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It is better
to not be on
the web than
to be on and
not know why

John Sumser

is more
it seems.
John Gall


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Regarding Alexa

(January 12, 2004) - Last week, we ran Brian Kreuger's Job Board rankings, as we often do. Predictably, we received the avalanche of mail complaining about Alexa, Brian's biases, flaws in the list, missing job boards, the general unfairness of life and a variety of other grumpy stuff. Nothing stirs the competitive juices like a ranking list.

Alexa, a free service provided by the folks at Amazon, tracks the viewing behavior of people who have installed the Alexa toolbar. Although there are some modest privacy concerns (Alexa knows your surfing behavior), we've always believed that the Alexa toolbar provides a reasonable return. With Alexa installed in your browser, you can immediately see a range of interesting things about the websites you are visiting. 

Alexa provides ranking information (how does the site you are viewing compare with all other websites), contact information (from the Domain Name Records), age of the website, a quality ranking (based on the votes of Alexa surfers), related links (where else do people who visit the site go?), inbound links (a distinct measure of site quality) and other useful data about the site. It's a necessary part of understanding a particular website in a larger context.

And, the price is right. Although you must allow Alexa to monitor your online behavior, there is no additional charge for the service. It's free.

Large web operations pay as much as $15,000 per month for similar data.

Alexa is biased. Since its ranking information is compiled from a small set of users (several million), there are known 'holes in the data'. Alexa only looks effectively at a domain name, so numbers for operations like the CareerJournal are somewhat skewed. 

Interestingly, the large commercial services are also biased. On the web (as is true with print, radio and television), audience measurement is as much art as it is science. Infrastructure issues (cacheing, in particular) always skew the measurements. Although it seems like a computer based medium ought to be very measurable, we have never seen two measures (using the same system) that produced the same results.

That's the thing about any measurement system. In the absence of accuracy, you have to settle for consistency. It's true in performance measurement in organizations and its true for job board rankings.

The other truth about Alexa is that it is easy to manipulate. Readers pointed out a number of obvious examples of data manipulation. There's a Job Ad Distribution company whose ranking is in the 3,000 range while all of the competition hovers closer to 100,000. Known slime balls, the company manipulates Alexa data as a way of trying to fool its customers. The scam is obvious to anyone who takes a look at the data.

At the same time, it's fair to say that our advocacy for Alexa contains a quiet bias as well. When our readers install the toolbar, our ranking goes up.

Again, any measurement system is subject to aggressive and/or subtle manipulation. In our kitchen is a wall on which each family member's height has been measured with a pencil line over the years. At measurement time, everyone stands a little taller.

Our archives are full of articles about the features, benefits and uses of Alexa. As flawed as it is, it's readily available and without an alternative. We recommend that you install the toolbar.

John Sumser

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Materials written by John Sumser © TwoColorHat. All Rights Reserved.
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