Alexa-Traffic-Rank-300x225Alexa Rank is touted as the definitive measuring stick for website traffic and success far too often. Frankly, it is credit and influence the company doesn’t deserve. Alexa is a seriously flawed rank system, and the company practices a shake-down, mafia-style approach to helping site owners show and be compared to other sites using their actual traffic data.

This is a brief explanation of how Alexa rank works, according to their site:

“The global traffic rank is a measure of how a website is doing relative to all other sites on the web over the past 3 months. 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. The site with the highest combination of unique visitors and pageviews is ranked #1.”

What is not stated in this description of their global traffic rank, is vital to know and understand: the data is gathered from Alexa toolbar users only.

Alexa offers a toolbar to download to your computer, allowing Alexa to track your browsing history. If you have the toolbar downloaded, all that data gathered will go towards helping rank the sites you visit. As you can imagine, there are more tech savvy internet users who might enjoy adding this toolbar to their site, but most don’t know about or care to have it on their computers. This makes the data used to rank websites compared to other sites inherently flawed. Especially if you consider certain sites will attract Alexa toolbar users more than others. For example, technology-centric sites would have a greater chance a visitor has a toolbar than many other niche sites.

Website owners who track their Alexa rank note significant increase in traffic, but a plummeting Alexa rank. Conversely, sites reporting very low traffic can be the lucky recipient of a better-than-expected, or rising, Alexa rank. With the traffic being evaluated only limited to Alexa toolbar users, and a better understanding of the blatant inaccuracy, it can be frustrating for site owners who care about traffic rank.

There’s no other global rank system in which to compare Alexa for a better understanding of just how inaccurate the rank can be. What is available to compare definitively, though, is the bounce rate reported on Alexa versus that of Google Analytics. Bounce rate is the percentage of visitors to a site who viewed one page and then left the site. If two or more pages are viewed, the visitor doesn’t count towards a website’s bounce rate. A lower percent bounce rate is viewed favorably as it is an indicator of viewer engagement. Here’s an example of the disparity in the data reported by Alexa compared to Google:

As of today, my lifestyle blog, Naked Girl in a Dress, is showing a three month average bounce rate of 45%. I have a specific strategy for reader engagement that I apply daily, and the effort has paid off with a consistently low bounce rate. Almost non-existent bounce, actually. Before even looking at my Google Analytics bounce rate, I knew this was far from accurate.

According to Google Analytics, here’s my bounce rate over different periods of time, looking back from today:

  • 3 month average: 3.71%
  • 6 month average: 2.56%
  • 9 month average: 3.28%

While we don’t know the exact dates for the Alexa three-month average being reported on their site today, it is clear from Google Analytics data, my bounce rate is consistently under 4%. That’s a huge disparity with Alexa’s reporting.

Can the wildly inaccurate bounce rate reporting be extrapolated and applied to the Alexa rankings? Probably not, as the data isn’t there to support it, and different algorithms would be used for each, but it does make glaringly obvious how greatly the Alexa toolbar users methodology differs to actual, accurate data gathered that is based on ALL visitors to a particular site.

Why then, won’t Alexa simply use accurate data that is based upon all visitors, you might wonder?

Permission must be granted to obtain traffic data. Just as a site owner has to embed code to allow Google Analytics to access data, so too would an owner for Alexa to obtain it.

Here’s where, in my opinion, the shakedown occurs with Alexa. You CAN allow Alexa access so that they are gathering accurate data on your site. But it costs you money for them to publicly state your accurate traffic data. Specifically, between $9.99 (entry level) and $149 a month.

Small print in screen shot: “Your Alexa Rank is a key indicator of your site’s importance. With Alexa Certified Site Metrics, our new people-based analytics service, you can get a more accurate Alexa Rank and show off how well you connect with your true audience.”

So, is Alexa irrelevant, and you should ignore it?

No, definitely not. However flawed it is, it’s the only public rank of your site. It is used as a quick evaluation tool for brands in determining your influence and readership for ads, sponsored campaigns, and acceptance to affiliate programs.

What you can do to help improve your chances with brands is to take a proactive approach to your site being evaluated. Offer to provide screen shots of your Google Analytics data for a more accurate understanding of your level of traffic and readership engagement.

Should you pay the $9.99 per month for a better Alexa ranking?

In my opinion, no. While you have more accurate data being provided on your site statistics, you are still being compared with a much larger pool that is based upon Alexa toolbar users. If everyone was being evaluated with Alexa certified site metrics, it would then be providing an accurate picture of your site rank in comparison to other sites for an overall global rank. With the opportunity to pay Alexa to provide accurate traffic results for your site with the Alexa toolbar users in the pool as well, it’s now simply a hybrid of inaccurate data from which Alexa extrapolates and reports information on websites.

What’s most important is to focus on having an attractive, SEO-optimized, user-friendly site, creating great content, having a successful, results-oriented social media campaign strategy, and providing accurate traffic data (Google Analytics) to anyone you want to evaluate your site. If you are one who checks and worries about Alexa rankings, put your energy elsewhere. It will be better served in the long run.