Alexa, Valuable Tool or Technical Stalker?

Alexa.comI have been looking into the Alexa.com, an Amazon.com company, lately. Alexa is a tool that reports on traffic to a site. To effectively get results from Alexa, a visitor has to download the toolbar, to be considered a hit. If the toolbar is not installed the visitor is not counted. 

From the Alexa site on how computes traffic rank:

The traffic rank is based on three months of aggregated historical traffic data from millions of Alexa Toolbar users and is a combined measure of page views and users (reach). As a first step, Alexa computes the reach and number of page views for all sites on the Web on a daily basis. The main Alexa traffic rank is based on the geometric mean of these two quantities averaged over time (so that the rank of a site reflects both the number of users who visit that site as well as the number of pages on the site viewed by those users).

In the quote above, emphasis is mine. So my understanding, if a visitor does not have the appropriate toolbar installed, they will not be counted as a visitor.

David Airey has a post How I improved my Alexa rank, where he discusses the steps he took to raise his Alexa ranking. One of the biggest steps he took was installing the toolbar or search status extension. The problem as I outlined before in Blog Grade is Not Just One Thing is as follows:

Consider the following scenario. Two Blogs – blog one has 250 unique visitors a day, blog two has 1,000 unique visitors a day. Now of the 250 visitors from blog one, let’s say that 200 have the Alexa toolbar installed. Of the 1,000 visitors for blog two, only 150 visitors have the Alexa toolbar installed. My understanding of my scenario is that blog one will actually have a higher Alexa rating than blog two.

Maki at Dosh Dosh, writes tips for improving Alexa rank. In his post he discusses the problem he sees with Alexa is it is heavily skewed towards websites that have a large webmaster / tech audience. This group will be more familiar with these types of tools, and more willing to install them.

With this toolbar, Alexa is able to track the sites that you view. In fact in will not only track which sites you view, it will track and store the form information you fill out on websites. From the Alexa privacy policy

ALEXA’S TOOLBAR SERVICE COLLECTS AND STORES INFORMATION ABOUT THE WEB PAGES YOU VIEW, THE DATA YOU ENTER IN ONLINE FORMS AND SEARCH FIELDS, AND, WITH VERSIONS 5.0 AND HIGHER, THE PRODUCTS YOU PURCHASE ONLINE WHILE USING THE TOOLBAR SERVICE. ALTHOUGH ALEXA DOES NOT ATTEMPT TO ANALYZE WEB USAGE DATA TO DETERMINE THE IDENTITY OF ANY ALEXA USER, SOME INFORMATION COLLECTED BY THE TOOLBAR SERVICE IS PERSONALLY IDENTIFIABLE. ALEXA AGGREGATES AND ANALYZES THE INFORMATION IT COLLECTS TO IMPROVE ITS SERVICE AND TO PREPARE REPORTS ABOUT AGGREGATE WEB USAGE AND SHOPPING HABITS.

IN ADDITION, WHEN YOU PERFORM SEARCHES USING THE SEARCH FUNCTION AVAILABLE ON ALEXA’S TOOLBAR SERVICE SOFTWARE VERSION 6.5 AND HIGHER OR ON THE ALEXA WEBSITE, YOU OFTEN WILL BE TAKEN TO A WEBSITE DETAIL PAGE AT AMAZON.COM. IF YOU HAVE AN ACCOUNT ON AMAZON.COM AND AN AMAZON.COM COOKIE ENABLED, YOUR SEARCH RESULTS WILL BE TRANSMITTED TO AND LOGGED BY AMAZON.COM AND MAY BE CORRELATED BY AMAZON.COM WITH ANY PERSONALLY IDENTIFIABLE INFORMATION YOU MAY HAVE PREVIOUSLY PROVIDED TO AMAZON.COM.

In the quote above, emphasis is mine. The privacy policy states Alexa will collect and store web pages browsed, the data you enter in online forms and search fields, and the products you purchase online. If you have version 6.5 of the toolbar loaded, and search using the Alexa’s toolbar, you will be redirected to Amazon.com so they can collect and store your information also. Personally I do not find that acceptable. I installed the Alexa toolbar on my Firefox browser, that I use as my secondary browser.

I have wondered how these companies, with unknown business models, provide services and generate revenue. One method could be by collecting and storing all your personal information while you are browsing. Having this information is a powerful tool for marketers. As you complete online forms that content is stored. Correlate your name, age and address with your buying habits, and you find a company that is building value on the backend that could be extremely helpful to marketers.

I now know that I will no longer use Firefox as my primary browser. I don’t want my information on my browsing habits and forms I complete to be available to Alexa. I don’t mind using the tool, but I will use under specific circumstances. I use Google Reader in Firefox, and will read blogs using Firefox, but I will keep my main browser as Internet Explorer.

All this information just leads me to the question, is Alexa a valuable tool to help identify traffic information, or just a technical stalker gaining too much information about your browsing habits. The question is in your court.

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14 Responses to “Alexa, Valuable Tool or Technical Stalker?”

  1. Opal: Vegan Momma Says:

    Great post Thomas I’ll update to include this in my post. I’ve written about this aspect before I really am not comfortable with them keeping track of where I’ve been.

    As you know I’m on a Mac and for quite some time this toolbar wasn’t available to Firfox users however I’ve heard that it is now available for download but I won’t be using it. frankly I’m not comfortable with them keeing track of what I’m doing online.

  2. Updates, Alexa Rankings, and Rantings, Oh My! | Vegan Momma Says:

    […] Thomas wrote Alexa Valuable Tool or Technical Stalker be sure to stop by and post your thoughts on the issue. Do I use the Alexa Toolbar?  No.  […]

  3. Thomas Says:

    Opal – I understand that we all like having metrics, I do too. But when I started to actually read they privacy policy I did not like what I was reading, especially the part about them tracking data in online forms. This could include buying habits, medical information and other very private content.

    Personally I prefer server side monitoring systems. The clients aren’t monitored for their browsing history, a client is tallied when it hits a server with the software installed.

    As I mentioned in my post, if and when I use the Alexa toolbar, it will only be on my secondary browser.

  4. Opal: Vegan Momma Says:

    Oh by the way Thomas you’re story has been Dugg and Stumbled you really should think of adding sociable icons this way people can pass along your valuable info with other social networks. It also makes it easier, lol. It’s a great way to receive traffic. :-)

    http://push.cx/sociable

  5. David Airey :: Graphic Designer Says:

    Thanks very much for the mention, Thomas.

    I think the biggest step I took was writing about it. That way, more of my readers might download the toolbar for themselves, thus tracking their visits to my blog.

    I don’t place any value on Alexa other than how advertising companies such as Text Link Ads use it to rank how much it costs for an ad on my site. Even then, I’m hoping to transfer any minimal advertising I show into personal subscriptions and rule out the middle man.

  6. David Airey :: Graphic Designer Says:

    Can you tell me if there’s a difference between the Search Status extension and the Alexa toolbar? For instance, does the extension track form field entries as the toolbar does?

    One thing I like about the extension is how I can immediately tell if a link is follow or nofollow (with a pink highlight).

  7. Thomas Says:

    Opal – I have added a Digg button, I will look into a StubleUpon button.

    David – Metrics are a tricky thing, you need them to see how your blog is actually doing, but you don’t want some type of overzealous monitoring system that collects too much information.

    The Search Status extension does not state that it collects or stores any information. It does mention that Alexa queries made do affect Alexa statistics. So if your readers use this toolbar, Alexa pagerank will need to be enabled. Using the Search Status extension could be a reasonable solution to receiving rank on Alexa while not having inappropriate content gathered.

  8. David Airey :: Graphic Designer Says:

    Thanks for checking that out. I know what you mean about wanting to see how your blog rates.

    I think that everyone wants to know their rank deep down, even if they don’t admit it. It’s only natural to want to improve on how your doing.

    I’ll be steering clear of the Alexa toolbar anyway, thanks to your insight.

  9. Opal: Vegan Momma Says:

    @David,
    I agree with you on that when I first started paying attention to Alexa and Google a few months ago I was fairly proud of my Alexa until I realized how easily it could be manipulated. I have to admit I was disappointed. These days I judge my traffic and the visitors that turn into regular readers.

    @Thomas!
    Thanks for adding it. :-) I like that one. Which plug in did you use?

  10. Thomas Says:

    David – I agree that we all like to know how are blogs are doing. Having your blog goals clearly defined and then using more than one metric to rate how you are meeting those goals can be important.

    Opal – Initially I was using the Alexa toolbar, but the more I investigated, the less comfortable I was using it. I have now uninstalled the Alexa Toolbar, and will try the Search Status extension. I never installed the Alexa Toolbar on my primary browser, and I am glad that I didn’t.

  11. Jeri Says:

    What a great title! You had me at “technical stalker”. :) The bit about Alexa toolbar use affecting page rank was news to me – definitely a bit sobering.

    I’ve never really watched Alexa – and my traffic rank totally stinks. I think I’d rather remain focused on Technorati as a measure of whether I’m making progress.

  12. Thomas Says:

    Jeri – Glad to hear that I am starting to grab people with my headlines ;) David had a great suggestion, you can use the Search Status extension to achieve higher ranking with Alexa, without having your browsing history or online form data collected and stored.

    Don’t get caught up in just trying to use a single metric to quantify the results of your blog. You need to take a look at multiple metrics to get an overall ‘picture’ of how your blog is doing.

  13. Thomas - Technical Blogger Which is the Bigger Spy, Alexa Toolbar or SearchStatus? « Says:

    […] is the Bigger Spy, Alexa Toolbar or SearchStatus? July 31st, 2007 — Thomas I wrote Alexa, Valuable Tool or Technical Stalker? and the post generated a good discussion that I thought warranted follow […]

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