Are IMHO directories dead? For the most part, yes. However, there are exceptions as well. The only time we see successful or highly ranked directories is when they are very niche and are managed by real webmasters who analyze each link manually to see if it’s worth listing. This approach ensures the webmaster builds an intelligent directory that offers depth to your SEO campaign and provides tangible results.
So what is the role of web directories today and are they worth your time? This article explains what value a web directory has to SEO, why it could still be useful, and the best way to benefit from a web directory.
Web directories today
Web directories are definitely not what they once were, however, we have witnessed the evolution of directories and websites that play that role in a modern setting – with significant success. Think Yelp! or TripAdvisor. These websites are directories of sorts, and they’ve grown enormously from their ability to provide intelligent, useful information (or value) to the user. On the other hand, there have been instances where we’ve seen Google pull down or demote dozens of directories that have no real value, while others are left to function freely.
How web directories lost value
About ten years ago article marketing was all the rage. The concept behind it was that you could create an article related to your niche and load it with keywords – sometimes at the cost of readability – and submit it to as many directories as you could. This would then get you links back to your website. A lot of websites practiced this form of article marketing and for good reason: it worked.
But while these types of links worked effectively to boost rankings, they also violated the rules set up by Google Webmaster as they only served the purpose of boosting rankings for websites.
When the internet started to expand in the late 1990s, a lot of users found it difficult to locate information about specific subjects. Search functions were a lot less developed then and it was a challenge to obtain results for specific keywords (even Google didn’t have a streamlined system for displaying relevant results back in 2000). So in order to give users broad access to information on a variety of subjects, web directories were set up.
Initially, there wasn’t much competition and the first directories received high rankings on the SERP. At the same time advertisers started appreciating the potential of directories for setting up a business model for their operators that financed itself. In addition, web directories offered new opportunities for SEOs who posted their articles with strong backlinks.
Getting a website listed on a directory used to be a sure path to web traffic and success. However, all this changed as search engines developed, and since 2012 when Google released Penguin, the value of article directories dropped significantly – particularly in relation to link building.
How web directories work
The main difference between a search engine and web directory is that search engines spider the web to search for new website pages and after assessing things like value and relevance, indexes the links to those pages.
Web directories on the other hand, function manually. Users upload links to the suitable categories, and editors go through the new links to see whether they should be included in the directory.
Quality web directories hire trained reviewers whose job is to evaluate submitted links and put them in the right categories. When done the right way, directories such as Dmoz.org are far more reliable than a typical search engine result because they are edited by real people who go through every link to determine whether it provides any relevant information. For users who are considering using directories, the most reliable are the ones that require fees and have editors to review links.
Keep in mind that search engines regularly refer to established web directories like Dmoz and botw.org when deciding how to categorize your website.
That’s why it’s recommended that you get your website listed because it cant hurt to have your link published in one of these respected, editorially-selective platforms.
Here’s what search engines consider when ranking a typical website:
a) How relevant the content on your website is
b) The manner in which content is organized
c) How much content would be considered relevant
d) Navigation and inter-linking
e) The number of quality, outgoing links and anchor texts used
f) Incoming and outbound links from external sources, and how those sources rank
on other search engines
That last point comes into play when you submit your link to respectable web directories. In case you’re wondering, these are some of the most respected directories on the web:
a) Curlie – this is an open-content directory that is managed by editors in a community called Open Directory Project. These volunteers are impartial and take time to review each submitted link before they only put it in their directory if it meets or exceeds their criteria.
b) BOTW (Best of The Web Directory) – They offer the same service but for a fee. Once a link is submitted and payment is made, they manually review it and only include it in their directory when they’re satisfied it meets their level of quality. Bear in mind that payment is not a guarantee of acceptance.
c) Jasmine Directory – A web directory that features businesses. If they accept your link it could mean being featured in their rather extensive network.
d) DirJournal Local Search – a well respected web directory, featuring mainly local businesses.
Depending on the directory, users may be able to post article descriptions of about 300 words. They can then add one external link and one image. The main criticism with directories is that they encourage low quality standards. The very fact that most directories are used as a source for backlinks means that users will ignore quality and focus instead on the bottom line: funneling traffic.
In some directories anybody can publish an article, even if they don’t speak good English, and their content goes online. Wikipedia took a different route with the way they allow members to edit content, and this has ensured they meet a reasonable threshold of quality- even if some of their posts don’t meet scientific standards, they’re still considered quality.
Google is well aware of this trick as a backdoor link building method and has devalued hundreds of directories as a result . But on the whole, it makes sense to go through the trouble of submitting links to paid directories because all search engines consume information on these platforms simply as the links have already been validated by real people.
Why would Google pull down hundreds of websites?
It might seem unfair to the owners (surely some of them must really be trying to offer an honest service?) but it would be bad for users if everybody were allowed to create plainly manipulative directories. If you take a closer look at any cheap or free directory, you’re likely to notice a trend. Without generalizing too much, here’s what makes Google pull down web directories:
a) Non-specific subject matter
Most people build websites with a specific niche in mind, and this is the same with directories. From a financial standpoint it makes sense to want to generalize the subject because then anybody can submit a link, however this gives google a signal that the directory might be manipulative.
b) Anybody can get in
If a directory allows any low quality, spammy websites to link to it, then it won’t be difficult even for a simple algorithm to detect and demote the directory. Google have been on the hunt for years about low quality links and “bad” online neighborhoods, and they use this kind of association to classify your link as potential signal for spam.
c) Stuffing links to make it look natural
Directory owners will go to great lengths to make links appear natural – such as adding links to major media websites, government resource websites, etc. For anybody who knows what to look for, it’s quite easy to spot this kind of forced “natural” linkbuilding over genuine, naturally built directories.
You have to look at the details to spot this. For instance, a section on driving might be filled with great resources, but when you click on a section about DUI attorneys you notice the page looks funny.
d) Directories that promote search engine link value, as opposed to real traffic
You may come across domains that use phrases like “high page rank” or “search engine optimized” when describing their directory. While it may come across as innocent marketing, to some people (such as Google), this is a good indicator that you’re out to sell links that are meant to manipulate search engines, and you have no regard for building quality listings in your directory.
f) Premium sponsorship
Whenever a directory offers to place your link in a higher category guaranteeing better placement or that your link will be included in every category, that’s a clear sign that the owners are engaging in shady link building.
g) Common trendy links
If you look through the directory and in their “recent additions” section you find they’ve added a link to a cheap cosmetic surgeon, a gambling site, a real estate company, and insurance lawyer, you can be sure that any time now Google will pull down that website.
In general, the lower the bar of entry into any web directory, the less inclusion into that directory is valued by Google, Yahoo!, MSN, etc. To avoid all this, some editorial directories will raise the bar by charging high fees (Yahoo!) and generally being very picky about who they include.
Another method used by premium directories to distinguish their services is to focus on a particular subject, such as web design, infographics, blogs, charities, etc. When going for directory links, its important to remember that not all links are good for your website, so it pays to be selective. Also, conduct research and learn about where your link will be placed before you proceed. You can check whether the page is being indexed on Google cache.
Another trick is to pace yourself. Follow this rule: for every two links you build with a web directory, follow it up by building at least one genuine natural link.
Strictly speaking, Web directories are still relevant
As long as search engines continue to refer to quality directories when ranking websites, the directory industry is still going to have a place in SEO. At the same time, Google must show that they are serious about eliminating paid links and manipulative directories, so they will continue to tighten the noose to show they want credibility in this area. At the moment, link buyers are still on their toes and some have shied away from spending cash because they don’t know whether a directory will be penalized.
Spend time in SEO forums and you’ll come across a lot of people who feel strongly against what they see a systematic de-valueing of web directories in general. These people build their own directories and spend money to submit to directories and serving affiliate links (they profit from selling advertising). Although it’s not as strong as it was a while back, there’s still a strong self-interest in having these general purpose, pay-to-get-linked directories looked upon favorably by Google and other search engines.
Sadly, SEOs who are not part of this link-building game and representatives of the major search engines all have a rather dim view of web directories at least with regard to link building.
To understand why directory link building might not be very popular with search engines, you have to approach this from the perspective of a search engineer. To illustrate this, let’s go over criteria that would make a directory well respected.
It should be a challenge to get your website linked, because the editors have to review each link to establish the quality and value of the website. We’ve already mentioned Dmoz and Yahoo! as good examples of directories that employ this selective method, but there are other places that you can link from that have the same principles and won’t include spammy links for whatever reason. A good example is Forbes’ Best of the Web, Nature.com, and eHub.
b) Designed for people, not machines
Any web directory that is created for the sole purpose of helping you boost your ranking should be avoided. If they have a list that is genuinely designed to help people, then search engines will definitely want those links to count; however, if that’s not the case, then it would be difficult to convince any search engine that the website isn’t manipulative. Here’s one way to spot such sites: if the owner is actively marketing the directory on SEO forums, watch out. The links are most likely low quality.
c) Well references directories
Any directory that gets links from other directory lists or affiliate links is likely to be treated with suspicion by search engines. Ideally, you want to associate with a directory that has earned a lot of high-quality links from reputable sources as it’s likely to carry more weight. Avoid using directories that have links that point to to other directories.
d) Niche subjects
In general, the more specific a directory is, the more valuable it is. This isn’t always the case, however you’re more likely to find what you’re looking for if you go through a niche directory. For instance, if you search through a directory dedicated to chemical engineering, or other specific field, any listings you find will most likely be of high value.
Since Dmoz established itself as the benchmark for web directories, a lot of websites have tried to clone their layout. The problem with that is most of these directories that clone established sites are almost always of low quality and provide very little value. On the other hand, those that are specially designed and have their own custom layout, hand-built from the ground, are more likely to have value.
f) Custom domain vs. trusted domain
Some of the most highly regarded directories are built side-by-side on globally-recognized domains and this means they’re more likely to be trusted than those that exist on their own domain. There are exceptions to this, but there is tremendous value in building a directory alongside a respected domain name.
g) No links to low quality neighborhoods
A directory that links to low-quality websites is fairly easy for search engines to identify, and they’re likely to shut it down. Try running this MSN command: “linkfromdomain:url.com” to see whether they have listings that could hurt your own ranking. If you see any website that you wouldn’t want to be associated with, then it’s a clear indication the directory is not worth your time or money.
When you consider all these factors, it makes sense to avoid those cheap general directories that ask for $20 to buy a link without any discretion. It’s simply common sense to want to know where your linking from and in any case, any successful link-building campaign takes plenty of time, effort, and money. So use your judgement to avoid getting in trouble.
A link is just a link?
SEOs have been saying this over the years but from what we’ve seen, it’s simply not true. Google’s Matt Cutts has hinted time and again that the main discussions here isn’t really about he type of link, but the type of page, or site, and the relevance of the link that plays a role in assigning value.
For example, if you’re doing blogger outreach, then you should be careful about offering value to the target. You don’t want to link to a blog that reviews workout gear on one post and baby oil on the next. It’s the same with directories: you want to consider the source and how it might impact on you. When you look at all this, a link is definitely not just a link anymore.
For anybody who is seeking good, reliable directory links that can add long term value, don’t lose hope. There are literally thousands of great directories that you can get listed in, you just need to spend some time looking through them to find what you need. Keep in mind that a good directory won’t always look like you might expect.
Some of them require antiquated submission and payment over email or phone; however, they’re worth it. Sites like the Atlantic Canada Portal Web Directory, Te Puna Web Directory, Molecular and Cellular Biology Department at Harvard University, Biolinks, and Comic Books X are good examples.
The main problem with those big directories is low quality standards -and this should be avoided at all cost. Your criteria for selecting a directory link or any other link for that matter should be whether it will send useful traffic, and this speaks to whether it’s built for humans or search engines.
When you think about it, the criteria we’ve used to determine whether a directory is link-worthy is basically the same criteria that makes any website valuable to the user (and this value easily translates into high rankings). Even if you don’t see the immediate value of directories, there’s no harm in using them as one more tool in your campaign to gain exposure.
Spend enough time crafting each submission. Take time on your website description, title, and any other information that you think may be of value or that your link requires. This can improve the chances that you’re accepted, and that they they give you optimal placement; or even allow you to customize your own anchor text.
Remember, there are no shortcuts in link building, so it helps to have the right attitude going forward. It’s a slow, painstaking process that involves providing value and being consistent, and believing that users will appreciate the work you put in. A successful SEO campaign will involve a lot of different tools, and this is only one of them.
If you'[re starting from scratch, take time to share quality content on relevant platforms such as social websites so that you have a link building campaign that mixes different elements. Another thing worth mentioning; the value of a link from any directory is relevant to where the website is in its life cycle. New websites can benefit from linking from a good directory as opposed to cheaper, general directories. For older websites that have established the trust of search engines and a broader link portfolio, they don’t need directories as much.