Measure for Measure

By Adena Schutzberg

_Tales Out of School
I'm not telling tales out of school when I share with you a free resource that ranks websites based on a sample of surfers who elect to install a toolbar from Amazon-owned Alexa.At you can key in any URL you like and, if it's in the top 100,000 sites, get all sorts of details about traffic, links to the site and other sites visited by those who visit the target site.It's a fascinating way to waste some time.

Two things drew me to Alexa this week.First, while I was looking at the limited number of online articles about the update of the Geospatial One-Stop portal, I started wondering how many people had a chance to look at it since its "soft" launch on July 18.Later in the week, I received an e-mail about NASA's World Wind, which prompted me to wonder what sort of traffic the "we did it before Google Earth" website attracted.This is the kind of information Alexa can help you find.

Getting Your Bearings
To get a feel for Alexa, I started with some big ranks number one on Alexa.(Details on how that number is calculated are here.) Its reach, roughly how many of 1 million surfers visit it, tops 300,000.Now, shares its domain with several components: and, to name two.Alexa does not offer statistics for those components, but does offer what percentage of visitors head to that component.Yahoo Mail draws 43%, while Yahoo Maps draws less than 1%.

Let's stay with portals for a moment.Virtual Earth is part of, Microsoft's portal, which is ranked number two.Virtual Earth, is not noted in the listing of "where people go" on the portal.It may be too new to show up as a percentage of MSN traffic.Interestingly, isn't listed either.68% of visitors, however, go to Hotmail.

Google Maps is part of the domain, ranked number three.What percent of traffic goes to Google Maps? One percent.Eighty percent go to, the search part of Google.

Despite the mapping "newcomers" above, MapQuest ranks number 52 with a reach of 11,000.Wow.

Exploring Geospatial Exploration Websites, also known as the Geospatial One-Stop or the GOS Portal, is ranked 391,124.That's down from 55,202 three months ago.The reach (how many people out of a million visit the site) is two (based on a three month average).Just 53 other websites link to the GOS portal.Since GOS2 is part of the domain, I learned that 81% of visitors go to and 19% to's good; people are exploring the new portal!

NASA's World Wind website/app is part of NASA's website (rank 370). About four percent of traffic heads to the section of the website that holds World Wind.I'm not really sure what other resources are in that corner of the site called'm also not sure how an application like World Wind (you download and install it, much like Google Earth) counts in Alexa's rankings since it does not operate in a browser.

These are "exploration" types of websites.How does venerable National Geographic fare? It ranks 1,353 and its MapMachine draws three percent of visitors.

While Alexa offers up all sorts of numbers and rankings, it doesn't address how these websites got to where they did.Some of it is simply being first to market.I suspect MapQuest has that advantage.Some of it is marketing: Yahoo, Google and Microsoft have far larger marketing budgets than the Department of Interior and NASA.Some is user expectation: "How could the government possibly have a cooler mapping site than Google?" Or "Government websites are complicated!"

Further, it's worth reading the fine print on Alexa, which notes that the system is not perfect, by any means.The toolbar used to capture visitor data is only supported on Internet Explorer, which the site notes, will skew results.

Are explorations like this valuable? Alexa is valuable for comparing apples to apples sorts of sites.Still, as reflected in the discussions of the portal players above, those sorts of sites can be hard to find these days.Alexa is also valuable in putting the sites we as geospatial professional find critical to our work in the context of the wider Web.If, say, Google Maps is huge in "our world" its valuable to recall that it draws just one percent of visitors to Google itself.

Parting Thoughts
If you want some history on ranking of GIS websites, there's an archive from Retail Profit Management (RPM) of data from 1998-2001.

Finally, according to Alexa, is the highest rated geospatial magazine, eclipsing any other online magazine by more than 16,000 ranking points.At last look Directions ranked 44,308.

Published Saturday, August 13th, 2005

Written by Adena Schutzberg

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