Website Competitive Intelligence: Don’t Manage to Bogus Data

web_competitive_dataHow can you determine the size of a blog or website’s traffic? Finding reliable website competitive intelligence benchmarks is hugely important, and a real challenge on the web. Too often people buy-in to bogus measures.

There is perhaps a false hope to find that big “standings board” similar to major league baseball.  After all, standings are fair and transparent; anyone can tally with wins and losses and see who is in first place. And there are performance stats (ERA’s and batting averages) which correlate strongly to wins.

So is there a big scoreboard for comparing your site;s traffic to competitors, and knowing who is in first place in your “division”? If your competitors are on the big paid tracking services, perhaps. But most blogs and sites are not, and most site owners don’t subscribe to Comscore.

There are lots of external competitive measures available, but do any of them really correlate to level of traffic? Some objective research suggests that free metrics are not strong predictors of traffic levels.

SEOmoz, Danny Sullivan (of SES fame) and Matt Cutts (Google) got behind research to compare external measures (such as Alexa and Google rank) with the actual traffic levels across dozens of competitive sites.  Their conclusion – there is only a low correlation between these external measures and actual site traffic.

From an estimate using Pearson’s correlation coefficient (thanks to SEM Research), the best predictors of traffic (when compared to an average of the 3 months of unique visits) are, in order:

  1. Number of Technorati Links (0.74)
  2. SEOmoz Page Strength (0.60)
  3. Number of Links to the Blog URL via Yahoo! Site Explorer (0.56)
  4. Number of Links to the Domain via Yahoo! Site Explorer (0.54)
  5. Bloglines Subscriptions (0.49)
  6. Technorati Rank (0.49)
  7. Alexa Rank (0.49)
  8. Netcraft Rank (0.43)
  9. Newsgator Subscribers (0.39)
  10. Rank (0.38)
  11. Rank (0.36)
  12. Google PageRank (0.21)

However, they conclude, “none of these are nearly accurate enough to use, even in combination, to help predict a site’s level of traffic or its relative popularity, even in a small niche with similar competitors. Unfortunately, it appears that the external metrics available for competitive intelligence on the web today simply do not provide a significant source of value.”

They recommend that anyone who applies this data for competitive analysis/research do so with the following limitations in mind:

  • Unless the discrepancy between the metrics is high and universal, they cannot be taken to mean that one website, blog or page is necessarily more popular than another
  • Generally speaking, the more well-linked to a page/site/domain, the higher its traffic levels, but there will be a significant number of exceptions
  • Services like Alexa,, & Netcraft are nearly useless when it comes to predicting traffic or comparing relative levels of popularity, even when used on a highly comparable set of sites in a similar field.

Deconstructing Competitors: Don’t Confuse Correlation and Causation
Even fairly strong correlation between size and a measure, such as “Number of Technorati Links” is only correlation.  CNN isn’t popular because of Technorati links, there are lots of Technorati links because CNN is popular. CNN isn’t popular because of its link count, or page count, or excellent key wording. Its an excellent news source, and has generated these measurable attributes along the way. They are partly incidental, and only peripherally causal.

Is your site popular because it has lots of links and therefore more traffic and Google Authority?  Or are links and authority results of publishing which gained popularity, and only incidentally links and authority along the way?

Your audience is king. Quality user experiences, relationships, and reliably good content are the coins of the realm. Your internal measures of traffic are more reliable than competitive benchmarks. These, and profitability measures from your own operation are likely to put you on a more true course, than managing to a set of byproducts of success.

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