Determining a website’s traffic is a tricky thing. To get completely accurate numbers, you need to contact the website owner and ask them for a traffic report. Since many website owners won’t volunteer such information, for a variety of reasons, some of which are valid, you’re left hoping someone has built a cool tool to save you.
Maybe you’re a public relations professional looking for high-trafficked sites for outreach. Perhaps you’re a media planner and buyer and want to get a hold on which blogs and other online media sites should be in your client’s plan. Whatever the reason, finding a tool to help you research a site’s traffic can be a Godsend.
As with most Internet research needs, there are a variety of companies that provide solutions, some good. Others not so. There are three free tools available to anyone: Compete.com, Alexa.com and Quantcast.com. Today we’ll look at Compete.com. Soon, we’ll cover the other two. The analysis of the paid solutions (ComScore, Nielsen, Hitwise) will come whenever they give me a free preview to try their tools. (Hint, hint, boys.)
Compete.com is a panel-based measurement service. This means they take a sample of Internet use statistics (called click streams) from users that have opted in to volunteer that information. Their data sample is from over 2 million U.S. consumers. This includes click stream data from a number of Internet Service Providers (ISPs) which anonymize the data of their users, who have agreed to terms which allow the ISP to sell the data to firms like Compete. The sample also includes Compete toolbar users: People who have gone through the trouble of downloading a toolbar plug-in from Compete specifically to volunteer their web surfing data for measurement. There is an inherent bias in this portion of their data because it will skew geek. Generalizing a bit, only computer nerds and webmasters are going to download this toolbar. Compete’s third data point is what they call a proprietary panel. (Because what’s a good sales pitch without working in the word “proprietary?”) This panel is a group of users actively engaged with Compete to provide data, respond to surveys, etc.
Once all the data of web surfing activity, sites, etc., is collected, it is normalized, or weighed and skewed to correct biases like the geek-heavy toolbar users. The goal of the normalization process, which by the way is conducted and overseen by people with Ph.d’s in this sort of number crunching, is to have each consumer measured represent the average American consumer. The normalized data is then used to project metrics that are an estimate of how the average U.S. consumer behaves online.
The key thing to know here is that even though Compete.com has data from over 2 million users (more than ComScore and Nielsen, to my knowledge, which use samples of 200,000-300,000) they are still projecting results, a process I believe is inherently flawed.
Still, Compete allows users to compare these projected traffic numbers of up to three websites for free. While the numbers are inconsistent and far from accurate (see below), the tool can be useful for site comparisons.
Smartly, Compete doesnâ€™t offer just a free tool and thatâ€™s it. For subscription rates ranging from $199 per month to $499 per month, plus custom pricing for enterprise offerings, you can access additional site analytics reports (like visits per person and daily reach, which do not appear in the free version) and a trio of added value pieces to make you think youâ€™re getting something for your money.
The Search Analytics suite offers tools to find sites that get the most traffic from certain keywords, keywords that drive most search traffic to a given site and comparisons of search keywords for sites so you can judge yourself based on your competitors.
Thereâ€™s a Referral Analytics toolset that allows you to see a ranking of what sites point to yours, what sites your website sends traffic to and a comparison tool to see referral and destination traffic for any two websites.
The final piece of the paid component is ranked lists of the top websites. You can get the top 200 websites with any paid plan. Stepping up a notch on the plan gradient gets you the top 1,000 and then the top 15,000.
Frankly, I donâ€™t think there are enough tools for $200 per month. Sure, those there are worth something, but similar information can be found online and probably for free. There are also some keyword and search specific tools out there that are much more robust than what Compete offers. Still, the toolset is useful and Compete at least provides everyone with the traffic comparisons, giving something to the greater web community. That should count for something.
Aaron Prebluda, Compete’s director of market development and to whom I’m indebted for his kindness in answering questions, told me, “Our paid product provides competitive intelligence and behavioral data that is actionable.” To the letter, that’s true. But companies that use Compete’s paid solutions will have to be savvy enough to know what actions to take. Seeing a chart that shows you the top search keywords that drive traffic to your site is one thing. Knowing how to analyze that data and use it to improve search results for certain keywords is something very different. What that means is the paid solution is only going to be worth your while if you have an SEO specialist on staff or on retainer to do something with it. (If you need one, let me know. Kat and David are really good.)
The Unfortunate Discovery
All that said, I decided to test Compete’s data against sites for which I have access to Google Analytics. Honestly, it appears Compete.com isn’t accurate at all. Here’s a comparison of Compete’s numbers and those of several sites whose Google Analytics reports I can access. (I’ve removed the names of the sites as I don’t own them and am not sure if the owners want their actual traffic numbers public.)
As you can see from this small sampling, there’s a big difference in actual and what Compete’s data and normalization produces. For the record, I did notice on one seasonal website a mirror of the peaks and valleys of the web traffic, but the metrics were way off.
What this tells us is that Compete’s statistical patterns might mirror reality, but the numbers are based on fuzzy math and unreliable. Folks from Compete may balk at that statement, saying I only looked at three websites. But isn’t taking a sampling of data and projecting it on the entire population kinda what they’re guilty of, too?
I would recommend Compete as a tool to compare the traffic of websites. And if youâ€™re interested in a fairly economical keyword and search engine research tools, at least in comparison to a lot of solutions out there, itâ€™s worth considering even if the price tag seems a bit disproportionate to the value you receive. Still, the primary focus of this series of reviews is to determine website traffic. Frankly, Compete.com’s vast inconsistencies with the web analytics I trust to be true makes me hesitant to do much more with the tool.
Whatâ€™s your experience with Compete? Is there more to their paid solution Iâ€™ve missed? If you havenâ€™t tried it, do so now and come back to report your thoughts on the tool. And what do you think about the comparison to Google Analytics numbers? Run sites you know the actual traffic for and compare your numbers to Compete’s. Let us know how far they are off. The comments are yours.