May 26, 2004

Where Have All The Users Gone?

One of my favorite tools for studying trends on the web is Alexa's traffic anlaysis tool. (From that link, select a "site info" for one of the sites listed on that page, and then click on the "see traffic details" link on the subsequent page and you'll see what I'm talking about.)

From time to time I take a look up various sites within Alexa's tool to see how things are doing. I was astonished to see what the trends are in the past six months, for many of the sites I visit.

In a word, the trend is down.

Part of my astonishment is due to the fact that traffic on my own websites, including this one, has trended downwards exactly as the graphs below show for much larger sites. I was not expecting to see a similar pattern between my humble little sites and monsters like eBay, Amazon, DELL, Expedia, and AOL. But yet, there it is.

Now remember: Alexa's graphs capture how the rank, within Alexa's own lists, of popular websites changes over time. The business goal, of course, for any web business is higher and higher traffic, month over month. That ought to translate into higher and higher rankings within Alexa, one would think.

Here are some companies I checked out (warning -- 490x2055 image ahead):

See a pattern? I do. The Alexa rankings for many name-brand websites are way, way down. And going down more. Even eBay! Amazon! AOL!

But it's not all doom. Some sites, including some international ones, and some of the social networks, are trending upwards:

So what are the possible explanations?

I have a few, but bear in mind they are total guesses, and I await word from Bruce Gilliat of Alexa for some enlightenment:

  • A changing of the guard? Maybe international sites are finally eating into what has traditionally been an American game. Maybe Social Networks like Orkut and Friendster really are catching on, and eating up online time that used to be spent elsewhere?

  • A change in ranking formula? Perhaps Alexa tweaked its algorithm or ranking formula sometime in January 2004, and ever since, things have been different?

  • Less usage overall? Maybe with all the craziness going on in the world, people are spending more time offline instead of surfing the web? (Or maybe SPAM is sending people away from their computers?)

  • Alexa user behavior change? Maybe the behavior of typical Alexa Toolbar users has changed since January? Maybe Alexa shipped a new version of the toolbar and it has affected trends?

Whatever the cause, this downward trend was unexpected by me. But I feel less bad now about my downward Google AdSense revenues (coincidence? they've gone down ever since January as well).

I welcome your thoughts and theories in the comments below.

UPDATE: As I was typing the above blog entry, Bruce Gilliat of Alexa forwarded my inquiry on to Geoff Mack, a product manager at the company, who has this to say (having not seen this blog entry yet):

Hi Brian,

Bruce Gilliat forwarded your e-mail to me.

We here at Alexa have been watching the same trend for the last several years: International sites moving up in the rankings and other very popular US sites slowly dropping.

Like you, we were initially surprised by this trend. Recently we've read several research reports and news stories indicating that global web usage is outstripping US web usage:

The growth in web usage among non-us nations, particularly Asian countries, is real. What is most surprising is that the Alexa Toolbar is popular in these countries, even though we have made no effort to internationalize our service.

If you would like to see if traffic to your list of sites is actually dropping, I would recommend looking at Alexa's Reach per Million stat on the traffic detail page.

I did a quick check on some of the sites on your list and found many had actually been losing users. But, keep in mind that web traffic is seasonal. It is normal to see a drop in web usage in the Summer.

Best of luck to you with your blog. Send me a link to the post. I would be very interested to read it. And feel free to contact me if I can provide any insight.

Geoff Mack
Product Manager
Alexa Internet

Posted by brian at May 26, 2004 03:37 PM


Brian -- what about google? Strikes me that that's a site used widely, including outside the US.

Very interesting data BTW!

I think another part of it is that the US has been on the "bleeding edge" of internet adoption, esp where broadband connections are involved. the rest of the world is now catching up (a few years later).

Posted by: Justin at May 26, 2004 04:28 PM

Yahoo! and Google are like solid, never-changing fixtures within Alexa's data. Yahoo's stayed at #1 and its line is totally flat.

So I didn't include those sites as they didn't show any change.

Posted by: Brian Dear at May 26, 2004 04:31 PM

I guess the reasons people go to these websites are changing. Maybe these sites have been so popular that you no longer have to visit them(wait that makes no sense..but).

Posted by: owen at May 26, 2004 05:23 PM

What about "traffic to blogs" in general? It would be very interesting if these stats indicated that the web is decentralising, and people are getting their news from more varied sources -- so instead of having a few high-traffic sites, you're getting lots of medium-traffic sites? That would explain why "networking" sites are bucking the trend -- they represent the growing decentralized network.

Another possibility: RSS readers? I certainly read a lot of the news I used to get from official sources from RSS feeds. My RSS feeds open in my RSS reader, and I read them there -- and I bet the Alexa toolbar only counts traffic that comes in via a *browser*, not an RSS reader.

Final possibility: Google news? Instead of getting our news from one source all the time, Google news would have the effect of spreading the traffic around much more evenly, since the "popular" news sources are not always the ones that end up on the front page of GN.

Posted by: Laurie at May 27, 2004 03:36 AM

There may also be an effect here of tighter corporate control on employee's non-work-related Web traffic. If a lot of people tend to surf these sites from work and their companies are cutting/restricting that, you'd see traffic trend down.

If there was a significant non-US effect, I would expect to see the BBC's site going up, as it has huge international reach and popularity.

Posted by: wex at May 27, 2004 06:27 AM

What affect does use of spyware blocking software have on Alexa trends?

Do any sites encourage their users to install Alexa...thus pushing them up and others down the rank? (what about sites encourage installing spyware removal software)

You also need to be careful of the graph scales. eg: BBC drop looks huge, but is actualy only 10 places. Then if you look at the 2 year graph they are back to what they were at the start of 2003 anyhow.

So between looking at a longer period and realizing the scale, I do not see any significant drop at all.

Posted by: asmith at May 27, 2004 02:16 PM

Alexa is not very well-regarded in the Web industry as being an accurate portrayal of visits -- I know that there's a wide varience between the page views they report vs. what I see in my own logs.

Posted by: Yogi Berra at May 28, 2004 08:10 AM

One reason that comes to mind is that maybe less people are using the Alexa toolbar. There's a variety of options out there, and personally I prefer the Google one myself. The trends could be caused by a shift/decrease in reports coming from the general populace. It would be interesting to find out the total sample size these graphs are based on, and how they have changed over the period of the graph.

Posted by: OwenCutajar at May 28, 2004 09:24 AM

Owen, the graphs attempt show ***RANK*** not bytes or visits or anything that would be changed by fewer uses of the toolbar. If the pattern of website uses stayed the same while fewer of those same users used the toolbar then the ranks would not change at all.

Posted by: Mike at May 28, 2004 09:35 AM

This is a non-issue. Since it's a ranking and there are new, rapidly growing sites constantly coming onto the scene, existing sites will trend downward by definition. If Orkut goes from nowhere to #200 in a few days, every site from 201 on drops 1 place. No big deal here folks.

Posted by: pb at May 28, 2004 10:30 AM

I would think that ASIA has caught on internet revolution very well -Parts of Asia is doing even better than US -Particularly Korea in terms of online retailing - Asia has a lot of new users to internet crowd - coupled with the fact, Asia speaks more than 50 different languages and that many different primary sites in respective language. But US dominance, lead in usage of internet for business needs is unlikely to be challenged for several years to come.

Posted by: sadagopan at May 28, 2004 01:05 PM

Um, warm weather, anyone? It's called spring, look into it. duh?

Posted by: Bog at May 29, 2004 07:16 PM

Bog, look at the graphs again. Most of the downward trends occurred in the heart of winter -- Jan/Feb 2004 -- or even earlier.

Unless you're writing from Down Under, what's spring got to do with it? Duh?

Posted by: Brian at May 30, 2004 07:59 AM

Anyone know of another site that offers the same service. My sites show up with zero info on this site.

Posted by: holiday at June 1, 2004 03:48 PM

I just wanted to say hi to the owner of a great site. I found a lot of interesting
stuff here. Thanks..

Posted by: Kim Denise at September 30, 2004 02:57 AM

Alexa released a new kind of traffic graph that shows reach, rather than rank. Reach is a better indicator of actual visitors than rank ever was and it would be interesting to re-do this experiment using the new graphs. btw, number of Alexa Toolbar users during the experiment above is between 1 and 2 million and growing.

Posted by: Geoff Mack at October 13, 2004 11:29 AM

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