Debunking SecurityNewsDesk's Traffic Shootout Results

Author: John Honovich, Published on Jun 12, 2011

Over the past two months, UK publication SecurityNewsDesk has released traffic 'shootout' results that purport to show their site is in first place in the UK 'security internet communications market'. This is a weak analysis likely skewed by the company's actions itself. In this note, we break down the key problems and issues in such rankings.

SecurityNewsDesk bases its claim solely on Alexa traffic rankings - widely acknowleged as an extremely unreliable and easy to game system for sites in niche categories like security.

Alexa traffic rankings are based on individuals who voluntarily install the Alexa toolbar to track the websites they visit. A very small percentage of Internet users install this toolbar. This is especially problematic for sites, like security, that receive relatively few visits (here's a good explanation of this). The margin of error becomes very high. The results are also skewed by employees of the website using the toolbar (e.g., this blogger). Because of the structural issues with Alexa, there are actually services that can boost a site's Alexa ranking simply by having their associates go to a website on a PC with the Alexa toolbar installed.

Looking at SecurityNewsDesk Alexa profile, a number of issues stand out.

  • The most obvious is the fake review submitted by a SecurityNewsDesk employee who deceitfully exclaims "just found this great new launch site." The reviewer has 2 total reviews, both for properties owned by this company. This is a good general indicator that the company is actively seeking to boost its Alexa results. [Update: The company now claims that these reviews were not approved for release - a 'rogue' employee'.]
  • Alexa's results say that visitors to SecurityNewsDesk view nearly triple the number of pages that Info4Security do (6.2 vs 2.2). That the numbers are so much higher is a yellow flag to us that employees or friends of SecurityNewsDesk are impacting Alexa's rankings.
  • According to the other 'major' website traffic analysis providers (Compete, Quantcast and Google Ad Planner) SecurityNewsDesk does not have enough traffic to even qualify for ranking.

Independent traffic rankings are notoriously hard to accomplish especially for smaller sites. Because of this, many tricks or tactics are used to skew results or boost rankings (see a review of SourceSecurity and their approach as an example). SecurityNewsDesk is not the first and they will certainly not be the last to engage in such a campaign.

Why This Matters

The impact is split between regular users and potential advertisers:

  • For regular users, this likely does not matter outside of perception of who is the 'biggest'. It should matter that sites that claim to provide news and information engage in deceptive practices in analyzing any market.
  • For advertisers (i.e., manufacturers), this matters a lot as readership level is a key determiner of pricing. Obviously, we do not accept advertisements. However, when we look to advertise our own services on other sites, we always want unedited reports exported from services that track direct requests to the website itself (Google analytics is the most well known of the many providers) rather than toolbar based tracking that can easily be gamed. Secondly, we discount traffic from search engines as it is generally lower quality traffic than direct visitors who are more likely to trust the site.
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