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Apples and Oranges

In one way, search engines and web directories are kind of the same thing, but in the end they aren’t like one another at all. Both search engines and web directories are intended to help people find things on the Internet. They do so in very different ways, and one does not necessarily replace the other.

Horses, cars, trains, and airplanes also serve a common purpose — getting people from one place to another. But few would argue that they are the same thing, or that people should quit using cars now that we have airplanes. We do see less use of horses now than we did a century ago, but plenty of people still ride horses. I don’t, but when I want to get somewhere, sometimes I’ll drive, sometimes I’ll take the train, and sometimes it makes sense to fly. Occasionally, I even walk. When I bought my first car, I didn’t cut my feet off.

People who enjoy pretending that they know what they are talking about on SEO forums are fond of saying that no one uses web directories anymore, or that search engines have replaced web directories. Those who are able to form two sentences might explain that web directories were once useful, but they were replaced by search engines.

Actually the first web directory ever assembled was the World Wide Web Virtual Library, which went online in 1991, while the first search engine was known as Archie, and it launched in 1990, before the first web directory. A more prominent search engine, named Gopher, was built the following year, about the same time that the World Wide Web Virtual Library was put together. So much for the idea that search engines put web directories out of business, since they both developed at roughly the same time.

Let’s talk about fruit. Oranges were first cultivated in China approximately 2500 BC. Apples, on the other hand, are believed to be the oldest cultivated fruit, there being evidence that they were a common food during the Stone Age. Apples are known to have been cultivated in the 13th century BC, and probably longer than that, long before oranges.

Were apples replaced by oranges?

Any visit to the supermarket will answer that question for you. In any grocery section, you will find several different varieties of fruit, yet people still eat apples. Some people might prefer apples to oranges, and I am sure there are those who don’t eat apples, but most people make use of multiple fruits, depending on what they are hungry for at the time, or what might fit into a particular recipe.

Apples and oranges have different tastes and textures, but both serve a purpose. Can we really decide which is better? I suppose that if I had to choose one over the other, I would probably choose oranges, but I don’t have to make such a choice, and I will often reach for an apple. Apples are much better than oranges in pies.

That’s the way it is with web directories and search engines. Usually I’ll use a search engine but search engines often produce garbage results, so I’ll sometimes turn to a web directory instead. Oh yeah, I forget; if one-line posts in SEO forums are to be believed, no one uses web directories anymore.

Wrong. I do, and if my statistics are even close to accurate, I’m not alone, because from ten to twenty percent of the traffic coming to my sites are coming to me from web directories, and this tends to be targeted traffic.

Next, you’ll tell me that you can’t remember the last time your site received any traffic from a web directory. Quite likely, if you’re one of those people who considers himself to be wise in saying that no one uses web directories anymore, your site is probably not listed in any web directories, or perhaps you’ve only submitted it to free directories, which tend to be garbage directories that no one uses.

Don’t compare apples to oranges, or search engines to web directories. They both developed at approximately the same time, along parallel paths, but they don’t do the same thing.

When you enter a search term or phrase into a search engine, you will probably receive thApples and Orangesousands of results. Most of them will be wholly irrelevant to whatever it is that you are looking for but, if you are like most search engine users, you won’t look beyond the first page or two anyhow, which will yield from ten to twenty results.

Although most web directories include a search box, that is not the most efficient way to use a web directory. To use a web directory, you should browse its categories and subcategories by clicking your way down. The closer you get to the specific topic that you are looking for, the more relevant the listed sites will be to your topic. Once you arrive at the specific topic you are interested in, you will probably only find from ten to fifty listed sites; sometimes more, sometimes less. However, that’s probably more than you will find on the first page or two of search engine results, and if the directory is well organized, as many of them are, every listing will be relevant to your topic.

Once again, Google displays only ten results per page and most users will not look beyond the first page. This is why people spend so much time and money trying to get their site to show up on the first page of Google’s results.

Reputable web directories are assembled by human beings who know what they are doing, rather than by computer algorithms. At least ninety percent of the sites listed in a good web directory have been selected by the directory staff, and added to the directory for free, in the interest of seeding the directory with useful content.

For more than fifteen years, I have worked on web directories. When I am building a directory category, I use a search engine, so I am not at all arguing that search engines are not useful. However, it is rare that I will find more than two or three useful sites on the first page or two of the search engine results. I spend several hours every day on a search engine, so I know how to use a search engine, but still it takes a variety of search words and phrases, and as many as a hundred page or more, before I can find ten to twenty truly useful sites to add to any given directory category.

Not every submitted site is accepted into a reputable web directory. In fact, when I am working a submission queue, I find that most of the submitted sites are junk or low quality sites that do not meet the standards of the directory. Yes, this goes for paid submissions too.

Search engines give me more results to choose from, but search engines are more easily manipulated than web directories so the results that I get from a web directory are generally more relevant to whatever it is that I am looking for. On the other hand, there are times when I want more and if I am willing to dig deeply enough in the search engines results, I can probably find what I am looking for.

So, which is better? Are cars better than trains? Are apples better than oranges? Are search engines better than web directories? Why limit your options?

Attribution: The premise for the argument that I made here was borrowed, with permission, from a post made by Jill, a web directory operator who participates in our Web Directory Forum. You can read the full discussion here.

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.

'Apples and Oranges' have 2 comments

  1. April 17, 2015 @ 2:22 am Craig Frederickson

    People who insist that they never receive any traffic from web directories don’t have their sites listed in any decent web directories. Why would they, if that’s the way they feel about web directories?


    • April 17, 2015 @ 2:32 am WDD-Admin

      Since they don’t know anything about what does or does not work in off-page SEO (marketing), and they aren’t smart enough to avoid parroting nonsense, if they have submitted their sites to any web directories, they were probably the worst of the worst, of the sort you’d have your site submitted to if you responded to one of those ads promising to submit your site to a thousand leading directories for $9.99. If those sites are all they know of web directories, then they are right — they are junk. But they are also not real web directories.


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