Entrepreneur - - By Alex Walker

The Great Alexa Spike of 2006

It seems to have passed without much comment, but there seem to have been some significant changes at Alexa recently — most notably sites that appeal to a more tach-savvy audience are making huge leaps up the rankings. The phenomenon can be seen clearlyacross all major web development sites — from W3Schools.com to W3C.org to SitePoint.com — but also across a long list of sites with more general appeal to tech users, such as Flickr.com, Del.icio.us and Slashdot.org.

Meanwhile sites with no notable ‘tech-skew’ (i.e. CNN.com, EBAY.com, etc) have either held firm or been shuffled backwards by the sites bubbling up around them.

It raises some interesting questions:

  1. Have Alexa changed their statistical algorithms?
  2. Is this a temporary anomoly?
  3. Which sites lost out the worst?

Alexa Rankings

It certainly seems that the Alexa ranking system has undergone a radical shift in it’s demographic in the past 18 months.

Alexa got their first big push in 1998 when they had their toolbar included in the Netscape 4 default install. A year later they pulled off a huge coup by getting it included in Internet Explorer 4.

At the time most users would have just assumed (as I did) that it was simply a part of browser. With a reported install base of around 3 million users (a lot in 1999), this was probably the broadest sample audience Alexa ever had access to.

In 2000 Amazon purchased the company, and at that time Microsoft chose not to included it in their newest browser release – 5.0. Users could still have the bar, but they had to find the site and install it themselves.

This is the point where I think their userbase started to change. More technically-advanced users moved quickly onto IE5.0, and at the same time were becoming more sensitive to terms like ‘spyware’. Alexa’s modus operandi of diligently reporting their surfing habits back to their servers didn’t sit well with their ‘big brother’ fears.

As a consequence, the Alexa userbase seemed to take a skew towards a less tech-savvy user, users who felt they got real value of the tools Alexa provided (‘What’s Related’ links and the Search tools in particular). In essence, while AOL users might well use the toolbar, Slashdot users wouldn’t have dreamed of it, and that was reflected in their relative rankings.

That’s where the situation stood well into 2004, until Firefox started getting some serious traction — particularly at the ‘pointier end’ of the tech audience. Although those guys never ‘dug the spying thing’, many web geeks still attached some value to the pure ranking figure. Sure, it wasn’t all that accurate, but it was better than anything else available and so became one of the key metrics used when buying and selling web sites.

It’s a case of ‘if enough people believe something has value, it actually does‘.

And what was the easiest way to keep an eye on those Alexa rankings? Why, extensions such as ‘SearchStatus‘ that provides real-time Google PR, Alexa Ranking and many other useful metrics to site users, owners and developers in a handy status bar format.

However, the easy bit to forget is that when the toolbar tells you a site’s Alexa rank, it had to first tell Alexa’s servers where you were at that moment. In other words, you became part of Alexa’s statistical pool.

This has signalled a major shift in Alexa’s demographic, and would seem to explain much of the reported growth across this section of sites. As Alexa’s newbie userbase has gradually decayed, tech users now represent a very statistically significant percentage of Alexa’s grunt.

It’s also worth noting that although Apple’s audience might be considered relatively tech-savvy, their preference for Safari rather than Firefox (and it’s Alexa powering extensions) seems to have insulated Apple-related sites from this constant rise — including the recent spike.

This is, of course, all just my personal speculation and I have no extra access to Alexa’s internal methods and data.

It also doesn’t explain the spike.

Could it be…

  • A change in ranking methodology?
  • An enforced upgrade of either Firefox or an extension that made new data available?
  • Alexa deliberately excluding some sites for the ranking?

Those are my best attempts, but maybe you have some other ideas?