Measuring Web Traffic and the Pitfalls of Web Rankings

By: Netbooster Asia, Inc.  02/05/2008

Measuring web traffic and the pitfalls of web rankings  By Erwin Oliva, Leo Magno INQUIRER.net First Posted 11:01pm (Mla time) 12/17/2007 MANILA, Philippines -- As with most processes on the Internet, web traffic measurement is evolving. If not scrutinized, web rankings may end up confusing or misleading users rather than enlightening them. During the early years of the Internet, site owners installed “hit” counters to give people an idea of the amount of traffic flowing into their websites. A hit is generated whenever a file on a webpage is served. It is basically a request for a file from a web server. There are also “page views” which are measured when an entire page within a website is summoned from the server. It is a request for a file whose type is defined as a “page” in web analytics parlance. A single webpage could contain numerous hits. In the same vein, a visitor can call up numerous page views from the same website. As website publishers, advertisers and marketers began looking closely at the web as a business, measuring web traffic became a sport, one that could be confusing or even misleading for the reader. “The promise (and problems) of web measurement have been around since the web’s inception, but only now are large advertisers and marketers truly betting the farm on the medium and moving millions of dollars away from traditional media such as TV and newspapers. Measurement numbers are used by website publishers to sell ads, by ad agencies to satisfy clients, and by third-party measurement firms who package those numbers into high-priced reports," wrote media critic and journalist Mark Glaser in a Mediashift article. Web analytics Filipino search engine marketing experts agree that there is no single, reliable platform that could measure web traffic accurately. In most cases, figures generated are mere “guesstimates” of the real activity within a website. “I don’t think there is anything out there right now that can be a reliable source for measuring the traffic of any website that you don’t own and control. Unless you have access to the web analytics platform being used by a website, you would not be able to properly measure its traffic,” said Jonathan Casuncad, search engine marketing manager at Netbooster Asia. Netbooster Asia, which is part of the Netbooster Group, is a Philippine Internet marketing agency that has achieved both Google AdWords Qualified Company and Yahoo Search Marketing Ambassador status, according to Casuncad. Third-party web-based tools such as Quancast and Alexa, however, have been utilized by companies to give people an idea of how much traffic a website generates. Casuncad considered Quancast as “probably the most technically sound third-party platform out there today in terms of measuring a website’s performance mainly because they ask the participation of the websites that want their traffic and content measured.” But without access to a website’s information and direct cooperation of the website owners, Casuncad said there is no reliable way for any third-party body to measure online traffic and website performance “at a level of relevance and accuracy that would be good enough to base business decisions on.” Benj Arriola, another Filipino search engine optimization marketing specialist, said there are web-based tools like Compete.com that produce “some sort of web ranking but does not require any tracking code on your site.” But like Casuncad, Arriola stressed that Quancast and Compete are not very reliable. He said paid and free web analytics will likely do a better job in measuring website traffic since they require installed tracking codes. One of the more popular and free “page tagging” web analytics tool is Google Analytics, which require website owners to post codes on webpages for the purpose of tracking traffic. Another way of measuring web traffic is looking at unique visitors, which is often determined through the user’s IP address. Arriola, however, said that measuring unique visitors is also not fool-proof. “Within big corporations on large wireless networks, different people could be running on the same external IP, thus multiple people might be visiting a page but it is recorded as a unique hit, thus it is not reliable for multiple visitors using the same IP,” he said. All these tools and methods are still unreliable, Arriola said. Alexa and reliability issues One of the more popular web tracking tools is Alexa, which started surging in terms of usage as early as the 1990s. Casuncad said Alexa today is “no longer as relevant as it was in the ‘90s when it comes to representing Internet surfing behavior.” “Since Alexa can only track data on users who have the Alexa toolbar installed on their browsers, the data that it can show may be skewed and could not be an accurate reflection of how the majority of online users surf the website,” he said. Arriola said Alexa’s numbers are not reliable at all. But it could serve as a “very rough trending tool of comparison.” SEO experts unanimously agree that Alexa rankings could easily be manipulated. “The Alexa ranking is mainly based on the traffic hits it gets from people visiting a site that has the Alexa toolbar installed. A simple manipulation could be to install the toolbar and keep visiting a single site that you want to have an increased Alexa ranking. Now, in the blackhat point of view, this can go even higher using scripting tools that will automate the whole process,” Arriola said. Casuncad said that if a website owner has a significant number of people download and install the Alexa toolbar and require the same people to visit the website constantly, the website’s Alexa ranking would soon increase. His experience tells him that doing this consistently would produce results in three months. A web publisher could then publicly claim that it is ahead of its competitors, when in fact that same data and ranking could have been artificially inflated by its own employees, similar to hiring dozens of monkeys who do nothing all day but click on the refresh button to boost their ranking. An article in Businessweek makes a good point about Alexa: “Web outfits seem to agree that Alexa is flawed, but they continue to rely on it because the data are so addictive. Since Alexa’s numbers are free and available online, they can easily be plugged into a PowerPoint presentation or onto a blog, providing a quick-and-dirty way to get a competitive snapshot. Blogs cite Alexa as gospel, and its graphs are part of nearly every startup’s pitch to investors.” Evolving metrics and SEOs In article from Seattlepi.com, Internet giant Yahoo!’s decision to use Ajax to create “flashier” and easy-to-use web-based services affected its page views, a yardstick for the Internet giant to measure web traffic. “Experts say the stubborn attachment to page views may also be keeping some sites from improving their usability,” the article said. Arriola, for his part, said that measurement of web activity has become more specific. SEO companies do not only look at rankings and the number of page views and visitors, but also check so-called “key performance indicators,” or KPIs. “KPIs can be as unique as a client wants it to be. It can be number of conversions. A conversion may be a sale, a lead, a subscription, or downloading a form. People who have hits and views as KPIs are more interested in branding. Those that have conversions as KPIs are more interested in ROI,” he said. SEO has also emerged as a new way of boosting web traffic, as this new breed of web experts use every means to land websites on top of a search engine result page. SEO experts are now being hired to help increase a website’s page rank in different search engines like Google and Yahoo! With more people using search engines like Google and Yahoo! to surf the web, search engine optimization experts use various keyword techniques to boost the ranking of a website in a search. “I believe that search engines are still the best and biggest source of targeted, first time (unique) visitors. Since search is the second most popular activity online (first is email), it is a most valuable source of high-quality traffic. If you target the right set of keywords, you can dramatically increase your website’s unique visitors,” said Casuncad. Reference: Inquirer.net http://newsinfo.inquirer.net/breakingnews/infotech/view_article.php?article_id=107210