Alexa can be injurious to your wealth

60 Comments

Every so often you meet entrepreneurs and venture capital investors who talk about Alexa ranking of a web-based service, using it as some sort of a yardstick for growth and reach. It is as good general, non-specific indicator, say if the traffic is going up or down, but to make money-decisions based on Alexa rankings is, well living dangerously.

A few weeks ago while taping an episode of Cranky Geeks, John Dvorak pointed out that Alexa toolbar, which is used to calculate Alexa rankings, works only on Internet Explorer 6.0 (or higher) on Windows. Given the proliferation of Firefox and Macs, it would be hard to assume Alexa’s accuracy, since the Alexa toolbar doesn’t really work on those two platforms.

Not that this is exactly news, but I still am amazed is the number of people who use Alexa as a fiscal crutch. What really is more worrisome is the increasing number of outages Alexa is experiencing. This past weekend, when most of us were reading the peanut butter memo, Alexa was experiencing some serious outages – for substantial period of time.

Data collected by Pingdom Gigrib shows that Alexa was down for about 14 hours and 8 minutes in November 2006 (so far), up from three hours and 20 minutes in October and about 80 minutes in September 2006. I wonder how Alexaholic was impacted by these outages?

In comparison, some of the better-known Internet brands had a little or no downtime – MSN was down for just over two hours, You Tube was around 65 minutes, while Google, Amazon, Yahoo and eBay were up a 100% of the time. Since Pingdom’s Gigrib software runs only on Windows platform, one cannot really assume completeness of its data. However, other sources that are also reporting on Alexa outages, so it is safe to say the downtimes were fairly substantial.

Downtime shows that Alexa is not reliable even as a general barometer of a website’s shifting fortunes. Furthermore, it is a sad reflection on Amazon’s web services business that includes S3 and EC2 efforts. (S3 has had issues in recent times as well.) If Amazon can’t keep the Alexa up and running, how seriously can you take their backend?

The point is not to pick on Alexa, but to bring into focus the biggest shortcoming in the post 1990s-web: lack of a good dependable yardstick for ranking websites and web services. As more and more web properties come into existence, it is time for the industry to develop a more dependable, and open source tool to track general traffic trends, and web site rankings.

Last week, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo came together on a standard for crawling websites. Why can’t these three companies and others who offer toolbars include tracking technology in their toolbars and hence offer a fair representation of the web traffic trends.

A non-partisan group could collect the data; much in the way open source projects keeps track of their code. There will be privacy and other related issues, but then these companies are chockfull of smart guys with all the answers.

In closing, if you are a startup that brings up your Alexa ranking in a meeting with us and tout that as your shining achievement, it would be time for my smoke break!

60 Comments

xesenta

Indeed, Alexa’s cock-eyed “ping-data” can hurt a start up website. My back end stats say that we say that we get 2-300,000 request per DAY – which can mean around 15-25K views (per day). If Alexa cannot access my ISP – how can they possibly hope to report this kind of info by pinging my site?? Thats comedy. Just let me now when the CLASS ACTION LAWSUIT happens. They owe me a few bucks.

WebTenet

Even if Alexa ranking is not accurate, it is still used to judge how successful a site is and how much traffic it draws… which is sometimes also used for advertisement pricing purposes.

Georjina

I’m surprised to learn that anyone was using Alexa for looking at a site’s page rank! I’ve always used it to check the backlinks for a website and to check who’s really linking to people wanting to link to my site.

Yes, I know there are other tools for that – but Alexa let’s me see ‘who you’re really sleeping with’ before I accept just any link. Had Google tell me that my natural health site was in the sandbox because a site linking to me (natural health care) was actually linked to ‘get on the xxxxxxpornbandwagon’. My server didn’t catch it, Alexa showed every link that site ever had.

Thanks folks, but for snooping – Alexa is my pick of the week:)

Matt

Alexa takes in consideration that most people do not have alexa tool bar installed. Lets say that you have an Alexa Tool Bar installed and vistit a website, Alexa will not only tally a click for you but will throw in a few clicks to offset the people who are not represented by having an Alexa Toolbar Installed. Lets face it, the only people who care about Alexa are those who need it for advertising or bragging rights. The average person does not care to have what is considered “spyware” on their computer.

Ken

So you need a plugin to make Alexa work on FFX? I mean, I use tons of them, but why bother just to give data to Alexa?

Pat Struthers

Here’s another thing to think about… I remove LOTS of spyware from customer machines, generally using Spybot S&D. I also install SpywareBlaster, and some other tools. This stuff ALWAYS removes Alexa (along with a lot of other bad stuff). How much do you guys think this might affect the numbers? Do the more common AV/anti-spy solutions do this too?

  • Pat Struthers
Andrew Chen

Here’s another article on the same issue – Are you misusing Alexa Numbers? (Probably):
http://andrewchen.typepad.com/andrewchensblog/2006/11/areyoumisusin.html

Basically the key points are:
– Alexa doens’t give pageviews or uniques, just “rank”
– Alexa’s audience is biased
– Alexa gives false certainty

And the finaly question there is, how can we do better? There’s some summary of how Nielsen and comScore approach the problem.

Kevin

First, there is site down time for Alexa, as discussed in the article, but the bigger issue for many people is Alexa being down (or not calculating) for individual sites. Of my approximately 15 sites, Alexa will often have 2 or 3 at any one time in which it will not show rankings for.

Second, the article is wrong about Alexa not being able to track Firefox users. The SearchStatus Firefox extension shows Google PR and Alexa ranking for sites. As it is built off of the Alexa API, it provides your visit/page information to Alexa the same way that the Alexa toolbar does. http://www.alexa.com/site/help?index=127

P-Air

Alexa is FREE, Comscore & Hitwise are not, hence it’s easier for most people to use this flawed service than to access the high fee-based services. Not prudent, but accessible and that counts for a lot.

Mike Papageorge

but I still am amazed is the number of people who use Alexa as a fiscal crutch.

Or for anything! If you make decisions based on data, your decisions are only as good as your data. That Alexa can be gamed has been known for years i.e. Alexa is bad data.

Solutions like Hitwise are much better for comparing site traffic, as you can see upstream and downstream data, top referers etc. etc.

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