Looking at analytics data can sometimes feel like watching one Olympic bobsled run: In isolation, you have no idea if what you're looking at is good or bad. Context is everything.
For web metrics, we can look at our data over time, which gives it context and meaning. We can also look at our station numbers compared to other public media stations like us using the Station Analytics System. Comparisons can turn data into actionable insights.
So how do we compare our stations against the most important digital competition we have: the websites of local newspapers, TV stations, other nearby radio stations, local music sites, and so on?
The good news is that there are free tools to view metrics about others' websites. The bad news is that they're not all that accurate, as our research shows - but they can still be somewhat useful.
Here are the contenders we evaluated. Give them a try!
- Compete.com - well-known free service for looking up any site and getting US unique visitors.
- Quantcast - a little different in that they try to provide free data on real people visiting each site (regardless of device).
- Nielsen NetView - another reputable option for looking at unique visitors, though this one isn't free.
- SimilarWeb - a newer service that provides free metrics on visits rather than uniques.
Basically, all of these services use proprietary opt-in panels for measuring how much traffic a site gets, balancing that with data from Internet service providers and application service providers. As a result, they often don't even have data on smaller sites, which can be frustrating.
So how accurate are they? We decided to enter 24 medium and large member stations into all of these tools and compare the output to the real numbers in Google Analytics. The results were depressing:
- Compete.com underreported unique visitors an average of 72%.
- Quantcast's "people" metric was an average of 60% below real unique visitor numbers.
- Nielsen NetView also underreported unique visitors, in this case an average of 66%.
- SimilarWeb did a little better, underreporting site visits by 32%.
If you want to compare your site against others in your market (which is a worthy goal), do so with grain of salt. We recommend using SimilarWeb because it's the least inaccurate. That's not a giddy endorsement, but SimilarWeb is free and it's the best tool out there right now.
Here are two important tips for using any of these tools:
- Compare your SimilarWeb numbers to other sites' SimilarWeb numbers. At least then all sites are being similarly measured (and likely underreported), so you can feel more confident in the data. Don't bother comparing competitors to your own Google Analytics numbers.
- Compare the trends over time, not the actual numbers. If in SimilarWeb you see your trend going down and your competitors' trends going up, that's information that can be trusted and acted upon.