Since website traffic is private information, Alexa invented an alternative method for ranking websites. Their “Sparky” plugin/toolbar for popular web browsers transmits all of the websites visited by users to Alexa’s server. Alexa then analyzes that traffic data and is able to estimate the popularity of websites.
Why would anybody take the trouble to install this plugin? Because it shows you the rank of each website that you visit. So, you get something in exchange for the data that you send to Alexa.
For example, if you use Firefox, the Alexa ranking of every website that you visit is shown in the lower-right corner of your browser window. That enables you to quickly judge the popularity of the website. If you operate a website, you can quickly see how you stack-up against your competitors just by going to their sites and looking at their ranks. So, if you strive to build traffic on your site, you definitely want to have the plugin installed.
You can quickly keep track of your Alexa rank, and those of your competitors with my Rank-O-Matic app.
Alexa is an excellent service, but it’s not perfect. For one thing, Alexa rankings are likely biased toward technical websites. Consider two websites with equal traffic: one dedicated to knitting, and one dedicated to SEO. Which one do you think will have a higher Alexa ranking? The SEO website, right? Its audience of webmasters will all have the Alexa plugin installed because they are constantly trying to boost their traffic.
Since your Alexa rank is relative to other websites, it is possible for your rank to be going down while your traffic is actually going up. One of the scenarios where this can happen is during the Christmas shopping season. There you are, working away, building your traffic, and all of sudden dozens of shopping websites are soaring past you. So, while your absolute rank is important, how you rank relative to your competitors is more important to judge your traffic-building efforts.
The more popular a website is, the lower its Alexa rank will be. For example, at the time of this writing, Google’s rank was #1, and Facebook’s was #2. But notice that the Alexa rank doesn’t tell us how much space there is between the two. Are Google and Facebook neck-and-neck in a horse race? Or does Google get ten times as much traffic? We can’t tell from looking at the Alexa rank.
A very low rank would be something like 16 million. When you see a site ranking that low, it probably has almost no visitors – not even the webmaster! And the rankings of such websites will bounce around a lot because Alexa has very little data to work with.
A site ranked 16 million might “jump” to 15.5 million the next day, but that might only mean that it got one more visitor than usual. There is a vast sea of low-traffic sites, so large jumps are not an accomplishment.
However, among the top sites, even moving up one notch likely represents a huge increase in traffic. For example, in November 2011, Amazon.com (which owns Alexa), moved up from #14 to #11, no doubt due to a tidal wave of Christmas shoppers.
Improve Your Alexa Rank
One way to boost your Alexa rank is to simply urge your audience to install the plugin. While that won’t affect your real traffic, it might make you feel better, and intimidate your competition!
Another way is to install a discussion forum. Even a small number of frequent participants can push up your Alexa rank.
If you have a blog site, check your RSS feed settings. If readers can read entire posts with their RSS-reader program, then they never have to come to your website, and Alexa thinks that you are less popular than you really are. If you set your RSS feed to only send out the first paragraph of each post, people will have to click through to your website and your rank should improve. If you use WordPress, go into your “Reading” settings, and choose “Summary” for the setting labeled: “For each article in a feed, show”.
There are apps out there that claim to boost your Alexa rank by machine-gunning traffic at your site through numerous proxy services. I’ve never tried one of them, but I did once see a website jump from about 800,000 to 32,000 in one day. So, that had to be something fishy.