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Misinformation About Web Metrics

Much misinformation exists among web professional’s and non-professional’s alike when it comes to metrics such as Alexa. This article addresses most of the common misunderstandings.

What is it about Alexa and other metric tools that that cause so much misinformation to be spread?

If you aren’t aware about Alexa.com, it is a site owned by Amazon, that tracks website usage and popularity. It is most commonly used to provide a measure of how popular one site is compared to all other sites around the world. The most common misunderstandings and misinformation about Alexa falls into 2 categories.

1. Alexa depends solely upon it’s toolbar to gather site data.

This is false. Alexa no longer relies solely upon its toolbar. Alexa has incorporated several other data collecting sources to compliment their toolbar tracking. Many webmaster’s do not know this. The relevance of this information is that, Alexa has oft been criticized as an unreliable or crude measure of a site’s popularity, since it only tracked user’s who had installed their toolbar. When this was true, the argument was an accurate one, as for the most part, only “geeks” installed the Alexa toolbar.

Here is direct evidence, that this is no longer the case. It comes from Alexa’s very own site:

“Alexa’s rankings are based on the past three months of global traffic according to ourdiverse data sources, including the Alexa Toolbar, and are updated daily.”
2. Alexa is inaccurate as a traffic measurement tool. While there is truth to this statement, it is true about any and all metric tools available today, including Quantcast, Compete, and private tools such as Google analytics. In fact, Alexa openly admits this.

Despite the fact that Alexa readily admits that their tools are not accurate, they also provide a critical distinction. The further away from the top 100,000 a website is, the less their measurements mean.

Here is the quote from Alexa:

“Sites with relatively low measured traffic will not be accurately ranked by Alexa. Our data comes from many sources, including our Alexa users; however, we do not receive enough data from these sources to make rankings beyond 100,000 statistically meaningful.” Kudos to Alexa for honesty. Most measurement sites, do not admit this fact.

3. People often say that one shouldn’t rely on Alexa’s data, at all, as meaningful. Clearly this is not true. Alexa’s data, in the top 100,000 sites is statistically relevant. These same people will likely suggest now, that you should not use Alexa, or rely on it, if a site is not ranked within the top 100,000.

This is misinformation. Despite the fact that Alexa is not providing “statistically relevant” data, some data is better than none. Alexa still provides you with an indication of how well a site is doing. Inaccuracy does not mean “gross” inaccuracy, it simply means, take this into account when measuring how effectively a site is performing on a global or country specific scale.

When comparing sites, accuracy can only be obtained if every site on the Internet had the same tracking code embedded on each and every one of their pages. Moreover, it would only be accurate if site owner’s used different code, from the same source, for each of their sites.

Quantcast is similar to Alexa as it compares site traffic. Quantcast tends to be slightly more accurate than Alexa, as a certain number of website owners have placed Quantcast’s tracking code on their site. Quantcast, like Alexa, is available to non-site owners and site owners alike. Site owners, that have signed up with Quantcast and have added their tracking code have access to additional demographic details that non-site owner’s do not. The site owner can also hide some demographic details from public view. A drawback to using Quantcast is that, even though it gives you global stats, its ranking system is solely based on the US market.

As an example, a site I own, has the following statistics:

Alexa: 160,297 in the US.

Quantcast: 109,307 in the US based upon tracking code.

Whilst Alexa, Quantcast and Compete are the most popular ways to publicly compare how well one site is performing compared to another, there are 3 key metrics, that measure a website’s performance. These 3 are not the only metrics though they are important.

1. Page Rank, often known as PR, is Google’s publicly disclosed measurement of a site’s importance. Google assigns every site on the web a PR score that ranges from 0 to 10. PR determines whether or not sites that link to a particular site (Site B for this article) are generally more popular than site B, or not. Popularity is not a measure of traffic but by number of links pointing to site B and the popularity of the sites that those links are coming from.

The more high-ranking, popular sites (i.e. popularity being determined by how many site’s and the quality of site’s that link to the site) linking to a particular site the higher the page rank of the linked to site. Theoretically, a site could have plenty of traffic yet still have a very low page rank. Or a site could rank very high for a particular search term in the Google search results, yet still have a low PR.

2. Total Page Views is another metric. This tends to be a private measurement, that only the website owner gets to see.

Misinformation exists even among professionals as to what total page views are. Page views do not measure “actual” traffic, as one person could be responsible for several page views or “loads”. Page views, however, are not to be dismissed as they are are a good indication of how well a site is being read. Or, at the very least, examined.

3. Unique Visitors determines the number of different “IP’s” that are coming to a site are a third important metric. For the most part, these are private numbers. Each unique IP address essentially represents a different person. The measure is not completely accurate however as many people in one household, or a public space, such as library or coffee shop, or an internet cafe, could be using the same computer to visit a site. Further inaccuracy is caused since statistic packages tend to only track computers that have been set to allow cookies to be placed on a computer or browser. Many web professionals confuse the fact that unique visitors are not completely accurate. Yet, it is in fact, the only measurement that gauges a site’s actual traffic.

While metrics on the web are not entirely accurate, they should not be readily dismissed. For web professionals and non-professionals, alike, there is no perfect solution for determining how well a website is performing. These measurements, especially when combined, are critical to web professionals, and non-professionals alike, because they allow one to gain clarity about a site’s performance; either its own performance or its performance relative to other websites.

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