Steve Martin

Designer, Thinker, Student of Human Behavior

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Thoughts on SEO: Alexa sucks

I was recently at a networking event here in town where I had the pleasure to meet the owner of another local web design company.  Really nice lady, great website, etc.  However, the first words out of her mouth (after "Hi, my name is...") were, "So, what's your Alexa rank?""Ummm... well..." I said. "I don't know." "What? You don't know?! That's amazing - how can you not know?  You're a web designer!"

So, dear reader, this is why I don't know: I DON'T CARE. "But Steve" you say, "Why don't you care?! Everybody tells me I SHOULD care! It's essential to SEO!!"

So, let me explain...

Many moons ago, when the internet was young, and Google searches still had 5 or less "o's" in the page list, there arose this thing called "Search Engine Optimization".  The idea was that you could tweak things on a website (keywords, title tags, headings, bold text, etc) and, by so doing, you could increase your site's ranking for those specific keywords.  Then Google said, "Hold on - just 'cause your site's optimized doesn't mean it's actually good content!  We're going to start checking on who links to your site, and consider that as a vote for your site." Thus arose a whole cottage industry of shady SEO companies who engaged in link farms and link spamming (or "spamdexing").  Essentially, they set up a bunch of dummy/copied sites to either link to each other link to a single site, or they bought and sold links to artificially increase the number of inbound links, thus increasing the number of "votes" as far as Google was concerned.  And, as you've already guessed, Google changed tactics to make it harder and harder for that kind of "SEO" to work. They even went so far as to ban companies and websites which used such tactics.

Google did all this, why?  To give you, the user, the absolute best and most relevant search results computerly possible.  They keep their algorithms super secret so nobody knows exactly how it's done, but we've all experienced it -  you search for something and the site you get it THE site you were looking for.  Keep in mind, Google works hard - VERY hard - to keep those search results based on quality of content, not quality of SEO, and they're constantly shutting down ways for SEOers to artificially increase the rank of websites.  So, at the end of the day, you get the right result.  So, we find ourselves in 2009, and Google is THE search engine on the planet.  Sure, there are others (Yahoo!, Bing (whatever kind of joke that is), Alexa, etc), but the one to pay attention to is Google - we all know that.  It's become the stinking VERB for web searches, for goodness sake!!

Which brings me back to Alexa...

Guess how Alexa ranks sites. Do they independently index websites? Nope. Do they check for relevancy of content? Nein. It's pretty much one thing: the Alexa toolbar.  What? You've never heard of the Alexa Toolbar? You've never installed it, either? Well, welcome to the rest of the world.  The only way Alexa ranks your site is by tracking people who have their toolbar installed and running when they visit a site.  Then, and only then, Alexa looks at the site, takes a pretty little screenshot of the site, and does some cursory checks on inbound links, etc.  Your rank increases based on nothing but the number of people WITH THE TOOLBAR who visit your site.  This would be fine if Alexa had pretty good penetration, but of the (estimated) 1,596,270,108 internet users worldwide, there have been a measly 10 million downloads of the toolbar since 1996.  And Alexa isn't saying how many people actually USE the toolbar.  So, it's based on 0.63% (at the most) of internet users in the world.  Wow.

So, "What's your Alexa rank." I don't care, nor should you.  Alexa's ranking is based on hardly any relevant data, and doesn't have anything to do with quality or real world results.  (And don't get me started on how easy it is to fake out Alexa). Let's ask the question that really matters here: "What does Google have to say about your site?"  And the other question, "How much organic traffic am I getting to my site?"

I'll save those for Part 2.  For now, don't stress about Alexa, just focus on making your site a nicer place to be.