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Archive for October 1st, 2012

Analysis of Google Search Traffic Patterns to Russell Group University Web Sites

Posted by Brian Kelly on 1 October 2012

Background

How can we ensure that the wide range of information provided on university Web sites can be easily found? One answer is quite simple: ensure that such resources are easily found using Google. After all, when people are looking for resources on the Web they will probably use Google.

But what patterns of usage for searches for university Web sites do we find? In a recent survey of the search engine rankings, it was observed that only one institutional Web site (at the University of Oxford) was featured in the list of Web sites which have a high ranking which can help drive traffic to the institutional repository. It was also noticed that this Web site had a significantly lower Alexa ranking (6,187) than the other 15 Web sites listed, such as WordPress.com, Blogspot.com, YouTube.com, etc. which had a Google ranking ranging from 1-256.

In order to gain a better understanding of how Google may rank search results for resources hosted on university Web sites are, the findings of a survey are published below which provide graphs of recent search engine traffic and summarise the range of values found for the global and UK Alexa rankings and the Alexa ‘reputation’ scores across this sector.

About Alexa

From Wikipedia we learn that:

Alexa Internet, Inc. is a California-based subsidiary company of Amazon.com that is known for its toolbar and website. Once installed, the Alexa toolbar collects data on browsing behavior and transmits it to the website, where it is stored and analyzed, forming the basis for the company’s web traffic reporting. Alexa provides traffic data, global rankings and other information on thousands of websites, and claims that 6 million people visit its website monthly.

The article goes on to describe how:

Alexa ranks sites based on tracking information of users of its Alexa Toolbar for Internet Explorer and Firefox and from their extension for Chrome. 

This means that the Alexa findings should be treated with caution:

the webpages viewed are only ranked amongst users who have these sidebars installed, and may be biased if a specific audience subgroup is reluctant to do this. Also, the ranking is based on three-month data

Despite such limitations, the Alexa service can prove useful in helping those involved in providing large-scale Web sites with a better understanding of the discoverability of their Web site.  The Alexa Web site describes howAlexa is the leading provider of free, global web metrics. Search Alexa to discover the most successful sites on the web by keyword, category, or country“.

In light of the popularity of the service and the fact that, despite being a commercial service, it provides open metrics it is being used in this survey as part of an ongoing process which aims to provide a better understanding of the discoverability of resources on institutional Web sites.

Survey Using Alexa

The following definitions of the information provided by Alexa were obtained from the Alexa Web site:

The Global Alexa Traffic Rank is “An estimate of the site’s popularity. The rank is calculated using a combination of average daily visitors to the site and pageviews on the site over the past 3 months. The site with the highest combination of visitors and pageviews is ranked.”

The GB Alexa Traffic Rank is “An estimate of the site’s popularity in a specific country. The rank by country is calculated using a combination of average daily visitors to the site and pageviews on the site from users from that country over the past month. The site with the highest combination of visitors and pageviews is ranked #1 in that country.

The Reputation is based on the number of inbound links to the site: The number of links to the site from sites visited by users in the Alexa traffic panel. Links that were not seen by users in the Alexa traffic panel are not counted. Multiple links from the same site are only counted once. 

The graph showing traffic from search engines gives the percentage of site visits from search engines.

The average traffic is based on the traffic over the last 30 days.

The data was collected on 20 September 2012 using the Alexa service. Note that the current finding can be obtained by following the link in the final column.

The graphs for the traffic from search engines contain a snapshot taken on 20 September 2012 together with the live findings provided by the Alexa service. The range of findings for the Alexa rank and reputation is provided beneath the table.

Table 1: Alexa Findings for Russell Group University Web Sites
1 2 3 4 5
Institution Traffic from Search Engines Average Traffic
(18 Aug -
17 Sep 2012)
View
Results
20 Sept 2012 Current findings
University of
Birmingham
19.7% [Link]
University of
Bristol
22.8% [Link]
University of
Cambridge
24.0% [Link]
Cardiff University   26.1% [Link]
University of
Durham
25.1% [Link]
University of
Edinburgh
26.9% [Link]
University of
Exeter
26.7% [Link]
University of
Glasgow
    -  [Link]
Imperial College     31.0% [Link]
King’s College
London
  19.9% [Link]
University of
Leeds
31.7% [Link]
University of
Liverpool
22.5% [Link]
LSE   22.5% [Link]
University of
Manchester
  25.8% [Link]
Newcastle
University
15.7% [Link]
University of
Nottingham
20.5% [Link]
University of Oxford 26.8% [Link]
Queen Mary,
University
of London
   20.2% [Link]
Queen’s
University
Belfast
  14.1% [Link]
University of
Sheffield
     17.4% [Link]
University of Southampton   21.9% [Link]
UCL     26.7% [Link]
University of
Warwick
  29.6% [Link]
University of
York
    23.5% [Link]

Survey Paradata

This survey was carried out using the Alexa service on Thursday 20 September. The Chrome browser running on a Windows 7 platform was used. The domain name used in the survey was taken  from the domain name provided on the Russell Group University Web site. The snapshot of the traffic shown in column 2 was captured on 20 September. Column 3 gives a live update of the findings from the Alexa service. Note that if the live update fails to work in the future this column will be deleted.

Summary

The Russell Group university Web sites have global Alexa rankings ranging from 6,318 to 75,000 and UK Alexa rankings ranging from 748 – 6,110. In comparison in the global rankings Facebook is ranked at number 1YouTube at 3Wikipedia at 6Twitter at 8Blogspot at 11WordPress.com at 22, and the BBC at 59.

The Russell Group university Web sites have “reputation” scores ranging from 4,183 – 43,917, which are based on the number of domains with links to the sites which have been followed in the past month. Although the algorithms used by Google to determine the search results ranking are a closely-kept secret (and are liable to change to prevent misuse) the number of domains, together with the ranking of the domains, are used by Google in its search algorithms for ranking the search results. According to the survey, Google delivered between 14-31% of the traffic to the Web sites during August-September 2012.

Caveat

In addition to the limitations of data provided by Alexa summarised above it should be noted that we should not expect institutions to seek to maximise any of the Alexa rankings purely for its own sake. We would not expect university Web sites to be as popular as global social media services. Similarly it would be unreasonable to expect findings  to be used in a league table. However universities may well be exploring SEO approaches, and perhaps commissioning SEO consultants to advise them. This post, therefore, aims to provide a factual summary of findings provided by a service which may be used for in-house analysis or by third-parties who have been commissioning to advise on SEO strategies for enhancing access to institutional resources.

Discussion

This survey was published in September since we might expect traffic to grow from a lull during the summer vacation, but increase as students prepare to arrive at university. It will be interesting to see how the pattern changes over time and, since this page contains a live feed from Alexa shown in column 7, it should be easy to compare the current patterns across the Russell Group universities.

This initial survey has been carried out in order to provide a benchmark for further work in this area and invite feedback. Further work is planned which will explore in more detail the Web sites which drive search engine traffic to institutional Web sites in order to identify strategies which might be used in order to enhance traffic search engine.

It should be noted that this data has been published in an open fashion in order that the methodology can be validated and the wider community can benefit from the findings and from open discussion about the approaches taken to the data collection and discussions on how such evidence might inform plans for enhancing the discoverability of content hosted on institutional Web sites. Feedback would be appreciated on these approaches.

Twitter conversation from: [Topsy]

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