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Alexa: Searching Serendipity And More

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Alexa: Searching Serendipity And More

From The Search Engine Report
Jan. 9, 1998

I've been meaning to write about Alexa for some time. Numerous people had messaged me raving about how wonderful it was, and I finally found time to install it during December. Now you can add me to its many fans.After installing Alexa, it appears as a small toolbar that floats over your browser. There are two main areas, "Where You Are" and "Where To Go Next."

The Where You Are menu provides a wealth of data. When you connect to a web site, Alexa displays key information about that site within the menu, and you can drill down to get even more information. All of it is incredibly useful.

Alexa immediately displays who owns the site and how well it is rated, in terms of overall traffic. The ownership information is pulled from InterNIC records, so only .com, .org, .edu and .net sites are reported. Efforts are being made to expand this to international registries. Traffic data is determined by analyzing requests found from key Internet caches.

The traffic data alone makes this a gem for any web marketer. People are dying for decent figures about how popular different web sites are. Alexa can give you a traffic estimate for all sorts of web sites, big and small. When building reciprocal links, it's a perfect tool to sort out which sites are particularly important.

Click next to the window, you're shown even more information in a drop down box. The site ownership data is expanded, to provide a street address and phone number, if listed. You're also shown how Alexa users have voted for the site, plus a Yahoo Internet Life review rating and a RSAC rating, if either is available.

Voting is somewhat helpful. If you like a site, you vote for it. Don't like it? Vote against. Alexa records the votes and shows them to all users. You can vote once per site. This doesn't seem to be the most popular feature, since most sites have only a small number of votes, either way. But as a general guide, it's interesting to see.

Click in the drop down box, and Alexa really shines. You're taken to an expanded page of data collected about the site, complete with helpful explanations. This includes information on site freshness and responsiveness, which Alexa determines when it spiders the site.

To see this page without Alexa, simply enter:

http://widener.alexa.com/sitedata/SITE

where you replace SITE with the web address of the site. Don't include the http://, and keep in mind that at the moment, sites may be listed with or without www. Be sure to check both. For example, Yahoo has two pages:

http://widener.alexa.com/sitedata/www.yahoo.com/
http://widener.alexa.com/sitedata/yahoo.com/

All this information can really help you determine the quality of a web site, something useful when anyone can put up an attractive site yet not be so attractive behind the scenes.

To illustrate this, Alexa CEO and co-founder Brewster Kahle, used a search engine to display some travel sites. Clicking through to one site, there were pitches for low airfares. The Alexa data showed the site as belonging to an individual with a PO Box, and Alexa voters overwhelmingly did not like it. That information can be helpful in deciding whether to do business with an online merchant.

Alexa wants to increase partnerships such as those announced last month with Yahoo Internet Life and VeriSign to greatly increase the amount of data displayed on the site information pages. He sees this compilation of trustworthy data as crucial in helping users go forth on to the web with confidence.

"As the number of sites escalates, I think its going to get harder and harder to know, "Is this someplace I want to be," Kahle said. "If we don't have a good way to answer that for people, they'll stick with only a few sites."

Alexa's also a tool of discovery. Its "Where To Go Next." window displays links that it thinks are related to the page you are visiting. I found it to be consistently on target.

The links that appear come out of Alexa watching how people move between sites. It analyzes the relationship to determine appropriate related links. Some human assistance is also involved.

You can add to this list, but the process of "one way" and "two way" linking is somewhat confusing. Alexa hopes to make this easier in the future.

Alexa emerged from the Internet Archive project, an effort to crawl the web to preserve past pages. "Snapshots" of the web are taken every few months, and one of the toolbar options provides the ability to tap the archive and retrieve old or missing web pages.

For example, if you visit Excite and click on the archive button, you can see the home page from several months ago. Those without Alexa can do this for any page by entering:

http://widener.alexa.com/http/SITE/80/_ia_index.html

Replace SITE with the address you are looking for, without http://. For Excite, it would be:

http://widener.alexa.com/http/www.excite.com/80/_ia_index.html

Alexa also offers the ability to search the Encyclopedia Britannica Online, though this may change to the Britannica Internet Guide, which lists web sites. That would be very useful.

Alexa is a free service, supported by ads that appear seamlessly in the various places on the toolbar. I never found them a problem.

Alexa's still in its initial release, so there are some refinements needed. One bug is that Alexa kills the ability to open a new window from a link with Internet Explorer 4. This is supposed to be fixed in the next release in late January.

I've never been a fan of things cluttering my browser real estate, but Alexa's data is so good that I'll tolerate it. Nevertheless, it would be great for either Microsoft, Netscape or both to integrate Alexa functionality directly into their browsers -- let's see who gets there first.

Alexa is available for Windows 95 and Windows NT. Windows 3.1, Macintosh and Unix versions are planned.

Alexa
http://www.alexa.com/

Alexa Index Request Form
http://www.alexa.com/support/get_archive.html

If your site reflects no data, Alexa may not have crawled it. Use this page to be added.


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