I’ve had a half dozen bloggers in the last couple of weeks tell me that they’ve been accused of lying about their blog traffic and stats by various PR and brand reps. Each time this happens, I ask what tools the PR folks are using to assess the blogger’s traffic and I always get the same answer: Compete, Alexa, or Quantcast.
Please don’t misunderstand me: the vast majority of marketing, PR, and brand reps utilize excellent tools that provide highly accurate information about blogs, and they also are happy to receive screenshots of Google Analytics or Stat Counter to verify a blogger’s traffic numbers.
But a small number of these reps work with either low budgets and therefore have to rely on free tools, or simply don’t have the experience to know that these sites are highly inaccurate.
And I assure you, it’s not just me saying it.
The SEO Moz team spent some time investigating as well, and they were shocked at how wrong the numbers were for most of these tools, but particularly the highly popular Compete:
For a time, I’d hoped Compete would be a much better competitor to Alexa, but those hopes died a few years back. This chart isn’t just wrong, it’s directionally backward (we grew when they showed us shrinking and shrunk where they show us spiking at year-end) and off by almost two full orders of magnitude (our daily traffic is about 2X what they estimate our monthly traffic to be).
Compete has responded to some of its criticism claiming that what they measure compared to something like what Google Analytics measures is like comparing apples and oranges.
Think of compete numbers as an orange a U.S. based research numbers that help you understand your size and trends against your competition. Local analytics is more like the apple that helps you understand what’s happening on your site so you can improve your visitor’s experience. They’re great supplements to one another in terms of getting a more complete picture of the internet, but are inherently very different in the approach you take to consuming the data sets.
The deal is this: without putting a tracking code on your site like Google Analytics does Compete has absolutely no way to track your actual traffic. None. To top it off, Compete doesn’t even offer such a code I called them directly and asked; I know if people are using Compete to look at my site, I want it to have accurate information, even if my traffic is fairly modest.
Quantcast is somewhat better, and does offer code you can install on your site. However, according to Social Media Biz, without that tracking code the information is totally wrong.
As with some of the other services, the traffic data is estimated and is nowhere near accurate on the sites for which Quantcast had any data. Data was off by as much as 10 times the actual analytics data for some of the sites.
Alexa’s features are different, but the results are still the same. Social Media Biz has this to say about Alexa:
We want to keep this all anonymous but let’s just say one site that we know gets 10-20,000 visits per month had an Alexa rank that was more than five times better than a site that we know gets 75,000+ visitors per month. And this was not just a one-off event. So I have to seriously question the reliability of this tool. It didn’t seem to be too bad at predicting the trends for a single site but the charts are extremely difficult to make any real use of. Interestingly it seems to be skewed in favor of sites within the search marketing space. Sites in the search marketing space that we looked at regularly outranked sites receiving more than 10 times as much traffic on a monthly basis.
Interestingly, SEO Moz a site dedicated to search marketing didn’t have great results either:
Historically, Alexa showed a much longer timespan and much more inaccurate data, at one point estimating that our traffic had dropped year-over-year since 2009. I’ve had well respected VC funds reach out and ask why we were struggling and whether we felt the SEO market was drying up because of those charts… Now, Alexa’s ranking us as the 472nd most popular site in the world, which is definitely way, way off.
Interestingly, the Social Media Biz article mentioned a site I was unfamiliar with SEMrush. On SEMrush, the numbers for my blog were not too far off, about 75% of my actual numbers. So it might be the best of the free bunch (there is a pro level available, of course, like there is with Compete).
Overall, these sites each have one major strength; the ability to track trends overall, if you toss out the actual numbers.