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The Internet Editorial

The Real Problem With Alexa 372

Posted by CmdrTaco
from the get-my-irk-on dept.
Alexa drives me nuts. It uses a broken methodology to measure the internet and is, for reasons unclear to anyone, regarded as somehow definitive simply because it allows you to compare two sites with a single simple number. Its sampling methodology is flawed and the numbers it produces are meaningless. And if you want to help me prove this, please install their toolbar. Of course since most of you are Slashdot readers, most of you won't and that only helps prove my point. Read on for what I mean by all of this, and why it matters.

As the defacto 'Guy in Charge' of a reasonably large web site, I am routinely asked questions by a variety of people that lead inevitably to Alexa. It might be a question from my Boss at SourceForge about traffic. Or it might be a sales guy asked by a possible advertiser why some other random website is bigger or smaller than Slashdot. Most often it's a random reporter doing background for a story that has nothing to do with Slashdot. Why I'm considered an expert is very confusing, but why they always regard Alexa rankings as meaningful is even more so.

Here's the problem: Alexa doesn't work because of who will install it, and perhaps more importantly, who won't. Let's start with a place I'm very familiar with: Slashdot readers. Until recently Alexa didn't work on Firefox... instead only IE users participated. On the internet as a whole that's fine: like 80% of users run IE. But on Slashdot only like a quarter of you do.

What about re-installing the plug-in after you update your browser? When Firefox 2.0 came out, almost a third of Slashdot readers upgraded within a few days. You upgrade Minor Firefox releases overnight. Even IE users of Slashdot update relatively fast, from 6 to 7 or even minor revisions. New versions often break old plug-ins. When you get that alert that a plug-in is out of date do you just forget about it? I know I do. And that's not even counting clean OS installs. But if I went to random non-technical friends and family installations, I frequently see versions of software so dated it makes me cringe.

And that's not even talking about the fact that Alexa's toolbar is pretty much spyware. How many Slashdot readers are giddy to install spyware? You either? Big surprise. Because of who we are, and what it is, our population will self select out of consideration.

Did you know Alexa excludes SSL? How many etrade users do you think there are? Now personally I'm glad that they aren't tracking my browsing at my credit card company, but it's just another factor reducing accuracy.

Equally perplexing is the accounting of iframes. Let's look at someone like double click's alexa rating. Now it's hard to say, but I don't think I've ever visited their website. Have you? But according to Alexa, they have nearly a 1% share of the internet. I'd tend not to believe it... but they have iframes on zillions of web pages and counting those sure would account for this huge ranking. What about all those badges for the popular social networking websites? What influence are those iframes having on Alexa rankings? Alexa's FAQ says they don't count, but I'm skeptical.

In Fact, Alexa KNOWS that it is a flawed metric for measuring. Have you ever tried actually looking up alexa on alexa? Unsurprisingly, it is unavailable. Why? Visitors to Alexa.com would be the most likely of any user population on-line to have installed their plug-in. I don't know what their 'Rank' would be, but I bet it clearly would be an apples to oranges comparison against ANY other site on-line.

Of course who do you think actually will go out of their way to install something like this? I have a good guess... if you are obsessed with acronyms like SEO or terms like PageRank you are very likely to care very much about these things. I spend a real percentage of my week dealing with people flooding my systems with garbage content designed to screw with these ratings. And you know they all have the toolbar installed so their zillions of worthless spam websites are being counted.

This problem has parallels elsewhere of course: The Nielsen ratings struggle to account for PVRs. Since you got a TiVo, when was the last time you watched "Live" TV? This is part of why Science Fiction shows struggle on TV... scifi fans are early adopters. So we stopped getting counted and our favorite genres are butchered by networks and lost to the void. PVR users tend to be wealthy (those boxes are expensive) and educated. Now I'm not saying that the dumbing down of TV is exclusively the fault of Tivo, but it sure didn't help that we weren't being counted as excellent "Smart" TV shows get canceled while we keep getting more seasons of Survivor. Who we are and how we live causes us to not be counted, and this has unintended consequences.

So what do we do? I wish I had a good answer to this. My first suggestion would be that if anyone mentions Alexa to you that you freak out and go on a 5-minute rant about how Alexa is stupid and anyone who is using it to seriously make a business decision should be fired. It doesn't actually help, but i estimate that every time I do this, I burn the same number of calories as I might on an elliptical trainer. I assure you the beer gut ain't getting smaller on its own.

Alternatively you could just install the toolbar on every machine you can find and skew the numbers ridiculously towards people that are likely unrepresented. Of course, the conspiracy theorists amongst you will just bitch that I'm trying to fudge Slashdot's own rankings in a system I'm claiming to hate. But that only helps proves my point... the conspiracy theorist is a demographic strongly represented on Slashdot that is unlikely to trust this software. We all ignore a broken status quo "Gold" standard that would fail a 100 level college science class on the grounds of flawed methodology. And this only leads to us not being counted.

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The Real Problem With Alexa

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  • Spyware? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by xXenXx (973576)
    Isn't Alexa considered spyware?

    It baffles me how people actually look to them for information, considering how they get it.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by TheSHAD0W (258774)
      From the above article.

      And that's not even talking about the fact that Alexa's toolbar is pretty much spyware. How many Slashdot readers are giddy to install spyware? You either? Big surprise.

      I'd mod your article redundant, but I believe the point does need emphasizing.
  • by Control Group (105494) * on Monday July 23, 2007 @12:06PM (#19957233) Homepage
    That's all true, but unless someone's got a better alternative, it doesn't matter.

    It isn't surprising that people who spend money on advertising want to have some metric by which to predict (estimate, guess, what-have-you) the impact of each dollar spent on web advertising. Assuming the people spending the money are, as a class, either stupid or ignorant is a mistake. Odds are good that many of them know that Alexa is flawed, but also consider any information better than nothing. If nothing else, Alexa rankings demonstrate the relative popularity of a web site among Alexa participants - which is at least a concrete demographic, and the stats are inarguable on that basis.

    What's being missed is that there's a fundamental problem, here. Populations which refuse to share information with such aggregators will always self-select against representation. It's no different, really, than stating that populations who do not vote self-select against being represented in government. That doesn't stop us from using elections as a way to select people into government.

    In the specific case of slashdot selecting against itself, it's debatable whether we're a demographic many organizations would even want to target (with web advertising) if they could. How many comments on how many stories have included someone claiming that he's either unaffected by or negatively affected by advertising? That he's less likely to buy a product he sees advertised? Broader yet, how do you suppose the median number of lifetime banner ad clicks for the slashdot user compares to that of the web-using population at large?

    I posit that we pose a particularly galling challenge to marketers. On the one hand (if you'll allow me a bit of net-cultural hubris), we're a demographic of above-average intelligence, above-average income, with an above-average tendency to spend money on brand new technology, and who have an above-average impact on what other people will buy. On the other, we refuse to share our habits with "big brother," we're easily offended (eg, we hate proprietary formats solely because they're proprietary), comparatively hard to bamboozle, and have a cultural predisposition towards "free" (both beer and speech). That is, on the one hand, we're a fantastic demographic to succeed with, but on the other, we're a tough nut to crack.

    The point is that Alexa is flawed, without a doubt. But it seems more flawed from the point of view of a group which deliberately makes itself all but impossible to measure. And frankly, if we're not willing to provide the information necessary for advertisers to make informed choices, we're going to continue to be ignored, both on the web and on television. (Yes, I do realize that Nielsen is specifically flawed with respect to DVRs - but even if they weren't, how many members of this site would voluntarily install habit-tracking software on their TiVo? How many members of this site would call for a boycott of TiVo if it installed it for them?)
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by poetmatt (793785)
      I hate to say it, but that really proves not as much that "The only way advertisers can get accurate data as people opt in", as it proves that they have not elected to find new methods to track data properly/independantly. If you were able to develop a way to get honest and accurate data of the number of hits on a site to site basis, would even that be more accurate? (assuming you started to collect an enormous list of sites). Say check all the news aggregator websites language by language (I'm sure there'
      • Of course a site could skew their own results which creates its own problem but would this not at least be more valuable than alexa data?

        No, it wouldn't, and you've already stated why. Everyone knows that web site logs are the single most accurate way of measuring web site traffic. And no one uses them anyway - not because they think Alexa collects better data, but Alexa doesn't have a vested interest in making a given site look better than it is.

        A system which counts on the person selling to give you an ho
        • by Mandrake (3939) <mandrake@mandrake.net> on Monday July 23, 2007 @12:40PM (#19957845) Homepage Journal
          On larger sites, doing things like collecting / reading web site logs (like your apache log files) is completely unrealistic. We don't even have them turned on here anymore, because they generate so much disk i/o and flood so much disk space (each of our web heads when we last had logging enabled over a year ago produced over 8 gb of apache logs every day - multiply that times 30 and that's a hell of a log parse every single day...) - so we tend to gauge traffic more in megabits per second than anything else.

          I am not saying that Alexa is good for looking at traffic trends either - their numbers vary WILDLY from what our actuals are. Oddly enough, Hitwise does a much better job, but I suspect that is a lot of blind luck on their part as I think they take data in a similar fashion.

          I'm not sure I had a point, except that web logs aren't really feasible when your traffic crosses a threshold - I'm sure /. has similar logging problems.
          • by jamie (78724) * Works for Slashdot <jamie@slashdot.org> on Monday July 23, 2007 @01:00PM (#19958089) Journal

            Hi Mandrake.

            Slashdot still logs every pageview (plus ajax). We drop them into MySQL and once a day run a data-massaging script on them then delete the oldest portion. We do have a pair of dedicated servers for this, but generally speaking the I/O is pretty low. It's very doable.

            One of the main reasons is detecting abuse in real-time (done by more scripts that run more frequently). I wrote a journal entry [slashdot.org] about one of those scripts, a while back.

            • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

              by Mandrake (3939)
              I might take this up with the next generation of a system we're working on here potentially, if you guys don't have a problem - we have a workaround system going live shortly that does a certain amount of logging via syslog to dedicated syslog hosts (god bless syslog-ng) but we don't look at every pageview in order to lessen the load, we look at and log specific events (ones ripe for abuse - payments, signups, email, etc).

              -Mandrake
            • At W3C [w3.org] we log almost everything as well, and we end up with way too much data as a result.

              But we use the logs to detect and prevent certain classes of abuse as well (e.g. too many requests in a short time interval [w3.org] or re-requesting the same resources over and over [w3.org]), and we also want to be able to track trends over time, so we have been reluctant to just throw that data away.

              I have a plan that I have yet to implement, which is to log only 0.001% of the requests for certain very popular resources (e.g. H

    • by trolltalk.com (1108067) on Monday July 23, 2007 @12:18PM (#19957447) Homepage Journal

      "It isn't surprising that people who spend money on advertising want to have some metric by which to predict (estimate, guess, what-have-you) the impact of each dollar spent on web advertising."

      There are several easy ways:

      1. as an advertiser, host the ad on your own server, and just look in your logs ..,
      2. as an advertiser, get access to the server's banner administration system for your ad account (postnuke allows this on a per-advertiser basis)
      3. as an advertiser, just be skeptical as all hell and don't believe 99% of the stuff you hear - its all BS anyway

      If you're so naive as to not insist on hard numbers for actual views (the log files are best , you deserve to get hosed - you can analyse the log files and factor out multiple views per host ip to get the actual number of real views, and reduce fraud; ditto with geolocation of ip addresses to factor out bots in 3rd world countries; ditto for bots that crawl every link on a page; ditto for pages that are loaded then immediately dumped for another page).

      As an advertiser, I'd want unique eyeballs - real human eyeballs - that can be verified.

      • by Control Group (105494) * on Monday July 23, 2007 @12:28PM (#19957629) Homepage
        Sure, but that all presupposes you've already bought ad space on the site in question. When you're trying to select which web sites to purchase ad space on in the first place, you don't have access to any of those metrics. If we were talking about a handful of key sites, that wouldn't be a problem - test the waters, go with what works.

        But given the huge number of web sites out there that run ads, you need some way of doing an initial selection of which ones to pay. Hence Alexa.
    • by zarkill (1100367) on Monday July 23, 2007 @12:21PM (#19957501)

      And frankly, if we're not willing to provide the information necessary for advertisers to make informed choices, we're going to continue to be ignored, both on the web and on television.
      This is one reason that I actually like Amazon's recommendation system. I can provide information about what I like and don't like, and the site will then suggest items that I may be interested in based on that. If it suggests something that I'm not interested in, I can click "not interested" and it never presents that item to me again.

      I would LOVE to have a similar scenario for other ad-driven media. Imagine if I could flag TV commercials with "not interested" and then never see that commercial again, or any commercial for a similar product. Once it got a good feel for what I really like and don't like, I probably wouldn't feel the need to skip commercials. The same could be said of web ads. If I could cherry-pick which ads I was interested in and which I wasn't I might not be so inclined to block ALL of them.

      Ads are useful to me sometimes, but picking the signal out of the noise is usually such a hassle that I'd rather just skip the whole process. If everyone could make a very personal statement about what they want to see ads for and what they don't, I think the benefit for both parties would improve.
    • That is, on the one hand, we're a fantastic demographic to succeed with, but on the other, we're a tough nut to crack.

      And add to this mix that we collectively HATE advertising. So we all use ad blockers, flash blockers, script blockers, image blockers, and anything else we can find which reduces or eliminates advertising which gets in the way of reading the content of a web site.

      So even if we do get "counted" and the advertisers can determine what it is that we browse, the current method of "in your face" a

    • by Opportunist (166417) on Monday July 23, 2007 @12:30PM (#19957671)
      As a statistician, I can reassure you that the only thing that's worse than no data is flawed data. When you have no data, you know something is wrong and you start correcting that. When you have flawed data, you don't. Instead you use that data and build on it, never knowing that what you measure, calculate and estimate has nothing to do with reality. In other words, it can be dangerous, to your job and the company you're working for.

      Imagine the (flawed) data you have tells you that almost 100% of the people visiting your geek-gadget page are fans of some rock group. Why? Because they use a proxy that was written by some fan of said rock group whose proxy subtly alters the meta information sent by your browser to tell everyone you surf to how much you like said rock group. You analyze it and invest heavily into marketing crap from said group, hoping that your customers will buy it since they all appearantly love that group.

      Result? Big desaster. Nobody buys it. Nobody even knows that group. They just all used the same proxy/plugin/younameit, not even knowing that whoever wrote it wanted to advertise his favorite band.
      • by Control Group (105494) * on Monday July 23, 2007 @12:38PM (#19957819) Homepage
        That's true if the person using the data is unaware that it's flawed. But an educated decision can be made to use data that's known to be flawed, if one evaluates what those flaws are, and what they'll mean to whatever it is you're doing.

        In fact, as I think about it, I'm not sure "flawed" is the right word. The information is incomplete; whether that's a flaw depends on whether or not you recognize that you don't have all the information.

        I think that assuming all the people using Alexa rankings to make purchasing decisions are stupid is misguided. I think it's a much safer assumption that the distribution of stupid, average, and intelligent people among that population is fairly close to that of the population at large. Many of them are making decisions based, in part, on having information that they know to be incomplete, which they judge to be preferable to making decisions based on having no information.
      • by AndersOSU (873247)
        As someone who isn't a statistician, but uses statistics on a regular basis, the first question you always need to ask is can I trust the data. You need to run statistical tests on the data to see if it makes sense. You need to understand the problem first, and that data second.

        If you can't tell if the data is fooling you you shouldn't be doing statistics on it.

        So I guess I'd amend your proclamation to read: "The only thing worse than no data is data that the statistician couldn't tell was flawed."
      • As a statistician, I can reassure you that the only thing that's worse than no data is flawed data. When you have no data, you know something is wrong and you start correcting that. When you have flawed data, you don't.

        This is a huge assumption that I'd say is incorrect more often than not.

        Your entire argument as it stands now presupposes that the advertiser doesn't know the data is flawed. But what if he does?

        My company buys lots of web ads. We use Alexa as one of our data sources (not the only one) to determine ad buys, both because it's free and because in our experience, its data is no more or less accurate than that of paid vendors like Nielsen. Do we expect 100% accuracy? No. Do we think we can learn anything if, for example, it tells us that two directly competing sites have traffic that's different by about 200% in every metric? Probably.

        Buying ads is not an exact science. It doesn't really matter if we get accurate traffic down to the individual click. All we're looking for is relativity - a site's size and reach compared to its competitors. We look at the sites themselves, we look at Alexa and we look at research that we commission and pay for. Usually these sources all agree and we go ahead and buy. In the event that they don't agree, we use our own critical thinking and our own judgment to determine what to believe - that is part of any marketer's job, after all.

        It seems to me that this whole article here is missing the point. Alexa's a tool. A free tool. It is useful at what it does, but it is not, nor was it ever intended to be, some sort of accurate measure of site statistics for the entire internet. Nobody who uses it as part of their decision-making process is using it that way.

        I think this is a case where somebody looked at Alexa, figured out that it wasn't perfect, and therefore determined that it's utter crap. That's basically what your argument boils down to also. But the point is we don't need perfection, and we don't expect perfection, and this lack of perfection is taken into account in our decision making process. We're not flying to the moon here; we're buying ad space. It's something of an organic process regardless of how good your data is.

        If you're talking about somebody using Alexa for their own site, then that's just ridiculous. Even cheap hosting accounts (like I have for my personal site) come with their own log-based stats, and if not, there are plenty of free services like Statcounter out there. I don't think this is what many people use Alexa for, though; it's used more by small to mid-sized companies looking for sites on which to buy ads, or by curiosity seekers who just want to see how big their favorite sites are. I would think most sites would know what their own internal numbers are one way or another, without Alexa.
    • by xtracto (837672)
      Equally perplexing is the accounting of iframes. Let's look at someone like . Now it's hard to say, but I don't think I've ever visited their website. Have you? But according to Alexa, they have nearly a 1% share of the internet. I'd tend not to believe it... but they have iframes on zillions of web pages and counting those sure would account for this huge rankin

      I think the editor left out some kind of link... that or slashcode ate their URL.

      And yeah I also think Alexa is broken... although for me it is com
    • by mcmonkey (96054)

      On the one hand (if you'll allow me a bit of net-cultural hubris), we're a demographic of above-average intelligence, above-average income, with an above-average tendency to spend money on brand new technology, and who have an above-average impact on what other people will buy. On the other, we refuse to share our habits with "big brother,"...

      So you're saying advertisers trying to reach the affluent trend-setters on the internet should advertise on the sites with the least (recorded) traffic?

    • I find that (from experience working in large companies that make consumer electronics) marketing tends to use this data not to target a product feature/function, but to target advertising. My experience is that they can be quite in touch with our inner geek insofar as convincing us to buy a hunk of junk. When it comes time to where engineering time/$ is spent, it's always with the masses, which we will never be almost by definition. This is how mediocre large companies work.

      All I would be doing by installi
    • this rant about alexa you're commenting under is just another flavor of wanting it all, and expecting to give up nothing in return

      slashdot is full of privacy idealists, who regularly rant about intrusions into their privacy... and then turn around and rant about how how inconvenient some things are. here we have a rant about a lack of inclusiveness... surely followed by a round of "hear! hear!" from the some here who will turn around and say "hear! hear!" under the next slashdot rant about universal id card
  • ... but what is Alexa ?
    • by mmxsaro (187943) on Monday July 23, 2007 @12:17PM (#19957433) Homepage
      Alexa [alexa.com] is a ranking system to measure how popular a certain website is on the Internet. A user, however, must have the Alexa toolbar installed for Alexa to measure site rankings accordingly. As of right now, Slashdot is ranked 558 out of 1 million+ sites that Alexa tracks.

      Note: you don't need to install the toolbar to figure out Alexa rankings. Check out the Search Status [quirk.biz] extension for Firefox. I have mine sitting at the bottom right corner of the browser to display me PageRank and Alexa rankings.
    • ... but what is Alexa ?

      Good point.
      As or me, I didn't know what it was, and now that I know, I don't care)

      But really, this article shows the truth, and might be cited as a future reference in say... wikipedia (wiki editors, go go go go go!) about Alexa.

      If you want my opinion, site-popularity measurement sites are just another "on the way to extinction" part of the dot-com bubble. Some jerk just said "hey, let's install this spyware and get rich with it! We'll just say it's a site measurement tool and we'll a
      • by AndersOSU (873247)
        What I want to know is who is it who does install Alexa? Is it only webmasters obsessed with, as the cmdr put it, pagerank ans seo? Or does it come preinstalled on some systems, or does it offer something of "value" i.e. screensavers and sparkly pointers, to the "average" user?

        I've heard of it, and always just wondered why I'd want something like that.
  • by everphilski (877346) on Monday July 23, 2007 @12:10PM (#19957311) Journal
    ...because digg.com is beating slashdot.org :)
    • Pfft, screw that. (Score:3, Interesting)

      by oGMo (379)
      If digg is "beating" slashdot, let it win. Maybe the YouTube popularity blog can suck away the idiots from slashdot.
    • by imsabbel (611519)
      Well, digg has been beating slashdot for a year now, and is nearly a magnitude higher in rank.

      No, i guess the most recent event is 4chan passing slashdot...
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by ColdWetDog (752185)

        Well, digg has been beating slashdot for a year now, and is nearly a magnitude higher in rank.

        No, i guess the most recent event is 4chan passing slashdot...

        So idiots in general and pornography obsessed idiots in particular are more common than whatever-it-is-that-lurks-about Slashdot?

        Somehow, I feel better already.

    • by DigiShaman (671371) on Monday July 23, 2007 @01:10PM (#19958205) Homepage
      It's the quality, not the quantity of your audience that matters. Despite the occasional trolling and flaming that goes on at Slashdot, it still uphold its audience as the most informed and highly intelligent. I can't say that for Digg.com.
    • by metlin (258108) on Monday July 23, 2007 @02:25PM (#19959267) Journal
      Oh sure, and YouTube is beating Digg, but that doesn't mean that we'll all move over to YouTube.

      No, like another poster said, it is quality over quantity.

      If you think some of the arguments on Slashdot are asinine, wait until you read the ridiculous ones on Digg. And give everyone the power to moderate and you have people burying others' comments because they disagree with them.

      Add bad grammar, spellings and l33t speak and you have a ridiculous combination of utter rubbish that only a bunch of emo sixteen year-olds can spew forth. Give me Slashdot any day.

      At least some you trolls have character. ;-)
  • Alexa's Spiders (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Garridan (597129) on Monday July 23, 2007 @12:10PM (#19957319)
    When I used to administer a website (b2b, you've never heard of it) my boss loved Alexa. I told him time and again to uninstall it, and even did so myself a number of times... but he'd put it back every time. Then, one day, all dynamic content on the main page just vanished. I brought it back from backup, and chocked it up to a bug. Then, it happened again a little while later. I started snooping around our logs.

    Turns out, Alexa's spiders were ignoring the robots.txt file, and capturing usernames and passwords. It logged into the administrative area, and followed the "delete" link for every entry. My dumbass boss still didn't want to uninstall Alexa. Could have strangled the man.
    • Re:Alexa's Spiders (Score:5, Informative)

      by captnitro (160231) * on Monday July 23, 2007 @12:22PM (#19957521)
      I'm just ragging on you unnecessarily here -- but was Alexa following POSTed form actions or something? This is why there's a completely different verb for the alteration or deletion of a URI object (POST) vs reading one (GET). (And shame on somebody for sticking usernames and passwords in GET variables, if that was the case.) /nitpick
    • Why are there "delete" links? Shouldn't that be buttons, or at least demand a confirmation after following a link.
    • I don't think that your story is a very good indicator of how rubbish Alexa is, it just highlights issues with your own system.

      This is why you shouldn't use HTTP GET for 'delete links'. Anything that changes content should be POST, which will stop bots crawling your site just by following links from breaking things. We have standards for a reason..

      As for alexa crawling your site as a logged in user, what? As far as I know the toolbar itself doesn't do any crawling, only reporting. Maybe it was providi
    • by knewter (62953)
      MAKE DELETE A POST! (Or a DELETE, meh, stupid browsers...POST it is)

      We're past this problem on the web. Everyone knew it was stupid to be making a ton of delete links, and we still did it. If we'd just made 'em posts in the first place, these bugs never would have happened. I built sites that were vulnerable to a robot like that, but luckily it never actually bit me. Nothing I build now deletes from a GET. You should follow suit.
  • by truthsearch (249536) on Monday July 23, 2007 @12:13PM (#19957367) Homepage Journal
    My first suggestion would be that if anyone mentions Alexa to you that you freak out and go on a 5-minute rant about how Alexa is stupid and anyone who is using it to seriously make a business decision should be fired.

    I've been doing this for years. The problem (or actually just what marketers perceive as the problem) is that there is no generic public way to compare web site traffic. The only true way to get traffic metrics is from the web site owners. And they could easily make it up to take in more advertisers. So people in advertising look to Alexa as the only third party source.

    The biggest sites don't have as much of a problem because they can work closely with advertising partners. Medium and small sites, however, don't get as much personal attention. So proving themselves as worthy web space for ads is more difficult.

    The only people I've heard of that install the Alexa toolbar are web site owners because they want to see their rank often. Ironically so few people have the toolbar installed that they drastically boost their own rank.

    We need to convince marketers that Alexa is pointless. But I'm afraid that without a good replace they'll keep using it.
  • by customizedmischief (692916) on Monday July 23, 2007 @12:14PM (#19957383)
    Come on folks, it's time to be counted!

    Now where can I download the Alexa plugin for lynx?
  • by saibot834 (1061528) on Monday July 23, 2007 @12:14PM (#19957389) Homepage
    So Alexa says they are not spying on the user. Big surprise.

    How can I verify what this toolbar is really doing unless I have the source code? IMHO the problem lies there: There is no trust for Alexa because nobody can really say for sure how it works and that it doesn't harm the user.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      While you cannot verify what the software is actually DOING, you can monitor/verify what the software is saying.

      In many cases, not only is the latter more effective, from a cost/time/benefit perspective, it's also easier and provides far more useful information.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        Agreed, the best way to see what they're collecting is to watch the stream and actually see it. However, the real question isn't what they collect, but what do they do with it? It's fairly obvious that they send back all of your browsing habits.
    • I agree. If they want me to trust it, they had *better* damn well let me spend weeks aimlessly wandering the source code in the hope that I can understand it well enough to see if it does anything malicious.
  • And we care...why? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Itninja (937614) on Monday July 23, 2007 @12:17PM (#19957429) Homepage
    How is Alexa different than any other selective-survey system? The Nielsen ratings are acquired via 'diaries' (or occasionally set-top boxes). Radio 'listener share' is determined similarly by Arbitron. The NY-Times bestseller list is based on books sold to distributors, not books sold to the public (millions of unsold 'bestsellers' get pulped or donated to libraries every ear).

    Just come to terms with the fact these organizations are in bed with advertisers and move on with you life.
  • by UbelievablyLame (962303) on Monday July 23, 2007 @12:18PM (#19957439)
    "Of course since most of you are Slashdot readers..."

    hm... given the context I would say 'most' is an understatement
  • Business? (Score:4, Informative)

    by 19061969 (939279) on Monday July 23, 2007 @12:19PM (#19957473)
    In my experience, a lot of PHBs are only too happy to have information. They don't really care if it's valid information or not, just so long as it's there and that it sounds good.

    It was a massive wake-up call to realise how many middle-managers and the like will quite happily swallow any old crap as long as they perceive that it's authoritative. Has anyone ever tried to tell them about how bad the information is? (real question btw - I'm interested in seeing if other readers experiences were as bleak as mine).
  • Alexa is useful (Score:3, Informative)

    by mbone (558574) on Monday July 23, 2007 @12:20PM (#19957479)
    It clearly has biases, and (worse) these seem to change slowly with time, but for the web sites I host, there is a nice correlation between their Alexa reach and their
    hit count.

    It is certainly good for a crude ranking of sites - Slashdot's rank right now is 558, and that clearly means a lot more traffic than some site than a rank of 5 million.

    So, like many other measures on the Internet, it is flawed, but it has value.

  • Spyware yup. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by crabpeople (720852) on Monday July 23, 2007 @12:22PM (#19957507) Journal
    Symantec corporate flags the alexa toolbar as spyware, so I couldn't run it if I desired to.

    http://www.symantec.com/security_response/writeup. jsp?docid=2004-062410-3624-99 [symantec.com]

    • more specifically, (Score:3, Informative)

      by everphilski (877346)
      trackware, not spyware, from your link: "is a program that installs a toolbar and gathers Internet browsing and search information." which is EXACTLY WHAT IT IS SUPPOSED TO DO in order to aggregate site popularity.
  • I imagine ratings like these are mostly of interest to advertisers. Thanks to a little firefox plugin this means the ratings are even more skewed. Or maybe the two cancel one another since people reluctant to install Alexa is also the users likely to install ad-block, thus giving advertisers exactly what they want. It is effectively a number which says where naive fools that will opt in to stuff like this can be found... In either case slashdot need not care since page-views do not translate into ad's viewe
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday July 23, 2007 @12:23PM (#19957535)
    Alexa targets a demographic which are more likey to click on banner ads and buy the junk which they advertise. So for the advertisers targeting those demographics I'm sure it works out ok.
  • Alexa drives me nuts. It uses a broken methodology to measure the internet and is, for reasons unclear to anyone, regarded as somehow definitive simply because it allows you to compare two sites with a single simple number. Its sampling methodology is flawed and the numbers it produces are meaningless.
    Just read my .sig
  • FTA:

    So what do we do? I wish I had a good answer to this. My first suggestion would be that if anyone mentions Alexa to you that you freak out and go on a 5-minute rant about how Alexa is stupid and anyone who is using it to seriously make a business decision should be fired.
    I think it would be far more economical to respond to the mention of Alexa as some people here already have... which is to say "Alexa? What's that?"
  • I thought Nielsen ratings were done by installing boxes in selected homes, monitoring viewing times and then extrapolating an overall rating from programmes watched in those homes to apply to all views. Unless these Tivo enabled sci-fi nerds are in the programme, what damned difference does it make to the ratings whether people use Tivo or not?

    Besides, can't Tivo gather viewing data, aggregate it and then tell the networks what shows people are watching? Can't Nielsen factor Tivo into their calculations?

  • by LWATCDR (28044) on Monday July 23, 2007 @12:27PM (#19957609) Homepage Journal
    Slashdot is an extremely popular website with great demographics. It should be a huge money maker but it probably under performs.
    It doesn't show up all that well in Alexa because very few people that go to Slashdot use or would use the Alexa toolbar.
    It probably doesn't show up all that well with the advertisers because Slashdot readers are technically very sophisticated.
    What percentage of Slashdot users are blocking the ads on Slashdot? 80%? Slashdot should be the "Myspace" of the technical crowd. Heck it had the friends list long before Myspace was around. We have our Journals "aka" blogs so yea it is a little Myspace full of bright people with money to spend. But it doesn't make that much money. Slashdot should be worth many millions but it isn't. The real problem isn't Alexa but how can Slashdot live up to it's potental for that evil word. Profit. After all I am sure the Slashdot crew would like to make the big bucks.

  • Alexa is definitely not a good way to compare all websites with regards to traffic but it definitely has uses (for us to look at but not to install and help populate). Since the average type of user that visits a website stays constant looking at Alexa stats is a good way to determine trends with regards to content. When the whole HD DVD key fiasco hit Digg you can see the immediate spike as well as the slight depression in number of visitors afterwards. Alexa is great at helping those running high traff
  • by gru3hunt3r (782984) on Monday July 23, 2007 @12:43PM (#19957885) Journal
    Let me save you some breath, I deal with non-technical small online business owners all day, every day, and I have for the last 7 years - they are obviously concerned with Alexa rankings.

    I *HAVE* been telling them that the stats are bullshit, not only for the reasons listed above but a few others - but eventually I gave up and developed a better strategy:

    Don't bother explaining highly technical concepts to a monkey, it frustrates you and annoys the monkey.

    If your pointy haired boss wants your Alexa ranking to improve I would suggest you:
    1) Call a meeting, invite as many department heads as you can.
    2) Make the problem your own, and phrase it as *MASSIVE*, *DIRE*, *EXTREME* (e.g. if we don't fix this, we could all be out of a job soon)
    3) Suggest IMMEDIATE ACTION be taken, suggest hiring an offshore team of workers (China $0.37/hr) to install the Alexa toolbar and surf around your site.
    4) Recommend that the company consider an immediate payout a Ukranian hacker with mob ties named "Ivan" who will pwn machines and install alexa and then randomly pop your site on his botnet for a reasonable fee.
    5) Finally tell them that bribes to key employees in Alexa may be necessary - tell them you may have a contact and tell them to be ready to authorize six digit sums of money in a 24 hour period if necessary. [this can be useful for other reasons]

    Trust me - as soon as the first mention of money (and specifically who's budget it will come out of) is made the general attitude toward how important Alexa is will change. They'll backpedal, claim you're being overly-proactive. They'll produce some rant they found on a website called dot-slash saying how Alexa rankings aren't important.

    Tell them it's all propaganda, proceed to ignore whatever they say -- pronounce your undying love for Alexa - and it's relevance to the web.
    DEMAND THEY RESPECT YOUR AUTHORITY.
    IDENTIFY YOURSELF AS THE BIG DOG OF TECHNOLOGY.
    ASK WHO ELSE GRADUATED FROM DEVRY LIKE YOU DID?
    WHO ELSE IN THE ROOM IS A CERTIFIED NOVELL ADMINISTRATOR?
    IF CHALLENGED BY ANYONE TAUNT THEM AND SAY THEY PROBABLY DON'T EVEN UNDERSTAND BIG "NETWORKING" CONCEPTS LIKE SECURE SOCKETS LAYER, TRANSPORT CONTROL PROTOCOL, AND .NET FRAMEWORK.
    Then proceed to tell them that (in your professional opinion) your company won't be able to recruit good people because of your poor Alexa ranking. Tell them that search engines will stop spidering your site, and eventually your traffic will drop to zero. Without a good alexa ranking your email will get caught in more spam filters and you'll appear on blacklists and phishing filters more frequently. That means the SSL locks won't show up on browsers anymore. This will cause packet loss on your routers to increase. If it's not fixed immediately it's possible eventually your domain won't even work if somebody enters it directly into their browser. ALEXA IS THE MASTER OF THE INTERNET THEY ARE ALL KNOWING WE MUST SERVE THEM WITHOUT QUESTION.

    ps> I *seriously* did have one customer who hired an offshore Indian firm to boost they're rankings (no bullshit) - feel free to mention that your competitors are already doing this, and the clock is ticking. WE NEED A DECISION NOW.

    The next topic: PAGE RANK (umm.. wash, rinse, repeat)

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by gru3hunt3r (782984)
      Oh.. almost forgot to mention -- to respond to Page Rank

      First tell them the SEO consultant they hired is an idiot (did he graduate from DeVry and have his CNA? - I don't think so) and he is most likely trying to defraud the company and that they should stop payment on his check.

      Changing your page rank # is easy there are lots of articles on the web how to do it, but basically you can simply do it with Meta tags ex: .. if you want a page rank of 12 then just change the 7 to a 12 - it's easy.

      If they don't bel
  • Make a firefox add-on that collects anonymous info on what sites you've visited. Of course, it must be open source. It simply stores the count of visits on a table, where instead of storing the site's name, it stores the SHA-1 (or to be on the safe side, SHA-256 or SHA-512). (Note: Only the domain is stored, not the full uri). After a period of one week of data storing, it connects to say, "slash-rank.com" (i made up that name) using SSL and sends the data. Finally, the data is deleted from your hard drive.
  • Taco's got a case of the Mondays
  • Alexa ratings (Score:3, Interesting)

    by evildogeye (106313) on Monday July 23, 2007 @01:02PM (#19958111) Homepage
    I have gotten numerous sites into the top 75k of Alexa ratings by simply installing the toolbar on a couple of machines and regularly browsing through the entire site. On the other hand, I have sites that receive 3000 unique hits a day ranked around 300,000 on Alexa. That being said, I still use Alexa all the time to figure out which sites are well trafficked, and I imagineit is far more accurate than the author is giving it credit for. If you eliminate obvious exceptions (sites that cater to SEO folk and sites that cater to certain audiences such as Linux users) I think you will find that Alexa makes for a useful although not 100% accurate tool.
  • Whenever someone brings it up, just point out that Alexa's demographic is restricted to non-technical users who click "yes" when their browser says, "That's a horrible idea. Are you really sure you want to do that?"

    If the advertiser wants to reach technically adept users with a large disposable income, Alexa's numbers will not help them.
  • Just classify their site as spyware-related and add their netblocks to the corporate firewalls. That'd work, too. Well, if everyone did it, at least...

    Also respond to management requests for information with "The spyware site? No, we're not particularly fond of spyware. Look what it did to SONY..."

  • by Dracos (107777) on Monday July 23, 2007 @02:02PM (#19958963)

    Always was, always will be. After decades, there is no agreed upon methodology for tracking the effectiveness of marketing dollars in the real world. The internet should make it easier, right? Perhaps, until people learn how to filter the internet. Doubleclick never sees me, because I have

    0.0.0.0 *.doubleclick.net

    in my hosts file, along with 37,000 other crap sites. I also add "*urchin\.js" to my custom filters in FilterSetG, so AdSense doesn't see me. I suspect other Slashdotters take similar measures.

    If a good click through rate on a banner ad is less than 1%, and only about 1% of clicks result in a sale, then the value of that banner to the advertiser is only .01% of it's cost (yes, I know AdSense works differently, but it has its own pitfalls). Pathetic, isn't it?

    It makes you wonder how poorly traditional media ads actually perform.

    Banner ads, I'm pretty sure, are the first time advertisers have ever been able to measure the returns on ad dollars. Some company spends $20k for a full page ad in a magazine, how much of that came back in sales? No one knows. So just to me sure they don't lose sales, the company continues to buy ads, following some rough percentage of revenues. Demographics is the closest thing marketers have to concrete data... it basically says not to buy ads in Ladies' Home Journal if you're selling vintage car parts. Even then, demographics measures potential returns before the fact, not actual returns after the fact. So, advertising is a wild goose chase based on assumptions, and no one does, or can, really know what's going on.

    The internet should be a wake up call for advertisers to the fact that their marketing budgets are being overinflated by... (wait for it) the ad agencies and marketing firms. Sadly no one will realize this, because the foxes are in charge of the henhouse, and claim everyone will fall to ruin otherwise.

    Generally, people don't want the crap in the ads, and would rather not even see the ads. Horrible conversion rates prove this. The scariest part of Minority Report, other than the nanny-state concept of "pre-crime", is the level of advertising present everywhere in the film, targeted at individuals with laser-like precision. It got that way because the public allowed it to happen.

    The simplest way to fix advertising is to remove all imperative and presumptuous statements from them. No more "Call now!", "You need...", "But wait, there's more!" obnoxious mind games. I'm not calling, I don't need your shit, and I'm not waiting for you to yell at me some more.

  • DoubleClick (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Mike_K (138858) on Monday July 23, 2007 @02:59PM (#19959777)
    CmdrTaco wrote:

    Equally perplexing is the accounting of iframes. Let's look at someone like double click's alexa rating. Now it's hard to say, but I don't think I've ever visited their website. Have you? But according to Alexa, they have nearly a 1% share of the internet. I'd tend not to believe it...

    That's not surprising to me at all. I don't think this is because of all the iframes that pop up on pages, or they would have a much higher percentage than 1%. I think it's actual ad clicks. When you click an ad, you go to a doubleclick link which will redirect you to the advertiser's page. If all those ad clicks are counted as actual traffic, 1% is actually a very believable figure.

    And I've never heard of Alexa until now :)

    m
  • Alexa (Score:3, Funny)

    by evildogeye (106313) on Monday July 23, 2007 @03:41PM (#19960365) Homepage
    If you really want good Alexa ratings, just put a link to the toolbar at the top of slashdot.org. Soon you'll probably be in the top 20.
  • by macraig (621737) <mark@a@craig.gmail@com> on Monday July 23, 2007 @05:15PM (#19961767)
    This is for CmdrTaco and anyone else who wants to read it.

    Dude, it's the paradigm that sucks, not Alexa per se. Consider Nielsen ratings: would you or any self-respecting Slashdotter actually be so foolish as to agree to be a "Nielsen family"? I doubt it. It's the same dynamic at play. I blogged about the relative stupidity of Nielsen families in particular a while back; those people are ruining my ability to enjoy quality programming like Firefly, Space: Above and Beyond, Keen Eddie, and countless others because of their mindless plebeian tastes.

    These are also the same people who often cause unreasonable pricing for consumer items, because they're too stupid to know when to vote with their dollars and just say "no". "$70 for a set of warmed-over LucasFilm Star Wars films that already turned a profit three times over? No problem, I simply *must* have them!"

    As a result, manufacturers set prices based on this same mindless demographic; those of us who are "smart" consumers, who could wrangle a better fairer price, are dragged along for the ride kicking and screaming.

    That's kinda what has happened here: you (CmdrTaco) are being dragged along kicking - and screaming - by all the Alexoids, and you don't like that any more than I like having Firefly yanked off the air.

    I'm quietly of the suspicion that national and especially online advertising is only a fraction as profitable as corporations think it is. I suspect if someone could do a truly objective cost-benefit analysis of mass advertising, like car commercials on TV, we'd find that it's actually costing money that is never rewarded in equivalent sales, and for which we're all ultimately footing the bill in the form of higher prices to pay down all that pointless advertising.

    Solving the "Alexa dilemma" just might require eugenics or some other speciation event.

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