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Rethinking Directories

If you think that web directories are dead, you’re probably not familiar with any real web directories. Yes, there are a large number of poor quality sites on the Internet that masquerade as web directories, using web directory scripts, but with no pretense of directory anyone to anything.

Sadly, these are the sites that many people have come to identify with the web directory industry, leading them to conclude that web directories serve no useful function.

Many of the sites that people have come to think of as web directories have more in common with Free For All link farms than with actual web directories. A genuine web directory is not an SEO scam.

Free For All Link Farms

Around 1995, an SEO scheme was developed. Known as Free For All promotion sites, or FFA sites, these sites allowed anyone to post an ad on their pages for free. Sometimes these ads consisted of nothing but a link, although some would allow the submitter to specific the anchor text, or to add a description of the site.

Most people didn’t bother to add a description, since the sole purpose of an FFA site was to secure a back-link. No one actually read these pages. Although an FFA site might contain a title for anchor text, a link, and a description, it was not a web directory because it didn’t direct anyone to anything. It was just a linking scheme.

I don’t know how successful they were as an SEO strategy, but FFA link farms were quite popular in their day. I doubt that there are any still around, in large part because Google has made it quite clear that this is no longer an acceptable linking strategy.

Unfortunately, there are far too many domains on the Internet using web directory scripts in order to create, not a web directory, but another type of link farm. These are not truly representative of the web directory industry.

A true web directory will have the potential of directing someone to useful resources on the Internet.

Google and the other search engines wouldn’t be appreciative of a free for all link farm today, or give much credence to the sites that are listed there, but a web directory that is well organized and maintained is still a valuable link source for any website.

Genuine Web Directories

In order to obtain the benefits of a web directory, you must be able to distinguish between a good directory and a bad directory.

A bad directory is one that will guarantee a listing in return for the payment of a fee.

A bad directory would be one that lists submitted sites automatically, as this would be little more than a sophisticated form of a link farm. The only difference between that and a free for all link is that it’s not free.

A true web directory maintains high standards for inclusion. Submissions to a reputable directory may be free or there may be a fee, sometimes quite high, but there is value in a genuine web directory.

However, if you are looking at a web directory as a paid link, then the links that you receive won’t be worth the fee.

I can understand that it might be reasonable to think of a submission fee as an investment in a paid link, but that wouldn’t be true. When you submit your website to a directory, you are requesting to have your website added to an authority site that already has its own traffic sources.

Acceptance is not a given. If your site is accepted into the directory, you might expect to receive targeted traffic, and the inclusion of your link in the directory may serve to improve your site’s position in the search engine result pages. Some of the more reputable directories may also lend authority to your brand.

Still, when you look at some of the finest old web directories, what you will find are categories, subcategories, and site listings. These site listings will consist of a title, used as anchor text, and a description.

Some of these directories, such as DMOZ, may always enjoy authority, based on longevity, on the role that it has played in the development of the Web, and on the sheer number of listings that are included in its index.

Is this a model that could be successfully followed by a directory established in 2015? Probably not, because it’s already been done and other directories have had a significant head start. More importantly, I think that people are looking for more today.

However, if change is necessary, those within the web directory industry are not the only ones who can bring it about. Site owners need to quit thinking of web directories as link repositories, and take a closer look at those that offer more.

Rethinking Directories

Unless a directory is able to pull together an unusually remarkable collection of links into a niche directory, a traditional web directory is going to have a hard time making its mark today.

I’m not saying it can’t be done, or that it won’t, but that it isn’t likely. Something more will be expected.

I am not suggesting some cookie-cutter method of creating a successful web directory in 2015, or selling some new web directory script that will spell it out for you, leaving you only to fill in the blanks.Innovation

On the contrary, I strongly believe that if there is a place for a new web directory, it will have to offer something different, and I trust that there are as many ways to accomplish that as there are slots open for new web directories.

The features of traditional web directory scripts allows for a great deal of innovation, which can be expanded upon through modifications and customizations.

Most web directories utilize only a small portion of the power available from their chosen script, so there are options available even to those who choose to stick with some of the tried and true web directory scripts that are on the market.

Whatever the platform, content will be necessary in a web directory. Useful links, ones that have been vetted by a human editor, are necessary in order to set a web directory apart from a search engine, but additional content will be required in order to set one directory apart from another.

There is no one way to accomplish this because if everyone does the same thing, it will work only for the one directory that does it better than everyone else, with points for being first.

If you are creating a web directory in 2015, try thinking of the task as creating an informational website that includes links to other informational websites, unique and well organized.

If you can find a niche that someone hasn’t already claimed, your task is an easy one. Otherwise, you will have to create a significantly better directory, or offer something different.

When someone visits your directory, they should be able to find useful information as well as links to sites where other useful information can be found.

A link in your directory should offer distinct value. Be selective about which sites you choose to add. Think of this. Some directories are considered valuable because there is a high cost of inclusion.

If Best of the Web charged ten dollars rather than three hundred dollars, everyone would submit their site there and a link in BOTW wouldn’t be a very big deal.

If DMOZ accepted every site submitted to them within a week, you wouldn’t have people clamoring to have their site listed in that directory.

Of course, if you were to start a new directory off by demanding a $300 admission fee and taking seven years to consider the submission, that wouldn’t a working arrangement. Because BOTW and DMOZ have proven themselves, they can afford to set a high bar, thus raising the value of a link in their directory further.

A new directory might raise the bar by being very selective of the sites that they choose to include, by offering links on highly indexed pages, or through more innovative features, such as textual content.

Rethinking Submissions

It is time to move beyond thinking of web directories as link sellers. A web directory that can offer nothing more than that is not one that you want to submit your site to, anyhow.

As a site owner, you may visit a web directory for the sole purpose of submitting your site. There is nothing wrong with that but an effective link building strategy is one that seeks more than an improved position in the search engine results pages.

A web directory cannot guarantee visits to your site, but a good web directory is one that is used by real people, and can offer the potential of targeted web traffic.

The pages of a web directory should themselves be indexed. Generally, this requires textual content.

You should be able to expect that the topics of other sites listed in the same category as your own be related to that of your site, and that they are of sufficient quality so as to constitute a good neighborhood.

By all means, submit toPlan web directories, but have a plan and be smart about it. Your listing should serve to create a more diverse link profile.

Don’t submit your site to every directory that will accept it, especially not if you are going to start at the low end of the quality scale. Look for directories that include categories that are the most relevant to your site’s topic. A relevant category is better than a general one.

Generally, the lower the bar of entry into a particular directory, the less helpful the link will be to your site’s placement in search engine result pages.

There are different kinds of directories, and not every directory is right for your site. There are general web directories, covering a wide variety of topics and geographical areas. There are also niche directories that are focused on specific topics or places.

Social directories focus on your social media marketing needs, and may include social bookmarking sites.

Local citation directories are sort of the online equivalent of the Yellow Pages that you used to see in telephone books, and are generally geared toward listing businesses by neighborhood and service, and will publish a listing whether or not the business has a web presence. Some traditional web directories, such as BOTW and Directory Journal, include local citation directories.

Keep in mind that natural linking is diverse, so you’ll want a mixture of high profile directories and other good quality directories that may not be as well known, and it doesn’t hurt to include some new directories that appear to be well organized and managed. Don’t forget that a niche directory relevant to your site’s topic is ideal.

Plan your link building strategy in advance, and pace yourself. You don’t want to go from having no back-links one week to having a hundred back-links from directories the next.

Needless to say, don’t depend entirely on directories for back-linking, since diversity counts there too, and never, ever respond to one of those ads that promise to submit your site to 5,000 top web directories, or whatever number they may decide to use.

Do your own submissions, and be choosy.


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Ken Anderson was an early meta editor for the Open Directory Project (DMOZ), as well as an editor with the Go.com and Zeal directories, and several other web directories, both short- and long-term.


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