Gaming the Rank: Why Alexa Is a Bogus System

Gaming the Rank: Why Alexa Is a Bogus System

THE ALEXA RANK is an oft-cited ranking system from Web information company Alexa Internet Inc., which is owned by Amazon.com. Many media companies use the Alexa Rank to showcase their relevance before target markets to potential advertisers.

The data used by Alexa in formulation of its Alexa Rank comes from the visitation behavior of voluntary, self-selected participants using the Alexa Toolbar on Chrome, Internet Explorer, or Mozilla Firefox.

Alexa’s Inherent Flaws

While media buyers often turn to Alexa to determine whether a potential advertising medium is legitimate, most SEO and Web marketing experts regard Alexa as being relatively insignificant.

  • Sample Size — According to most recent U.S. census estimates, there are more than 300 million potential Internet users in the United States. According to Alexa itself, there have been just 10 million total downloads of its Alexa Toolbar (the company does not disclose how many of those total downloads were installed or remain active).

Assuming all 10 million downloads of its product are active (a far-fetched notion), Alexa would be tracking, at the very most, less than 0.3 percent of potential U.S. Web users.

  • Sample Contamination — Participants of the Alexa Toolbar data collector are self-volunteered and self-selected. Moreover, participating companies are free to recruit (or even mandate) supporting employees, partners, and customers to actively install the Alexa Toolbar to help skew Alexa Rank results in their favor. The data, therefore, is not scientifically representative of Internet users, but an arbitrary data set manipulated by public relations agents.As Google engineer Peter Norvig writes in his blogpost, “Alexa Toolbar and the Problem of Experiment Design,” the data would be good if it truly represented a random sample of internet users, but in fact it only represents those who have installed the Alexa toolbar, and that sample is not random.”Norvig explains, “The samples must be sophisticated enough to know how to install the toolbar, and they must have some reason to want it. It turns out that the toolbar tells you things about web sites, so it is useful to people in the Search Engine Optimization industry, so it over-represents those people.”
  • Vulnerable Data Sets — Because the Alexa Rank is a proprietary ranking system based on a publicly available browser toolbar, there have been a number of successful attempts to essentially hack and manipulate data. As Search Engine Journal writer Loren Baker states, “Alexa is apparently quite easy to manipulate.” He found a step-by-step JavaScript cheat to drive up any given company’s Alexa Rank.
  • Push Polls & Manipulated Engagement — Alexa actively rewards companies that support its products. With its Toolbar Creator, for example, Alexa encourages companies to create original, directly clickable content specifically designed for Alexa Toolbar audiences. This creative content appears on the browser toolbar itself, serving to promote and entice viewership and traffic. Since the only audience having access to this Toolbar content are those participating in the Alexa Rank data sample pool, all participating content creators will see Alexa Rank benefits over non-Alexa-participating companies. Hence, an Alexa Rank improvement can be directly purchased from Alexa.

 

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