Using Alexa and the Alexa Toolbar as Strategic Marketing Tools

A valuable component of your search engine marketing tool box, Alexa can help you gather independent information about the relative traffic levels and visitor numbers to your own practice site as well as other websites. A separate article explores measuring your own traffic at the server level.

Important Update (April 2011)

Since this article was originally written over half a decade ago, the field has moved on! Several competing services offering direct quantification via code embedded on a site (e.g., Quantcast.com, Compete.com) provide far greater accuracy. Nonetheless, many people do still use Alexa every day for many different reasons — not least of which is that details for any site remain openly accessible, unlike the details for many sites on the alternative services. The limitations of Alexa data are even more important now, however, and the difficulties of interpretation have become even more challenging. It’s on our ‘to-do list’ to bring you an updated article covering several of today’s options for third-party traffic tracking and analysis.

What is Alexa, and How Does it Work?

Alexa, now a subsidiary of Amazon, tracks the popularity of websites via information collected anonymously from users of the Alexa toolbar. It has become probably the single most reliable independent source of information about traffic levels and visitor numbers that is freely available to the public.

The Alexa toolbar itself can be installed as a browser add-on, providing blocking of annoying pop-up advertisements, a Google search box, and a bundle of information about the site you are visiting — including information about the site’s popularity, and suggestions about other related sites. It’s the fact that so many people find these capabilities useful and decide to install the Alexa toolbar in the first place which enables it to provide its information: Alexa collects the information about how many people visit a given site, anonymously, via the Alexa toolbar itself. In other words, while you are using the Alexa toolbar, you are also providing data back to Alexa about which sites you are visiting.

Sound spooky? Well, it is — kind of — but it’s also fairly ingenious and incredibly useful. (See the Alexa privacy policy for full details of how your information is anonymized and protected; the Alexa toolbar does not provide any private or individually identifiable information back to anyone. Contrary to the verdict of some less technically-astute pundits, Alexa is not spyware.)

The Value of Alexa as a Marketing Tool

From the perspective of marketing your private practice website, Alexa is especially useful in three different ways…

First, it’s a tool for exploring the landscape: using Alexa, you can see what other sites get visited by the people who visit a given site. This isn’t just a list of what someone thinks might be related; this is a list of what other sites actually are visited by users of a given site. This provides some indication of what the competitive landscape looks like from the vantage point of a given site, by showing some of the other web destinations which are in some sense competing for the same visitors.

Example related links from the Alexa toolbar.

Example related links from the Alexa toolbar

Second, it provides solid, objective information about both visitor numbers and overall traffic levels. (These two measures are different things: two sites might attract the same number of visitors, but if visitors to one site each view an average of, say, 3 pages and visitors to the other view an average of 2 pages, then the first will have a higher overall traffic level.)

Alexa traffic information.

Example traffic data from the Alexa website

You can use this information to evaluate for yourself the differences in traffic received by other practitioners’ sites and other sites that you visit. Ever wonder how much traffic site X gets? No problem: you can find out yourself! Ever wonder whether site Y has more visitors or fewer visitors than last year? The answers are right there to be examined! Ever wonder whether the owner of site Z has given a bit of spin when reporting on the performance of their site? It’s easy to find out. Individual webmasters might disagree on visitor numbers and traffic levels at their respective sites, perhaps due to differences in measurement methods, but Alexa provides an independent perspective that is unaffected by the interests of particular human webmasters.

Alexa visitor information.

Example visitor data from the Alexa website

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Third, the rankings provided by Alexa enable you to benchmark your own site relative to the rest of the web. While you can easily track your own visitor numbers or page views yourself, you cannot determine how your site is performing relative to other sites without having some data on those sites. So, for example, perhaps the number of visitors to your private practice website grew by 20% last year; how does that compare to the overall growth of traffic on the web? Your site’s Alexa traffic ranking will tell you whether its traffic growth kept up with that of its peers, or whether it fell behind.

Caveats and Limitations of the Alexa Data

Useful though it is, there are several caveats and built-in limitations to keep in mind when using Alexa data — both in terms of the data itself, and in terms of how to interpret the data…

Inherent Limitations of Alexa Data

First and foremost, because the toolbar originally required the Windows version of Internet Explorer 5.0 or later (see requirements below) and has only comparatively recently become available for Firefox users on Windows or Mac OS X, the data gathered by Alexa will likely be biased against sites which attract users from other platforms. Alexa data will favour sites with a primarily Windows user base; so, for example, enthusiast sites dedicated to the Macintosh or to the Linux operating system would be expected to show much lower presence in Alexa rankings. Given the rapid growth of the Firefox browser, especially among web users who might describe themselves as ‘technologically sophisticated’ (one of the groups most likely to switch away from Internet Explorer), this suggests that sites with a ‘sophisticated’ mix of users will also be swimming against the Alexa current, as fewer of their visitors wind up using the toolbar.

In addition, in the course of tracking site performance for my own sites or for those of other private practitioners who are my consulting clients, I have sometimes found the traffic data reported by Alexa to fluctuate by a factor of 10 times or more, for no apparent reason — even though I know perfectly well from examining those sites’ web logs that their traffic has not fluctuated by anything at all like that amount. (Especially during the latter part of 2004 and the first part of 2005, Alexa traffic data seem to have gone completely bonkers for many sites; data for CounsellingResource.com sometimes go wildly out of correlation with our own data, dropping to virtually zero even while our real visitor numbers and traffic levels continue to set new records.)

Alexa acknowledges that its data may be very volatile for lower traffic sites but claims that data are reliable for those which rank among the top 100,000 sites on the web. (As of February 2005, the total number of sites on the web numbered somewhere around 59 million, according to Netcraft.) My own observations suggest Alexa is being a little too optimistic about the accuracy of its data, even for these top sites. For sites with so little traffic that they’re ranked down in the millions, the data should be considered distinctly unreliable. The bottom line: data on longer term averages remain useful, but take all daily or even weekly figures with a grain of salt.

Interpreting Alexa Rankings

Several more subtle factors complicate the interpretation of Alexa rankings.

For example, other things being equal, the more people involved in the production of a website, the more the Alexa data will be skewed by the involvement of those ‘insiders’, as distinct from external, ‘real world’ visitors. Some humanly-edited directories are great examples of this effect, especially those with very poor designs that make it difficult for editors to accomplish anything without a high number of page views. A site can easily get a boost to its Alexa rankings simply by opening up the production process to a team of volunteers, whose activities immediately add to the page view data being collected by Alexa. (I think it would be fascinating to see the ‘real’ traffic information for some sites with large armies of human editors, once the activities of the large production team are subtracted out.)

Similarly, for a given number of visitors, overall traffic levels can be skewed upwards simply by providing a poorly designed site with awkward navigation: the more pages a user must click through in order to reach the information they’re seeking, the more traffic gets generated. Therefore, it is difficult to interpret the relationship between traffic and visitors (i.e., the average number of page views per visitor) for a given site: a relatively low number of page views per visitor might indicate that a site contains little of what its typical visitors are seeking, or it might indicate that it is especially well designed and that visitors are finding what they’re seeking very quickly.

Finally, it is worth observing that traffic on the web appears to follow a Zipf distribution, or power law. This means that if we graph traffic rank vs. the amount of traffic per site, we can get a straight line relationship by making both axes logarithmic. To put it more simply, sites with a higher traffic ranking get much much more traffic than those with lower rankings. This also means that moving up the Alexa traffic rankings gets harder and harder the farther up you go.

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