Google's new search engine algorithm, popularly known as "Penguin," has been the cause of a great deal of consternation among SEO writers and webmasters. This game-changing algorithm has generated a demand for higher-quality content while imposing stiffer penalties on sites that fail to comply with the optimization best practices Penguin seeks. This has also affected web directories, which are effectively depositories of links to different sites around the web.

The key difference between a web directory and a search engine is twofold. First, a web directory is simply a mass of links that are ideally categorized by interest, location, and other factors, while a search engine pulls out the "best" of a given search topic and places them at the top of the list. Second, a web directory listing is often treated in much the same way as a paid link scheme, while a search engine listing affords a certain degree of legitimacy and thus confidence to the Internet user.

Matt Cutts, the head of Google's Webspam team, explains that there is a clear demarcation between lower-ranked and less trusted web directories versus those that Google regards as trustworthy. Some of the crucial criteria for Google trustworthiness include how often the site is updated, how frequently the site is purged of dead or faulty links, and the degree of editorial review of page listings. Low scores in any of these areas may result in a reduced page ranking or even Google refusing to list the page at all, while all of them working in tandem almost certainly, but not always, indicate a scam.

What is the most critical thing to look for in a web directory?

Cutts says editorial oversight and review is the single most important factor. For example, a site whose description in the directory is "Best SEO Website South Dakota" and whose real name is is a pretty clear indicator that there is little to no editorial review of the links submitted. To Cutts and Google, this is diagnostic of a linkbuilding scheme, which is exactly the kind of activity Google is trying to purge.

Any web directory you choose should have a clearly defined editorial review process. Among other things, the review process should not permit users to enter their own site description or assign the site to a category. While users may be encouraged to give suggestions, the editorial staff of the site will always retain the final say. This is important because it helps keep the links and sites on a directory clearly organized and of higher quality. Additionally, this "less is more" paradigm may sound authoritarian, but is actually of benefit to legitimate website owners.

Perusing the directory you are considering may raise more red flags. Does the site eliminate dead or fake links on a regular basis? Do the sites the directory links to offer content of real value, or do they largely appear to be SEO-laden spam? Just because it has a Page Rank of 5 or 6 does not automatically make the directory good, and there is a high probability that such a directory is likely to become Penguin's next target. This can result in throwing good money after bad, especially for a paid directory listing. Some giveaways that the directory is one of these include the words "Top," "The Best," "Leading" and "Ultimate" in their links. These sales words are often a key indicator that the directory exists solely for linkbuilding purposes.

How Do I Choose A Good Web Directory?

Info Vilesilencer, Aviva, and Jasmine Directory are some resources for the discriminating Webmaster to consider. These publish regularly updated lists of the strongest and most Google-trusted directories. This is a good starting point, because understanding what metrics are put into play to determine "the best" directories can help identify key points or "must-have" functionality of each.

As Cutts says, the level of editorial discretion is the real touchstone for assurance of Google-worthiness. A Page Rank of 7 is great, but without editorial oversight, that page ranking is likely to drop sooner rather than later. The degree of editorial involvement in the directory is one of the first things Penguin looks for, and if it doesn't like what it sees, the page rank tumbles accordingly. If the information about a given site reads like it was clearly intended for search engines rather than people, this is a red flag to Penguin. This is why it is so important to make sure that the link supplier does not have control over how or where the directory listing is filed.

The old saw "You get what you pay for" doesn't necessarily apply to everything on the Internet, as most users can tell you. Some highly reputable directories offer free listings with pay-for upgraded features and functionality, while others charge exorbitant amounts for not much, if any, return. Because of this, doing a little due diligence and researching which directories have the most positive feedback and best ratings through Google and other services can save a lot of time and trouble in the long run.

So, to recap, you should look for:

  • How the directory's page performs on Google
  • Volume of dead links (remember, lower is better)
  • Editorial oversight and clearly stated editorial policies for users
  • Reduced or eliminated user control of listings
  • Trustworthiness as stated by web directory analysis and listing services
  • Lack of SEO-heavy content on the directory itself

By following these steps and doing a little front-end homework, it's relatively easy to find a decent free or paid web directory listing that will keep your site in Google's good graces. The more Google-friendly a directory is, the better its Page Rank will be. The higher the Page Rank, the more likely it is that you will get more, higher-quality traffic. Do not assume because a directory has a high price tag it assures concurrent results. Editorial oversight is the real key to successful web directory usage.