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Alexa Internet--Your Best Web Sidekick.

Find out more about the sites you visit with this handy utility

Brewster Kahle, one of the brightest minds in the Internet realm, has come up-with the idea to guide Web users as they are surfing by providing information about the sites they visit and showing related sites. David Hoffman, in his Report from the Field "Online World, Fall '98" (November 1998, Information Today, page 1), gave details about the background of the project, so I will focus here on the functional features of Alexa, which have improved a lot since then.

The Alexa crawler continuously visits Web sites, collects information about inward links of the sites, and archives and classifies the sites as Web directories do. It then explores relationships between sites while mining the collected data. It presents users with a list of sites that are supposed to relate to the site they are visiting, and collects data about what links the users choose. It also keeps a log of how users navigate the Web, what links they follow, where they jump to. Since Alexa's development in 1996, others, like Google and DirectHit, have used the same concept and have gotten more press coverage. But Alexa Internet is by far the most useful Web product in this category. Its superiority has to do not only with the smart analysis of the data collected, but also with the incomparably larger statistical data set it uses.

It comes in two flavors--as part of the browser (in Netscape 4.01 and 4.6, and Internet Explorer 5) and as a stand-alone utility program that you may download and install as you would any other resident program (in version 3.0 or higher of either browser). I'll show the Netscape version for the built-in variety and the Internet Explorer version for the stand-alone utility variety. The latest versions of other browsers, like Opera 3.5 and NeoPlanet 5.0, also come bundled with Alexa.

What's Related

Pressing the What's Related button on the Netscape navigation bar shows a dropdown menu listing the top sites (10 at the most) that Alexa considers related (see Figure 1). In my tests it had very good suggestions. For Information Today, Inc.'s Web site, the number-one related site was Online, Inc.--a perfect recommendation. The other Sites may not look as good at first, but if you approach the list with a topical mindset, you recognize that the Special Libraries Association, The Dialog Corporation, and the Classroom Connect sites are indeed related to Information Today, Inc., as they discuss similar topics. The New York Times' appearance on the list is a bit of a stretch.

The relevancy ratio is still excellent, and providing a list of related sites is especially useful when you are unfamiliar with a territory and want to find out who the players are. Inversely, Alexa can give useful statistics about those you know, but wish you knew better--your competitors. It tells you something immediately and concisely when you find that the inward links to amount to nearly 2.5 million while Barnes & Noble has only about 16,000 inward links.

Alexa is also a perfect companion to most efficiently get to the sites that you know but can't remember the URLs for. It's faster to get from one Web travel agency site to another than to sift through your bookmarks, which always need to be updated and organized. When using Microsoft's Expedia travel site, the following 10 sites are listed as related: TravelZoo, Travel Web, Travelocity, The Trip, U.S. State Department Travel, Preview Travel, MapQuest, Internet Travel Network, Fodor's Travel Online, and City Net. This is as good as it gets. You could find these sites under the best directories, but you would need to wade through dozens of other entries as these "perfect" sites are scattered around in a category with many other items. Alexa cherry-picks them for you. Sometimes it does not find anything related, but as days go by Alexa will know of more and more sites, their traffic patterns, and their relationships to other sites.

Your Personal Tour Guide

Alexa acts like a sidekick and a personal guide that you may ask for such information as: Who is the owner of a site? What is the owner's mailing address and phone number? When was the site registered? (All these data come from the InterNIC registry.) For personal pages these data are often not available, but for corporate sites they mostly are. Alexa also provides such site statistics as the traffic to the site based on visits over the last 6 months by Alexa users. For example, this count was 27,714 for Information Today, Inc. and 27,391 for Online, Inc.--a very credible number.

The speed rating indicates the transfer rate of a site measured by Alexa's periodic crawl of the Web. Both companies got very good ratings. The freshness score indicates how often a site is updated. It is based on the analysis of the modification dates of pages found by Alexa. The score is the average age of the top pages, excluding the generated-on-the-fly pages. Information Today, Inc.'s score was excellent; Online, Inc.'s was very good.

The number of Links In is the number of different Web pages that link to the target Web site. Information Today, Inc.'s score was 1,528; Online, Inc. scored 2,099. The number of pages on the site is self-explanatory: Information Today, Inc.'s count was 646; Online, Inc.'s was 408.

Alexa can also show matches from the Open Directory project, most of the time. For Online, Inc. there was no matching category. For Information Today, Inc. the matching category was "Library and Information Science--Conferences," an obviously too-specific category based on the fact that ITI's home page shows the Conferences entry in the catbird seat. Then again, it is easy to step back one level in Open Directory's hierarchy to be in the appropriate category of Library and Information Science.

Alternatively, Alexa offers to search the Open Directory on the topic at hand (the string "infotoday" in this particular case), and it brought up two relevant categories and six sites. This is a rather shallow search as the sites were subpages of the Web site, and one can't help wondering why these six were picked by a group of editors, who apparently also renamed Computers in Libraries to "Computer in Libraries."

The Detailed List option displays a neatly arranged list of the above items that fit on a single page in case you want to print it out. As Alexa is partly based on user activity and opinion, it gives them the chance to suggest related links.

The Stand-Alone Version

You can download this version of Alexa and use it just like any other program that you want in your system tray to be ready to jump into action. Actually, in the Internet Explorer implementation, Alexa takes up a pane on the left of the screen and automatically displays the statistics and other information about the site being visited in the main window. You may make the pane appear in a horizontal format at the bottom of the screen, but it is much less efficient. Beyond offering the same information as the built-in toolbar version, it also has some extras, such as the street map of the Location of the Web site owner, the related city guide, plus the option to vote about a site (see Figure 2). Tiny query cells allow you to type in a company's stock exchange code if you feel the urge to know how a publicly traded company's stock is doing, who its executives are, and if there is any news about the company. These data come from the free segment of the Hoover's site.

You may look up sites about a subject in the Britannica Internet Guide or in six search engines (without retyping the query). Or you can look up a term in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary and Thesaurus or in a limited version of Encyclopaedia Britannica. Although not shown here in the example for Information Today, Inc., there may be additional informative vignettes, such as the rating of the site by the Britannica Internet Guide. Oddly, the rating for Alexa is just one star, even though Britannica recognized how good this service is and was among the first directory sites that cooperated with Alexa. You can also check some sites' ratings by ZDNet's Yahoo! Internet Life magazine. In the case of online merchants' sites, the excellent Bizrate score card can be displayed, which shows the results of customer satisfaction surveys. It is a very useful tool when you want to check out the reputation of an unknown Web store. And, true to its original endeavor of archiving the Internet, Alexa offers the last snapshot it took of a site in case it has gone down.

The IE implementation of the Alexa utility is far better than Netscape's. It is strange, however, that the related sites and the statistics in the stand-alone utility and browser versions differ significantly. Obviously, separate Alexa databases are used for the two versions.

Just as the browser developers and several directory, portal, and rating services already have special deals with Alexa, others will join forces, too, making Alexa an indispensable tool for surfing the Web. As of September, 3 million copies of the utility version of Alexa were downloaded, and there must be millions who use it through the latest version of their browsers. There are probably many people who have never pressed their What's Related (in Netscape) or Links (in IE) buttons ... Give it a try.

Peter Jacso is associate professor of library and information science at the department of information and computer sciences at the University of Hawaii. He won the 1998 Louis Shores/Oryx Press Award from ALA's Reference and User Services Association for his discerning database reviews.
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Title Annotation:web browser
Author:Jacso, Peter
Publication:Information Today
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 1999
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