Alexa ranking is an often misunderstood, but incredibly useful tool.
Owned by Amazon, Alexa.com (not to be confused with the Alexa device) was the first free traffic rank service. In 2019 it’s still a relevant and valuable tool that delivers a variety of web analytics.
In this article, you’ll learn seven important ways to use its most important metric, traffic rankings. And why the conclusions from these daily-use strategies are not only safe to act upon, they’re valuable and will help you grow your online business.
A mountain of misinformation exists about Alexa. Why? Partly because it’s the oldest (1996) and the most widely used tool of its kind. Early reviewers correctly mentioned problems but missed the fact that those problems did not invalidate Alexa’s usefulness.
Subsequent reviews spread the misinformation. The result? Alexa is the most widely misunderstood tool on the Web. Using it properly gives you an edge over your competition — a key success factor in business.
This comprehensive review helps set the Alexa record straight. It covers Alexa from the ground up, and includes coverage of the best two complementary tools, SimilarWeb and SEMrush. It’s based on comparing the Alexa traffic rank with actual site traffic stats for thousands of sites over 15+ years.
You’ll learn how to use it, when to combine Alexa scores with results from SimilarWeb and SEMrush — and when not to use it at all.
What Is Alexa Ranking?
Alexa site ranking results are derived from a sampling of tens of millions of Internet users. Every sampling method has its strengths and weaknesses. The biggest example of that:
TV networks spend billions of advertising dollars based upon reports from the Nielsen survey of TV habits of a mere 40,000 households. They do so despite the fact that the survey is riddled with flaws, not least of which is its small sample size. They understand the issues and can still extract a great deal of valuable information.
Serious TV executives recognize the flaws and understand which data becomes invaluable, actionable information. So it is with Alexa.
Complaints that “Alexa is useless” or “too inaccurate to be useful” start with how Alexa first worked. Its data came from tracking users who implemented its browser toolbar. This limitation led to biased results in niches where webmasters were more likely to install the toolbar (e.g., tech-savvy users, Internet marketers, etc.).
The complaints were not fake reviews, but they are no longer accurate. Alexa has corrected that bias. Today, its methodology reflects a wide, representative sampling of online traffic.
To use Alexa, click here and in the box at the top of the page enter any domain name. Click “Run Analysis.”
Alexa returns where that domain name ranks out of the ~20,000,000 sites that it tracks.
For example, as of the date of this article (September 2019), SiteSell.com is the 23,992nd most visited site in the world (and 11,868th in the U.S.).
Google’s rank is 1 — the most visited site. 20,000,000 is the worst numeric score possible.
Beyond that, you’ll get a “not enough traffic data” message, which means that Alexa has no record of traffic to that site.
Important: Alexa delivers a site’s position relative to other sites. It does not deliver a visitor count. And that’s fine — relative ranking is all that you really need for the common purposes (covered below) that deliver most of its value.
While Alexa is useful on its own, you’ll have a more reliable fix on a site’s popularity when you combine it with other tools.
SEMrush data is based on the first 100 Google search results found for each keyword in its database. It delivers a good idea of a site’s traffic from searches.
SimilarWeb gathers data from its crawl of the Internet, Internet service providers (ISPs), and click-stream data of tens of millions of users who have installed SimilarWeb’s apps. The ISP data adds diversification, further reducing the risk of bias.
There are no reported issues of significant data bias in these tools.
Because all three tools get their data from different sources (although some overlap between Alexa and SimilarWeb is likely), using them together provides a more accurate result.
The Alexa Overhaul
In 2008, Amazon overhauled Alexa. They began pulling in more data from a wider and diversified base of users — 25,000 different browser extensions, browser toolbars and plugins. These changes corrected much of the earlier bias, as evidenced by immediate changes in the ranking of many sites.
Alexa now “sources data from a large number of third-party providers, representing a significant sample of the Internet browsing population.” It compares the data from a variety of sources to detect, normalize, and correct for bias that exists in any individual source.
Site engagement is now also a contributing factor to ranking.
Is Alexa Ranking Accurate?
Most recent reviews of Alexa quote no hard, original research. Most aggregate information from earlier reviews (which were based on even earlier ones 😃). Naturally, they come to the same conclusions.
Alexa has had a hard time shaking the 1990s and 2000s, despite the fact that the original issues were corrected in 2008. Most reviews don’t mention the diversification of data sources or the use of site engagement.
Google ranks “authoritative” articles highly. It depends on visitor-generated signals to determine “authority” (e.g., inbound links and hundreds of other off-page/off-site signals). But that only works until humans fail to recognize that a report is wrong or out-of-date. So the older, cited articles continue to rank well, together with some well-received new ones.
Anecdote vs. Data
We’ve studied more “actual site traffic vs. Alexa traffic rank” than any company (except for Alexa itself). This article is a result. Our studies show, among other things, that:
- there’s a definite correlation of traffic with Alexa score
- the higher the traffic, the more reliable is the ranking
- there’s increasing “scatter” (unreliability) as traffic decreases
Scatter tightens as Alexa traffic rankings improve from 2,000,000 to 1,000,000 to 500,000 and so forth. Your site could jump from 10,000,000 to 5,000,000 just by adding a few visits per day. But your site would need to increase by tens of thousands of visitors per day to rise from 100,000 to 50,000.
So what can you learn from Alexa traffic rankings, that will help you promote your website?
Think “ballpark.” Anyone who understands Alexa will not say “Wow” about a site with an Alexa ranking of either 5 million or 10 million. In terms of how much traffic they get, both are in the “Poor” ballpark. We’ll cover the six ballparks below.
Indirect methods use a large sampling of Internet users. This is the only way to get reasonable traffic estimates of sites that you do not control.
Alexa, SimilarWeb, and SEMrush are valuable tools that provide “good enough” traffic estimates for any site.
You can’t use Google Analytics to get data about other sites. There are paid tools that provide better data, but they cost more than solopreneurs can afford. And they wouldn’t need those tools at all if they knew how to use Alexa, SimilarWeb and SEMrush.
Remember, these three are all indirect, so are suitable for ballpark estimates when comparing within a niche. And use Google Analytics to get this data for your own site.
7 Ways to Use Alexa Rankings to Grow Your Business
Alexa has always been a simple and valid way to measure the popularity of a site. Here are seven ways you can use it for your online business:
1. Comparing Alexa ranking of sites in the same niche
Alexa’s most useful function is to compare your website with another one in your niche — or to get a fix on where you stand within the market.
Comparing the competition not only gives you ideas on what’s working in your niche but gives you a goal to work towards.
2. Checking to see if a site’s traffic is rising or falling (and how that compares to your site)
When your site is losing traffic, the first reaction is usually panic. After that, you start looking at why. It’s useful to look at the performance of other websites in your market.
If they’re also losing rankings, that’s a clue that something bigger is affecting your niche. It could be a Google algorithm update, a seasonal change in demand, or changing trends.
If you’re losing rank and your competitors are gaining, what are they doing differently?
3. Getting a “quick fix” estimate on any site
There are all kinds of reasons you might want a quick estimate of how well a website is performing. It could be to assess the traffic potential of a new online business idea or simple curiosity.
4. Evaluating a site’s commercial potential
Growing your online business means you will start to receive a lot of requests from potential collaborators. For example, blogs asking you to guest-post, sponsorship requests, or joint ventures in promoting a product.
Alexa ranking gives you a “big picture” test of reasonableness for a single site. A marketer with something to sell (e.g., ad space on his site) might claim that he gets 10,000 visitors per day.
When you find a ranking of 5,000,000 at Alexa for that site, you can be 99.9% sure he’s lying. With a single, free check, Alexa has saved you time, money and the usual ugly ending when dealing with a liar!
5. Seeking potential influencers to build relationships
When you’re looking for businesses that you could collaborate with, Alexa ranking helps you evaluate which ones have potential.
You’re seeking high-traffic sites, meaning the Alexa ranking is more reliable. As you use Alexa more and more, you’ll develop a strong frame of reference for what’s outstanding traffic in your niche vs. “not worth pursuing.”
6. Finding potential super-affiliates
If you have an affiliate marketing program, finding those high-volume marketers can give your sales a huge boost. But you have to make sure they can deliver before you offer preferential commissions or other perks.
Use Alexa, SimilarWeb, and SEMrush to maximize reliability and to determine how much traffic is organic search (which is generally higher quality).
Once there’s a deal to be made, you’ll want to take considerably more time to insist on seeing Google Analytics proof. But no doubt about it, Alexa definitely has its place in your toolbox when screening sites for potential opportunities.
7. Verifying claims of success
No matter what niche you’re in, Alexa is invaluable when you’re trying to figure out who’s delivering the goods.
Go to Wix.com and review their success stories. The first two we checked had Alexa rankings of 8,000,000 and 13,000,000. That’s “success”?
Compare those to the 500 SBI! businesses in the Top 1,000,000 at Alexa.
You can read more about these results in our in-depth review of Wix.
The definition of success should not be “putting up a stunning website,” with the implication that business success follows automatically. It’s about building income and equity.
Since most individual website owners don’t make their income public, the best evidence of success for the majority of online businesses is traffic.
You can’t earn if you don’t have visitors.
The 6 Ballparks — How Best to Use Alexa
I use Alexa’s tool many times each day, as a first-pass check to see how popular sites are doing (ballpark!) and whether they’re growing or contracting.
I also use it to check claims, assess potential influencers, or satisfy my curiosity. It provides “good enough” ballpark estimates.
Most of the time, all I want to know is which of 6 ballparks a site’s traffic falls into:
- Outstanding (100,000 or less)
- Excellent (100,001 – 1,000,000)
- Pretty good (1,000,001 to 2,500,000)
- Medium (2,500,001 to 5,000,000)
- Poor (5,000,001 to 20,000,000)
- Invisible (“Not enough traffic data”)
Note 1: Few solopreneurs make it into the top ballpark (1-100,000). Almost all “Outstanding” Alexa rankings come from mid-sized to large businesses. At the other end of the spectrum, almost 100% of the “Invisible” ballpark is solopreneurs.
Note 2: “Not enough traffic data” means that Alexa’s massive panel of toolbars, extensions, pixel installs and third-party sources has 0 data points for a site. Basically, it’s “Invisible.”
Note 3: The ballparks are snapshots, not judgments. Consider these ranges in light of your circumstances and especially in light of your site’s actual traffic. For example:
- If you just finished writing the home page of a brand new site, “Invisible” is normal.
- If your site is young and growing, an Alexa rank of 10,000,000 may be excellent for you.
- If you have a mature site with 30 pages and a rank of 5,000,000, that can be excellent if you have a high-dollar monetization model (e.g., selling Hollywood homes).
When you need granularity (including traffic stated in terms of the number of visitors) or certainty (e.g., when it’s especially important or when the Alexa score seems off), consult SEMrush and SimilarWeb.
Alexa Ranking Is Great for Influencer Marketing
It’s easy to check engagement numbers to determine the social power of potential influencers. Even more than social media success, site traffic is an important consideration in assessing both influencers and super-affiliates.
Suppose you have an online business based on mathematics.
And let’s say that you have identified math-only-math.com (an actual SBI! business) as a candidate for a potential joint venture to sell your math courses.
Start at Alexa, where you find a traffic ranking of 30,465 (and 4,379 in India!). That’s Outstanding (the highest of our six ballparks). Few solopreneurs reach that level. You can be confident that it’s a high-traffic site.
However, you’ll be investing some time to develop a relationship, so you want to be sure of your numbers. The following two extra measurements will nail down a good estimate of site traffic:
SEMrush reveals both paid and organic (free search) traffic.
For example, SEMrush reveals the traffic of math-only-math.com at 200,000, huge for a solopreneur. It’s high for a mid-sized company! (Note also that the owner does not pay for any traffic.)
A high organic count corroborates the Alexa finding — it was not a fluke. If you had found a high Alexa count but a low SEMrush outcome, you would definitely proceed to the final test…
SimilarWeb confirms Alexa’s high traffic estimate (ranking of 52,505, with 1M visitors per month). We don’t really care if it’s 30K or 53K — both are Outstanding (well within 100,000).
His SimilarWeb ranking for India confirms the Alexa score. So his site is a top site in India.
Checking social media? Even though the Facebook presence is weak (@mathonlymath) and Twitter is private (@ghosh0), this is a solopreneur you would want on your side.
From here, you would reach out and discuss ways to create a mutually beneficial partnership. For example:
- Advertising on his website.
- Creating an affiliate relationship.
- Guest posting on his blog.
Alexa traffic rankings help you find potential partners to help grow your business — and determine whether an opportunity is worth your time and effort, and can help you make money from your blog or online business.
When Not to Use Alexa Ranking
There’s really only one time not to use Alexa. That’s for your own site. Here’s why…
Direct measures such as Google Analytics are exact.
So, do not use Alexa to measure your own traffic.
We have seen countless posts in various online marketing forums worrying about a low (or deteriorating) Alexa score, or rejoicing over an improvement. Why do folks worry about Alexa as it relates to their own sites? Some reasons:
- They fail to understand the concept.
- They understand the concept, but are embarrassed by the public availability of the Alexa ranking (especially if it falsely shows a result that’s worse than reality).
- They use the Alexa ranking to show off how much traffic their site has — rankings can be an ego boost.
- They used a falsely high Alexa score to fool someone into buying ad space on the site or buying a product.
The Bottom Line on Using Alexa Ranking
It’s simple, and short:
Alexa is a good way to assess traffic of the sites of others…
Speaking of traffic — don’t forget to download our checklist with the 23 best tactics to grow your website traffic for free.