal amateur photography site with ~50 daily visitors and Alexa rank #463,652 - boosted by Alexa widget – as one reference point, let’s look at two other web resources.
One of them, actually shown on the graph above, is www.jkost.com – one of the best collections of tutorials and learning resources about digital photography, Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Lightroom, heavily referenced from social networks, www.adobe.com and undoubtfully frequented by professionals and amateurs of digital imaging – has Alexa rank floating (slightly up and down) at #653,481 – much weaker than my barely visited hobby site.
Other example official site of national dance council of America – internet home of organization accounting 20,000 professionals and much more amateur dancers – has even worse rank or #1,022,066.
Bottom lines:
  • Alexa rank, while claims to be fact based, cannot be trusted as an objective absolute measurement of website popularity, because the ranking can be heavily affected by webmasters enrolling into premium tracking, installing Alexa widget or opting out from both.
  • Alexa rank can be somewhat efficiently used for relative comparison of sites traffic if it is known (say, from presence of Alexa widget) that sites being compared have all traffic encountered by Alexa.
  • If, despite obvious deficiencies of Alexa rank, you as a webmaster or blogger do care enough about improving this rank for your site, free and easy way to achieve this goal and improve Alexa rank is to install Alexa widget.

Originally posted at http://funtechnews.wordpress.com/2013/12/16/alexa-traffic-rank-demystified-2/