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People love sticking numbers on things, usually in order to compare and contrast them with similar things. Websites are no exception. After all, what webmaster wouldn’t want to compare and contrast his or her website with that of a competitor?
One of the most well-known metrics aimed at allowing people to do exactly this is the infamous Alexa Rank.
Why infamous?
Well, historically heaps of people tend not to trust it as an accurate indicator of what it is supposed to be a measure of.
Namely “How a website is doing relative to all other sites on the web over the past three months” (quoted directly from Alexa’s official website). This is itself a bit of a dubious definition. I mean “How a website is doing”… What does that mean?.
Right, enough of an intro, let’s get stuck in.
A Little History
Founded in 1996, Alexa is a California-based subsidiary company of Amazon.com (acquired by Amazon in 1999) that specializes in providing commercial web traffic data gathered via various toolbars and web browser extensions.
Internet Wayback Machine
Some of Alexa’s most notable previous activities include providing a database that served as the basis for the creation of the Wayback Machine and the creation of various search facilities (now largely discontinued).
The feature they are probably best known for is, of course, their “Alexa Rank”: a metric that ranks websites in order of popularity or “how [well] a website is doing” over the last 3 months.
How Are Alexa Ranks Measured?
According to the official Alexa website’s Our Data page, the rank is calculated using a ‘combination’ of the estimated average daily unique visitors to the site and the estimated number of pageviews on the site over the past 3 months: with the site with the highest combination of unique visitors and pageviews being ranked as #1.
Alexa Toolbar
The data is collected from a subset of internet users using one of 25,000 browser extensions for either Google Chrome, Firefox, and/or Internet Explorer. An algorithm then “Corrects” for various potential biases and attempts to compensate for visitors who might not be in Alexa’s measurement panel (a factor it historically hasn’t always tried to accommodate for) and normalizes the data based on the geographical location of visitors.
Alexa refers to refers to the data retrieved from browsers as their “Global Traffic Panel“. They pull data from millions of internet users in this way, however Alexa also source data directly from third-parties to improve the accuracy of their tracking.
It should also be noted that Alexa does not provide separate rankings for sub-domains and sub-pages. There do make an exception to this rule for large blog networks such as WordPress.com.
How Can I View a Website’s Alexa Rank?
At least this part is straightforward: simply go to the official Alexa website, type in your full domain name and hit return!
Alexa Website Analysis
Alexa refers to this report as “Website Traffic Analysis”.
The report displays interesting metrics such as Bounce Rate, Daily Pageviews per Visitor, Daily Time on Site and the Percentage of visits from Search. It also highlights various Demographics, a list of sites that link and even page speed/load times (all of which should probably be taken with a pinch of salt).
The Alexa Toolbar
You can also view the Alexa Rank of a website by installing the Alexa Toolbar on your browser. The browser extension helps you see the Alexa Rank of any website you are visiting.
In addition to the global Alexa Rank, it also highlights the USA Alexa Rank for the website, the number of websites linking in, the time it takes to load the page, similar websites, and links to the full report and the Wayback Machine archive for the website.
What Does the Alexa Rank Mean?
The general consensus seems to be a reluctant admittance by most (certainly not all) that there does indeed appear to be a very general,roughcorrelation (seemingly with a LOT of outlying data points), between a site’s Alexa Rank and traffic for well-established websites that receive over and above a certain level of traffic.
Alexa Rank of WordPress.com
In their article “How are Alexa’s traffic rankings determined?“, Alexa note that they do not receive enough data from their sources to make rankings beyond 100,000 statistically meaningful. They also note that the closer a site gets to #1, the more reliable its rank.
Any website that has a rank higher than this 100,000 waypoint can almost be completely ignored as the figure is not reliable.
Is Alex’s Ranking System Reliable?
It seems that a lot of people who have access to reliable web analytics data, such as Google Analytics of course), often report seeing web-traffic trends and statistics that appear to be completely out of line with the corresponding Alexa Rank for each site.
A quick Google search for “Is Alexa Rank Accurate?” will indicate that many website owners do not trust Alexa’s ranking system.
Although, in all fairness, many of these reports reference websites with high Alexa Ranks that are in excess of the 100,000 mark.
The real kicker though, seems to be two-fold:

  1. Alexa aren’t able to gather their data from everybody (they obviously simply don’t have access to everybody’s browsing habits). They can only gather data from a subset of a few million users via certain browser extensions. A little common sense suggests this will almost certainly skew the data right from the get-go since the average user presumably arguably isn’t likely to have installed any such browser extensions.
  2. Rather than address such concerns head on and be completely open about exactly how this particular problem is accounted for, and showing exactly how the underlying data is collected and used to calculate the rank, Alexa seem to be less than 100% transparent on the matter, simply stating that Alexa Rank “is calculated using a combination of the estimated average daily unique visitors to the site and the estimated number of pageviews on the site over the past 3 months”.

Hmmmm….
Are Alexa Ranks Important?
For most site owners, knowing how their website is doing against the competition is important, however, when assessing your own website my advice would be to simply stick with the data from Google Analytics as it will be more reliable.
Do not attribute any any significant meaning to your site’s Alexa Rank.
When looking at competing sites, however, by all means take a quick peek at their Alexa Rank for a very rough idea of how popular their website is relative to yours. In the full Website Traffic Analysis report, Alexa shows you how your audience overlaps with competitors by examining the keywords in both websites and looking at audience demographics. This will help you see how closely related your visitors are.
Please remember that Alexa Rank is just a rough guide on how websites rank in relation to each other. Therefore, it is possible for your Alexa Rank to decrease, despite your website gaining thousands of new daily visitors. Additionally, if your website Alexa Rank is above the 100,000 mark, it’s probably best not to go attributing any significant meaning to comparing Alexa Ranks at all.
Conclusion
I personally hope that Alexa continues to work towards really getting this particular metric up to scratch because it sure would be nice to stick a number on each and every website that would allow us to compare and contrast them all with a decent level of accuracy.
Over the last ten years Alexa has did a lot of work on increasing the accuracy of their ranking system by sourcing data from millions of additional users, but it would appear that they’ve still got a long way to go in order to regain the industry’s faith in the matter.
What do you think? Have you noticed Alexa Ranks becoming more accurate as they decrease? On a scale of 1 to 10, how much faith do you generally place in the accuracy of a site’s Alexa Rank?

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