Directories: Then and Now
It now seems to be lost in the mist of time, but way back in 1995 (and for several good years since) the first site most users turned to when trying to find anything on the net was a directory — Yahoo! Supported by such popularity, Yahoo grew from strength to strength and became the ‘definitive’ guide to the web. A site that wasn’t listed there was as good as non-existent. The phenomenal success of Yahoo provided a blue print for many sites. Hundreds, if not thousands, of directory sites were created, copying the basic formula: Human editors that scout the Internet, find sites and categorize them.
The situation now cannot be more different. Search Engines, and not Directories, rule the web. Although some of the better known are still thriving (like dmoz.org), many have closed (like goto.com). The rest are valiantly trying to find their place in the virtual world and fight for visitors and recognition. The decline of Directories led some commentators to maintain that they are, at best, complimentary to Search Engines. Other would go as far as claiming that they are just relics of the past, better left alone and ignored.
On that background, it is with some amazement that one hears every so often of yet another directory being launched. It seems that the enormity of the challenge to categorize millions upon millions of sites has an irresistible attraction for some people… From the site owner and webmaster perspective, we need to be absolutely clear about the benefits we can derive from being listed in a Directory.
There are two major reasons for submitting to Directories:
- Targeted traffic
- Link popularity
Clearly, the same benefits can be derived from a link from just about any site — not just from a directory. However, there are some significant differences between the two link sources:
- Directories have only one ‘purpose in life’: to provide links to other sites.
- Directories are an established source of ‘authority’ in regard to various subject matters. Being listed in them serves as testimony to the site’s ‘worth’.
- It is much easier and simpler to be listed in directories than in subject specific sites (not forgetting the fact that there may be a conflict of interest issue!).
Perhaps we should first review the concept of ‘Directory’, understand the exact difference from Search Engine and get to know the various types of directories – and what advantages each one has.
What is a Directory?
Many users don’t know the difference between a Directory and a Search Engine, and (quite frankly) they actually don’t care. This is not surprising, as most sites that started as a Directory, incorporate Search Engine results (like Yahoo) and most Search Engines also use data from directories (like Google). To the uninitiated, it all looks the same. However, for web masters and site owners understanding the distinction between the two is vital.
In my opinion, the only difference nowadays is what I call ‘the building block’: Search Engines use a web page as their building block, while directories use the web site. To illustrate, if the web was a library, then Directories would be a catalog of books, while the Search Engines would be the index of the books.
Much like catalogs, there are many ways to organize or categorize web sites. Although many sites have adopted the Yahoo method, others have pioneered different approaches.
Human Edited (categories)
This is the ‘traditional’ directory. It is the most prestigious, as each listed site is ‘hand picked’ and reviewed by a human editor. The assumption is that the editor is an ‘expert’ in his/her field and will select for inclusion only appropriate sites. Such directories usually have very clear and stringent acceptance rules, which ensure the quality of the search results. Invariably, the Directory is comprised of categories to which sites are ‘assigned’. This type of Directory is relatively hard to maintain, as it is labor intensive and hence expensive. That also explains why many such directories are using volunteers to do the work. Notable examples of Human Edited Directories are Yahoo, Dmoz, Joeant and Gimpsy, but there are many more. There is no doubt that this is the most important type to submit your site to. Only the scrutiny of an independent human reviewer can ensure the quality and suitability of a web site to a given category.
The Directory is structured in a very similar way as the Edited Directory, but it is the user’s decision as to the best category to place the site in. While this is quite attractive for the Directory Owner (the users do the ‘hard work’) as well as the Site Owner (freedom to place the site in any category), the search results may be far from satisfactory. One such Directory is Websquash. You may get benefits from registering in such a directory, but make sure you consider all the relevant aspects, as outlined in the next chapters.
Sites are classified by keywords, entered by the Site Owner in the Meta Tags of the home page. The attraction here is that the site is classified (potentially) by many keywords and the process is fully automatic (low maintenance). While easy to register, the sorting algorithm has very little to go by, hence the position of the site in the search results doesn’t mean much. Moreover, should you choose popular keywords you have little chance of being found due to the number of sites competing with you. On the other hand, selecting a rare combination of keywords suffers from the obvious problem of the minuscule number of searchers using that combination. One of the better known examples is ExactSeek, which enjoys significant popularity. It’s attraction may be related to the use of the Alexa ranking, which measures the site’s popularity, as a primary sorting criterion of the search results.
Instead of letting the Site Owner decide which keywords to use for finding his site, this type of directory allows every user to determine the relevancy of keywords. This latest addition to the Directory family harnesses the public vote to examine and determine relevancy of keywords to sites. Each user may choose to rate a (random) site and voice his/her opinion of the suitability of specific keywords to that site. The best example for such a site is Netnose. Due to the democratic process, it is highly likely that relevancy will be good. However, for such a site to achieve prominence requires a larger number of users willing to donate their time and effort to that rating activity. So far, that doesn’t seem to have happened.
Pay Per Click (PPC)
While technically PPC Directories are of the User Classified type, their business model implies some significant characteristics that Site Owners should be aware of:
- A link from a PPC is never a direct or simple link. Hence, being listed in a PPC Directory will never help to increase Link Popularity with Search Engines.
- A link from a PPC Directory remains in place only as long as the user’s account is cash positive.
- PPC Directories try to maximize their revenues by encouraging Site Owners to bid for as many keywords as they can, even those that are only remotely related to their site’s business.
In short, you are welcome to use PPC Directories and buy traffic to your site via that route, but for the purpose of a link campaign, PPC Directories cannot be relied on at all!
What is ‘targeted traffic’?
As mentioned in the preface, Directories are no longer a primary source of traffic. They are, however, an excellent source of targeted traffic.
Even with the advancement of Search Engine technology, the keyword based search method, common to all search engines, is still far from perfect. That is – many search results do not actually match the user’s requirements. Thus, although Search Engines are bound to be higher in the web site logs when counting ‘referrals’, many of those visitors will NOT become ‘customers’, as they had a different requirement when they conducted the search. In the SEO terminology, the ratio between customers and visitors is known as the ‘conversion rate’. Ideally, a site would aspire to have a conversion rate of 1.0 (every visitor becomes a customer), but this is obviously never achieved.
Thus, it is not enough to simply ‘count’ the number of visitors. One must also look at the ‘conversion rate’. For example, if one source of traffic sends 1000 visitors/day with a conversion rate of 1% and another sends only 100 visitors/day with a conversion rate of 20% – the latter provides TWICE as many ‘customers’ as the former. We can say that the second source provides better ‘targeted traffic’.
As classification is the critical activity and purpose of every Directory, a lot of effort and thought is directed to the creation, maintenance and updates of the category ‘tree’. The purpose, obviously, is to provide an intuitive and precise category structure. Are you in any doubt as to the nature of sites found in this DMOZ category?
Or the following Gimpsy category?
It is therefore safe to assume that users who trail through either Directory structure will have a very clear idea of what to expect from sites found there. Such matching of content with user expectation guarantees that the conversion rate of visitors from Directories will be significantly better than standard Search Engines.
In summary: Even though Directories provide a far lower level of traffic compared to Search Engines, the quality of that traffic is superior. If ‘conversion rate’ is a meaningful concept for your site, you would be wise to consider Directories as traffic source.
Don’t take their word for it
Traditionally, Directories do not publish traffic generated by them. What little data is published suffers from two main problems:
- It is NOT independently verified
- It relates only to traffic the directory has received – not traffic it has generated
While the first point is self-explanatory, the second needs further clarification. To illustrate, one often hears Directories declaring that they has so and so many thousands or millions of searches. Even if it is true, which we cannot verify, what does it mean in terms of clicks? If the search results are particularly bad, only a small fraction of the searches will result in a click to a listed site.
If not PPC based, there is little incentive for the Directory to develop the elaborate and time consuming programs and database structures that will allow it to correctly record all outgoing traffic. Thus, even if they were willing to publish such data – they may simply not have it available! In short, the Directories themselves cannot be relied on for relevant and independently verified information.
Site owners and webmasters have therefore no alternative but to resort to second hand inference. The widely cited Alexa index is the most notable attempt to measure ‘traffic level’. Alexa ‘knows’ about user’s activity only if the user has downloaded and installed the Alexa toolbar. The ‘self selecting’ nature of the user population sample, which uses the toolbar, led many people to argue that the results are biased. Although Alexa registered many millions of downloads of its toolbar, there is no way of knowing how many of them are being used. It is also fairly easy to show that some of the sites that rank very high cannot possibly be truly that popular. (See list of top 100 sites here.)
It is worth noting that Alexa provides historical data too, of up to 2 years back. You may wish to consult that information, as it can be a real eye opener. For example, you may discover that a low ranking site is simply very new — and the last month shows a remarkable increase in traffic. On the other hand, you may also find sites that while still ranking high have lost market share in the last few months, and may be on the decline slope. As an illustration, see the DMOZ graph.
It is common knowledge that it takes very little effort to pull a site into the 100,000 and better ranking range. It is also acknowledged that it is practically impossible to artificially boost a site’s ranking below the 1000 mark. To make it easy, we’ll divide the Alexa rank to ‘bands’. Please remember that a ‘high rank’ is represented by lower numbers, and vice versa!
- 1 – 1000: Heavy weight, highly visible and influential, with excellent traffic generating potential.
- 1,001 – 10,000: Solid presence and good traffic generating potential.
- 10,001 – 100,000: Site has some presence, but is relatively a minor player.
- 100,001 and lower: Site is virtually an unknown. Unlikely to generate any traffic at all.
Please note – those bands are artificial. It is imperative not to be ‘mesmerized’ by the Alexa ranking and to attach too much significance to what may be, in reality, just a reflection of ‘sampling error’. To overcome this ‘myopic’ view of the Alexa ranking, you are highly advised to use 25% as the margins of error. In other words, a site with an Alexa rank of 10,000 is indistinguishable from sites ranking from 7,500 to 12,500 and a site which ranks 5,000 is effectively equivalent to a site anywhere in the 3,750 to 6,250 rank range.
There is another way to gage potential for traffic, which we will call here ‘secondary reference’. A ‘secondary reference’ is when a user looks up a term in a Search Engine, say Google, and finds an entry of a Directory page indexed under that term. Should the user click on that entry and visit the Directory, he/she would be faced with several sites listed there, and if appropriate, the user may well click on the Directory listed site and visit it. In other words, the user did not go to the Directory in the first place, but was ‘directed’ to it from a search engine.
There is no simple way to determine the likelihood of ‘secondary reference’ traffic from a Directory. But the following factors are bound to play a role:
- To be found in a Search Engine, the pages of the Directory must first be indexed by it. This is sometimes referred to as ‘Search Engine Saturation’. The more pages indexed – the greater the likelihood of being found.
- The higher the PR of the home page of the Directory, the bigger the chance of pages from it ranking highly in search results (at least in Google).
- The larger the number of back links the Directory has, the higher the likelihood of users arriving at the Directory for searching purposes from other sites.
In contrast with the simplicity offered by the Alexa ranking, ‘secondary reference’ cannot be easily quantified, and must therefore remain mostly intuitive and indicative.
The final element you should consider relates to the site’s position (or rank) in its category. Most people are aware that the position of a site in the Search Engine results pages is critical. That is — if your site is not found in the first 2-3 pages (say 30 sites), you will not get any traffic from that search phrase. Few people are aware that the same logic also applies to Directories. For example, Gimpsy claims that nearly 70% of all the click-throughs were generated by the first 10 sites in each category (see their FAQ). Indeed, there is no reason to believe that users will visit page after page of the same category, unless they are looking for something really unique.
Thus, you are more likely to get traffic from a Directory if your site is among the first in its category. If a Directory gives you no control over your position, you are at the mercy of their sorting method. Whenever you are given some freedom (in return for payment, reciprocal promotion or other arrangement), it may be well worth your time to investigate, and if appropriate, take further action.
The magic of Link Popularity
While traditional Directories are edited by humans, Search Engines are pure computational sites. The billions of pages now held in the Search Engines database render human intervention impractical. From the gathering of web pages using ‘robots’ or ‘crawlers’, through their indexing of that information and finally the ranking of those pages in the search results — is all done by software and computation.
The first two stages (assembling and indexing) are relatively simple, but the third (ranking) presents a much higher challenge. How would the Search Engine determine which one of the many million pages that contain a particular word or phrase should be shown first? Get it right – and people will be using it time and again. Get it wrong – you will be dropped like a hot potato.
The one engine that seemed to consistently ‘get it right’ was Google. Its secret was the addition of one ingredient that was not used by any other Search Engine before — links. According to Google, a link is considered a ‘vote of confidence’ from one page to another. The more links – the more votes. Moreover, links from ‘important’ pages are valued higher than votes from ‘non important’ pages. What’s an ‘important’ page? Well, a page that has a lot of other pages voting for it, in other words — is heavily linked to. Google’s founders coined the term PageRank to describe the numerical value of the page’s Link Popularity. As soon as Google introduced Link Popularity in its ranking algorithm, users found the results to be amazingly accurate. Other Search Engines were quick to follow suit. It would be safe to assume that Link Popularity now plays a significant role in the ranking algorithm of all the major Search Engines.
The challenge for site owners and web masters is to increase Link Popularity, which in turn increases the likelihood of pages from their sites appearing high in the search results. One of the best ways to start a link campaign is to get links from Directories. If you put the right amount of effort (and money) into it, you can see your Link Popularity increase significantly in a short space of time. The question is: How to judge the relative merits of Directories? Which ones are worth paying for? What elements do you need to look for to help you make an educated decision?
The first and most important consideration is the link type. There are two types of links: Simple Link and a Redirected Link. You cannot discover the difference by clicking on them — the results are absolutely identical, but from the perspective of a link campaign – the difference is fundamental. As far as Link Popularity is concerned, the Redirected Link is absolutely worthless. Here is why:
A Simple Link is a link that contains the target URL of the site and directly points to it, as in this link: http://www.target-site.com. On the other hand, a Redirected Link points to a URL inside the current site, usually to a script file, and the address of the target site is passed to the script as a parameter, like this: http://www.this-site.com/jump.php?www.target-site.com. You can check the type of links used by a Directory by observing the ‘Status bar’ while hovering your mouse over the links.
When a Search Engine visits a Directory that uses Redirected Links, it does not get from it the ‘vote of confidence’ for the linked sites — as they do not show up as links at all! If anything, such links only ‘strengthen’ the internal script page, as there may be thousands of links pointing to it. Your site, if listed in such a Directory, will not see any of it.
This is another obvious and logical consideration. To gain Link Popularity, the Search Engine must ‘know’ that you are listed in the Directory. In other words, the Search Engine must capture the pages of the Directory and index them. Only then can it add the link from the Directory to your site – to your link popularity. This measurement is also known sometimes as ‘Search Engine Saturation’. You can check the Search Engine Saturation of any site by using the appropriate search command in the Search Engines themselves, or you can take advantage of one of the freely provided tools such as Market Leap.
When examining the results, do not just look for the highest total figure. As mentioned above, Link Popularity is now used by most (if not all) Search Engines. Find out if the Directory has good ‘presence’ in all the Search Engines. You will soon discover that some Search Engines are notoriously difficult to get indexed by, while others are relatively easy. A good ‘spread’ of Page Visibility among several Search Engines increases the chances of your site being picked up and indexed by them too. Thus, not only will you gain in Link Popularity, but also your site will be present in their index!
Not all links are created equal – some are more important than other. If you have the Google toolbar installed, it will give you a rough estimate on the page’s ‘importance’, or PageRank (PR), on a scale of 0 to 10. A Directory with a high PR is more important than a Directory with a low PR. A Directory with many sites linking to it (back links) is more important than a Directory with just a few. Here, too, you can query the Search Engines themselves to find out or you can use the Market Leap tools) to get all the information easily and in a nicely presented format.
The devil, as always, is in the details, so it pays to pay attention to them. Invariably, the Home Page of the directory will have the highest PR, but very few (if any) sites will be listed there. You should try to examine the PR of the specific Category in which your site will be listed to get an idea of the ‘strength’ of vote you are likely to receive from it. For example, although DMOZ has an exceptionally high PR of 9 on its home page, the deep category of Top: Business: Consumer Goods and Services: Sporting Goods: Fitness Equipment: Pilates Method is just PR 4. There is nothing wrong with a PR of 4, quite to the contrary, but it is not exceptional.
Last but not least, be wary of Directories that show a ‘grey bar’ in Google’s toolbar. This could mean that the site is very new, and Google has simply not visited it yet, but it could also mean that the site was banned from Google, and a link from it may be more harmful than helpful. As in real life, you may be judged by the company you keep – and not just by who you are.
And in return…
While some Directories provide a totally free, no-strings-attached, submission option, many Directories expect or require something in return. In most cases – it’s simply money, ranging from a few dollars to several hundred. Few require an annual subscription to keep your site listed, but most are satisfied with a one-off payment. After all, your site will not be reviewed annually…
In addition to (or instead of) payment, some Directories insist on getting a link from you before they agree to list your site. Others may require you to agree to get periodic emails that include promotion material for various products. Still others suggest that your site will only be listed if you join them and become an editor. There are many variations and some Directories offer several options to Site Owners.
How can you make a good decision when faced with so many options and considerations? The answer lies, perhaps, in limiting your options and dealing with just a few directories. First, you must establish your goals for this link campaign. Is it traffic, Link popularity or both? Then, compare the sites that meet your requirements and rank them according to how closely they match. You may wish to consult freely available comparison tables, such as the one provided by Strongest Links. Finally, introduce the payment or condition imposed by the Directory. If you did it properly, the answer will simply unfold naturally. You are likely to discover that some Directories provide excellent value for money, others may be good value and some may be poor or very poor. The final arbiter on this question is you.
Few points worth remembering:
- Every statistical measurement merely reflects the current status of a site. Some Directories may grow and become world leaders and some may disappear altogether.
- Editors are humans too. You are much more likely to get a favorable response from them if you conduct yourself with dignity and integrity, and show consideration and courtesy to the Editors you contact.
- Almost all Directories provide guidelines and instructions for site submission. Study them carefully – this is time well spent as it may save you future aggravation and mismatch expectations.
- A very comprehensive and accurate source of information about Directories can be found here. Most of the major Directories are mentioned there, and all the important measurements that were discussed in this article
Best of luck in your Directory Submission campaign!
MC is the CEO of Gimpsy (http://www.gimpsy.com), a unique directory that classifies interactive sites according to the online activity provided by them. Submitting a site to Gimpsy entitles the user to a special extended free trial of the Strongest Links (http://www.strongestlinks.com) facilities.
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