What is Alexa? It’s a Website Traffic Spy Tool

One of the GREAT things about being involved in a “social networking site” such as Biznik is that people can communicate PRIVATELY with you.

I recently got a question privately there from someone who visited my blog and read my post Business Success Isn’t Determined by Your Alexa Rank. A well respected marketing expert, he wasn’t familiar with the Alexa tool and asked me to blog about it. Since I’m all about educating my clients and other readers, here we go.

What is Alexa?

Alexa is a product developed by Amazon (yes, the internet book selling giant and internet retailing pioneer). It’s a way to “spy” on the traffic of other competing websites.

increasing site trafficAlexa “ranks” websites in order based upon traffic from 1 to 24+Million. (I’ve seen TWO sites in the past 2 weeks that were in the 24 Million range.)

The last time I looked, Yahoo was #1, Google was #2 and YouTube was #4 according to Alexa.

If your Alexa ranking is above 1Million, you can congratulate yourself. You’re in the top 5% when it comes to rating traffic of the 24+ Million sites indexed by Alexa.

With that said, Alexa doesn’t get real interested in your website until your site breaks into the top 100,000. Once you break into the top 100,000, you can see your daily reach, rank and page views.

A Brief History on Alexa

The way Alexa used to collect the information it needed was via a plug in for MSIE (Microsoft Internet Explorer), Window’s internet browsing software. The plug in installed a toolbar in the user’s browser. While it offered a way for users to “spy” on the traffic of other websites, it also provided a way for Alexa to TRACK toolbar users movements on the web.

If you think about it, it makes sense that the only people who really CARE about what kind of traffic other websites are getting tend to be part of the techno-geek crowd. Very few sales training professionals CARE about the web traffic of any particular website. On the other hand, people who create websites are PASSIONATELY interested in the traffic ranking for a site. As a natural progression of events, in the early days the Alexa tool bar was used almost exclusively by web professionals or devoted web amateurs.

increasing site trafficAs the web has grown, so have the number of “non-tech” users. Many of these “non-tech” users didn’t have the Alexa toolbar installed in either MSIE or any other browser. As a result, the results of Alexa’s ranking became rather “skewed” statistically. Sites targeted towards technical users tended to do much better than websites that dealt with non-techy matters such as organic foods.

Meanwhile, new Web 2.0 businesses are popping up left and right. With the explosive growth of blogs has come advertising management services which will allow you to sign up and place ads on your blog via their network. Since ads are sold based on the number of impressions, many of these networks rely heavily upon the Alexa ranking of a website to determine traffic. (Log files can be altered, but Alexa is an unbiased third party.) Also, bloggers are popping up who aren’t blogging about the latest Tech Toy who are developing quite a following. These popular “non-tech” blogs were crying “foul” when it came to Alexa’s method of collecting data.

Recent Changes in Alexa

Back in April, Alexa responded, either to these cries or to the increased competition they were facing. (Compete.com comes quickly to mind.) Alexa changed the way it gathers data for its rankings to try to reflect what was happening in Web 2.0, where it’s not only geeks who roam the web for hours on end. ( Read more here Alexa’s New Ranking System Hurts Some and Helps Some.)

If you go to Alexa, you too can install this tool bar in your web browser. When you do, you’ll be contributing to Alexa’s data collection efforts. In other words, you can spy but you’ll also be spied upon.

blogs as money making marketing toolsThere’s actually a plugin for WordPress which will display your current Alexa ranking in your blog if you want the world to see. (Personally, I’m waiting to break into the top 100,000 to activate that one.)

If you don’t want to install the toolbar, you can always go to the Alexa.com site and type in the URL you want to check.

The most important thing to remember with Alexa is:

a) It’s an estimated traffic count

b) It’s a NUMBER and nothing more.

There are people whose blogs were ranked in the Alexa top 100K who have shut down their blogs and gone on to get real jobs because they weren’t making money from the traffic they had. On the other hand, I recently wrote about a business who is RAKING in the dough whose website is ranked in the 24 Million range.

For me, checking Alexa rankings could be called an addiction. I have a similar addiction to Diet Coke and coffee. (Caffeine FREE Diet Coke… I’m trying to be in “balance” because I drink a pot or two of coffee every morning. Screw moderation, I’m seeking “balance”.)

It’s only recently that I’ve come to recognize NEITHER my drinking habits or my Alexa checking behavior is productive. So before you install the Alexa tool bar in your browser, proceed with caution!

Business Success Isn’t Determined by Your Alexa Rank

web site trafficAs a web “professional”, I know the frailties that face Alexa. However, that darned tool bar is so easy to install and it’s literally become a habit for me to glance at the Alexa Ranking before the page has had time to load.

Over the  weekend, I learned that there are successful businesses who are NOT using the web as part of their success.

I know.

I was shocked.

It’s funny how short sighted those of us who live and work on the web can get sometimes- myself included at the TOP of that list!

This revelation started innocently enought. I got a phone call yesterday from a friend of mine who has a “real” job. She’s the training director for a large company… you know, the type of company that has “divisions” which each are assigned a “budget.”

She began her call with, “I’m at this conference to be a certified-blah blah and I met this amazing woman who’s launching her own business and needs your help.”

“Wait! Certified– to be what? Did you quit your job? Are you launching your own business?”

“No, my division has budget to burn so I’m becoming a certified “blah blah”. ”

I’m not being coy or trying to protect an identity- I really can’t remember the program name- it was THAT generic!  It was one of those made up words that people create so they are “guaranteed” top position in the search engines.

“What is a certified blah blah?” I asked.

“You know, I asked that before I left on Friday. No one at work knew either,” she said. “You’d think that someone would ask that question before plunking down $2500 for a 3 day seminar. But that’s how Corporate America works. By this time tomorrow, I’ll have another certification to my name.”

She then asked me to check out the website for the firm putting on the seminar. My friend is a business woman through and through and instead of paying attention to the presentation (which usually annoys her because she’s a real expert in training and sees the mistakes being made in the presentation instead of every absorbing the content), she’s counting heads and computing how much money this guy is bringing in.

She counted 300 heads in the room… and multiplied it by the $2500 her company paid for her seat there. She figured they made$750,000 in revenue from this seating alone and she knows there’s another seminar next month on the west coast.

I’m intrigued. I type in the website address and my attention goes first to the Alexa ranking. I’m STUNNED at what I see- I didn’t know Alexa numbers went above 24 million!

The Alexa ranking for the website is in the 24,500,000 range.

Talk about a billboard in the Alaskan Wilderness, this website is a wasteland. Oh, and it’s a mess both from a coding standpoint AND from a content standpoint.

The coding issue is obvious. I mean, you don’t reach the deepest darkest depths of 24 Million plus in Alexa without some serious coding issues at work. However, the content is what surprises me. I mean, it’s little more than a narcissistic rant tooting the horn of the seminar’s developer.

The site doesn’t follow ANY of the rules for website success!!!  Lousy domain name, poorly coded, narcissistic content… I can’t imagine anything he could do to make the site worse.

Despite all of that, he obviously has a thriving business.  I text my friend with a “you’ve GOT to find out how people found out about the seminar,” because one thing is certain, he’s not using the web to market it.

Turns out, he’s made connections with a national association and is offering this “course” at a substantial discount for members.  The association sent out the communication to it’s members and offered them a half price discount.

The whole experience has shaken me a bit.  It has forced me to admit a bad habit which I’ve developed –  I tend to look to Alexa rankings to judge how “successful” a website is and by extension, the business which owns the website. This particular website destroyed that belief system of mine.  It goes to show that you don’t need a great Alexa Ranking to have a successful business venture.

I should have known better.  I mean, I tell clients all the time that a blog can be used as a powerful tool for business communication.    Using your blog to communicate your marketing message is a GREAT use of a blog.  Using a blog in that manner is actually using your blog to target the non-blogging community.

Do I think a great web presence would help this guy’s business – definitely.  But the lack of one obviously hasn’t stopped him from achieving a level of success.

What’s up with Amazon? Why Bigger Isn’t Always Better…

Great comment on my last post about Alexa from PhilB of Phishbait where he reports:

“The rumor here in Austin is that Alexa is on the market. So perhaps this is just getting fresh lipstick on the pig.”

It made me chuckle… the thought of the “mighty” Amazon being depicted as a pig sporting lipstick.

My love for Amazon is evidenced by my previous post An Important Lesson from Amazon on How NOT to Treat Your Customers, so you can see why such a comment would make me smile.

So know that:

a) rumor has it that Amazon is trying to sell Alexa

b) Amazon is resorting to bullying tactics to try to prop up another Amazon property, BookSurge.

It’s Monday and I’m not spending too much time focusing my thoughts on the two points above. Instead, I’m working to clear my inbox of the pile up from the weekend.

Later on in the day, I checked my email and found an interesting email from Amazon. I get these emails because I’m a customer. In the email, they tell me that I’m getting this email because as a customer who has purchased baby related items in the past….


I am CERTAIN that I have NEVER purchased baby related items from Amazon. I can be REALLy certain because it’s been more than a decade since I’ve purchased baby related items PERIOD!!! Back in 1994, which was the last time I was in the “baby supply” market, Amazon was just a recently registered domain name and was barely a glimmer Jeff Bezo’s eye!!!

With the exception of the occasional baby shower I’ve attended over the past 13 years, I’ve moved WELL beyond the “baby related items” phase of my life. When invited to said showers, I usually show up in person, thereby negating any benefit from shopping online.

In other words, I usually make such a purchase whilst on my way TO said shower. I rarely plan in advance for such purchases and FREQUENTLY purchase the gift, the card and the gift bag at a store which is directly in my path to said shower. More times than I want to admit have I been in the situation of LUNGING at said gift recipient as she removes my gift from the bag as I remember that I forgot to take the price tag off of the gift as I stuffed it into the gift bag in the car.

Today’s email informs me that Amazon thinks I need to pre-order the Bugaboo Stroller, a stroller that retails for $899!!!

Unless one of my oldest daughter announces that she is expecting to give birth to an NBA or NFL star player’s offspring, I most definitely WILL NOT be in the market for a $900 stroller any time in the near future. (If my 20 year old daughter who is completing her sophomore year in college with the hopes of entering Pharmacy school next year announces she is expecting a baby from anyone LESS than an NBA or NFL star, then I’ll be expecting to spend my money on support and not wasting it on a super deluxe fleece lined stroller!)

So what’s up with Amazon?

First Amazon put on the bully hat and try to strong arm POD publishers into using Booksurge… then they begin putting lipstick on a pig in an effort to make Alexa a “better” traffic tool … and as such, one that’s more “marketable”. Now, they issue a customer alert that is so off target that I seriously have to consider hitting the “Mark as Spam and Report”.

What’s wild is my observations are in DIRECT conflict with “official” reports on Amazon. From the AWs Blog

In a new Business Week cover story, Amazon.com founder and CEO Jeff Bezos discusses his approach to innovation, thinking for the long term, our focus on the needs of customers, and our company culture.

Um… Jeff…. this is your FORMER customer speaking….. I’m sensing that you not only don’t know who I am, you don’t even know I’ve left the building. That’s the problem when you become the 900 lb gorilla as Amazon has grown to be in the online retailing world.

Alexa’s New Ranking System Hurts Some and Helps Some

Alexa is a “traffic spying tool” used almost exclusively by web savvy tech professionals to see how much traffic a particular site is receiving.  Until recently, Alexa gathered their data exclusively from an optional toolbar which at first could only be installed in Microsoft’s Browser, Internet Explorer.

So, when a web savvy tech professional would visit a web site, the firs thing they would do is look in their Alexa toolbar to see how the web site was doing.  The problem with this is that the toolbar would only measure traffic to the site with toolbar installed.     So, if your audience wasn’t tech savvy and didn’t have the toolbar installed, your Alexa ranking suffered… sometimes greatly.

So this morning, Darren Rowse over at ProBlogger announced the change in the way Alexa computes  its rankings. You can read the Alexa Press Release here.

Amit Bhawani did some research to find out how the change has affected some of the big blogs on the internet and found many blogs rankings dropped dramatically.  According to ShaMoneyMaker, the impact will be felt most by those who do paid reviews.

For those of us who write for a non-technical audience, we have seen a drop (which is good) in our Alexa rankings.   For those whose focus is on the technical web audience, there is no joy in this anouncement.

I have to wonder what the REAL reason is behind the switch at Alexa.  Could it be that Compete.com is putting pressure on Alexa?  Then again, Alexa is an Amazon creation… and things have been pretty messed up over at Amazon.

Maybe this is evidence that things aren’t going well inside the hallowed halls at Amazon….