The SEO world has been following with rapt attention the news of dozens of directories’ penalization by Google. For a very long time, directories were the mainstay of linkbuilding, and they do retain an important role in linkbuilding to this day, albeit a diminished one. So with the news that some of the best-known directories around were being slapped by the Internet’s most popular search engine, the debate about the ongoing relevancy of directories has been reopened.
In this article, I will propose my answer to a question that has been bothering search marketers for so long and introduce the New Directory.
For those of you who might not have known, one of the most perennially popular questions on SEO forums and blogs is whether directory submissions are worthwhile. With search engines counting decreasingly on directories as part of their algorithms, should SEOs still bother submitting? Or will other tactics provide a better ROI? (The subsequent question for those convinced of its worthiness as an SEO tactic is which directories to submit to.
Underlying the debate is the question of the value that directories offer surfers. The question can be put thus: “Why would a random surfer visit a directory?” The answer for most directories is … there is no reason.
Offline, the Yellow Pages help people find businesses. Search engines fill this role online in a much more effective way than directories ever could. The engines have taken away the raison-d’être of online directories as we know them. Why would you bother digging through 5 levels of a directory – in what may turn out to be an irrelevant category so that you will need to start over – when you could just type your keywords into MSN Live and get your answer instantly?
That’s why directories need to have their purpose re-examined.
As we have just seen, the purpose of a directory offline is to provide searchers with an index of various options relevant to their search. If you look up “cabinet makers” in the yellow pages, you’ll find some phone numbers (and email addresses for the smart cabinet makers) that you can call for more information. In this paradigm, directories function as the starting point of a search.
But directories are obsolete as the starting point of a search in the online world, because of search engines. So what’s a directory to do?
Directories will become the end points of searches, if they want to remain relevant. Rather than list websites, directories will provide answers. The business model is already out there, and you’ve probably seen it around: About and Wikipedia are masters of it. Yes, I’m talking about articles. Not just your uncle’s “Here, go post the text of my brochure on Ezine Articles” type of articles, though.
Presenting … The New Directory: peer-reviewed articles with deeplinking.
The New Directory is a destination, not a starting point. It no longer serves as an intermediary for a person to ask a question to and deliver up an answer from its list of businesses/people. The New Directory serves as a destination where the question is answered. To answer the question, the New Directory relies on articles submitted to it.
Let’s compare About, Wikipedia and Ezine Articles to get a better handle on where the New Directory situates itself.
About and Wikipedia rank on the peaks and summits of the SERPs because they provide genuine value to users. Their articles are well-written, informative and generally feature proper spelling and grammar.
By comparison, Ezine Articles ranks on occasion, but mostly it doesn’t. This is because the overwhelming majority of its articles are of average-to-mediocre quality. The difference is not just in awareness, where Wikipedia will get links to its articles due to brand awareness that Ezine’s lesser brand awareness might not get it. It’s the quality of the writing.
To give you an example, I once found a fairly informative piece on Canada’s Constitution. It almost didn’t get reposted on my site because the grammar and style were such a headache and required so much editing.
Directory Owner Challenge One: Quality Control
The first challenge facing New Directory owners and promoters then is to ensure that the articles their directory features are only high quality pieces. How can that be done?
The solution I offer to ensure quality control is
• overseen by an editorial team.
(To the folks at Avenue Q: That’s what you can do with a Bachelor of Arts, with an English major.)
I’ll be honest here: this isn’t entirely an original solution. I borrowed the idea from web design forums like Sitepoint (want to review my new corporate site?) where those people who want a review of their website must first review the work of others. I had to review three other sites before I could submit my own for review.
Similarly, The New Directory requires people to read and review other people’s writing before submitting their own. It requires a minimum amount of commentary on certain set aspects of the work – other aspects can also be discussed but there is a baseline set that must be reviewed – and a grade from 0-10, 10 being the best.
For example, The New Directory might ask for a minimum 150 words covering originality, style, grammar, quality of analysis and depth of research. This would then be rounded out by a grade. In this way, the New Directory can ensure a minimum substance to each review.
Anonymous and Randomized
The reviewer’s name is not available to the author, nor is the author’s name available to the reviewer, though both are available to the editors (we’ll get to them in a moment). This ensures that reviews are not biased upwards or downwards based on friendship/adversity/admiration/loathing between parties.
Once an author has written a certain number of reviews, they can submit one article. This article will in turn be randomly distributed to other would-be-submitters for review. Once a minimum number of reviews have been written on the article, it will have its average grade calculated. In order to gain admission into the directory, the average grade must be above a certain mark.
This system is further reinforced by the oversight of human editors. Their role is to control for unusual circumstances and thus maintain the directory’s quality. They would do this by checking on those articles that narrowly miss admission and those that display some strange characteristic.
Articles that narrowly miss are those within half a mark (a mark if you’re lenient) of the minimum required average. Editors would have the power to admit them to the directory if they deemed them good enough.
Strange characteristics might include oddities like four out of five reviews giving the piece a 10 and the fifth giving it a 3 – a large discrepancy between what most of the reviews said and what one or two of the reviews opined. Overly harsh or lenient reviewers would see their other reviews checked out by editors as well.
Note: Editors’ work should be limited by the fact that this system requires people to write detailed reviews before posting their own article. Further reducing their workload is the fact that potential submitters know that only good writing will be admitted into the directory.
Thus your submitter is someone confident in the quality of the article they’re about to post. And they’re dedicated enough to getting it into the directory that they’ll take the time to write reviews of others’ articles.
The sluggishness and slow-death of the ODP (taken as an example for being the largest human-edited free directory around) is avoided by The New Directory as editors needn’t personally look at each submission, but only at the strange ones. The directory would be regularly populated with new content independent of the editors’ work. Editors’ contribution would just be to help populate The New Directory with even more content.
Directory Owner Challenge Two: Attracting Quality
I’ve just shown that it’s possible to ensure you only accept quality into your directory. But now that you have a moderation system in place, how do you attract quality writers to begin with? You need to give them something they want.
Most people submit to directories because they want links. That’s why many SEOs were so bothered by Google’s assault on such a great number of the directories that they had relied upon. Previously effective sources of links were now useless.
So attracting quality can be done by giving links to your authors (those whose articles achieve the minimum required grade). But you want to ensure that you offer your visitors good value now that they’re on your site (recall that a random surfer has no reason to visit old-style directories in the era of search engines).
So don’t just let the links be generic: make them deeplinks to quality content the authors posted on their own sites. You can include these in a bio paragraph at the start/end of the article or on a separate author bio page (and rank for the author’s name so that people who look them up will find an answer in your New Directory).
These links will be more valuable to authors than regular directory links for two reasons. First, they will be able to funnel traffic to the authors’ sites, which is the ultimate sign of an editorial quality link. Second, they will link to pages with little outside link popularity.
Other ideas to attract talented writers to submit their pieces to you: Offer cash or prizes for the best article of the week/month. It could get authors to edit their piece a little more thoroughly or even submit a better piece that they had wanted to save for their own site.
Directory Owner Challenge Three: Attract and Retain Editors
The editors of The New Directory are linguistically proficient experts interested in creating/developing a name for themselves as a topical authority. So the first place to look for editors is in places where their writing may already be published. Look at niche magazines, industry-specific websites and so on. Check out About.com and Wikipedia too.
Once you’ve identified your targets, you’ll need to pitch them on becoming editors. The benefit to them is an author bio page accessible from the homepage, with links to their own sites, publications and so on. In addition, they won’t need to write individual reviews before submitting their own articles (since they’ll already be reading plenty of articles as part of their editorial duties) and will see their articles passed on to regular contributors faster – skipping the line, if you will. Again, cash or prizes doesn’t hurt if you have the budget.
Managing Your Editorial Team
Retaining editors could probably be an article in itself. From my own experience as a soccer coach (similar role to human resources) and as a moblog owner/manager, I can suggest generous amounts of recognition, constructive criticism and a relationship that goes beyond strict business.
For instance, I always praised my players when they showed they had acquired a new skill or were working hard at such acquisition. Compliments go a long way, especially when you’re on a budget.
Constructive criticism addresses work done, not persons. You might say: “Way to find those three obscure articles we almost relegated to the bin. Try and do it faster in the future if you can so we get that content available to our users sooner.” Notice that the critique didn’t say they were a slow editor?
Other points of note are that it started with some kind words, to soften the blow. It also avoided the word ‘but’ so that the advice doesn’t come off as criticism (which everyone hates) but rather a suggestion for future improvement (perceived neutrally or as an appreciated tip). Not only will such criticism help you improve your editors’ work, it will motivate them to keep it up as they see somebody is paying attention.
Finally, I recall that with both my coaching and my moblogging, I regularly chatted with my team about non-work issues. For example, some of my players told me about their weekend up north before our semi-final. A fellow blogger would fill me in on the celebs he’d met/spoken to and the important work he was doing at Wikipedia as an admin.
Conclusions on The New Directory
I hope that this article has helped convince you about the direction the directory industry needs to go. Plain old site listing directories are going to die out eventually for all but a worthy core that are already established, because there’s just no more reason for these directories to exist – nobody uses them.
The New Directory gives visitors a reason to surf it by being a destination, rather than a starting point. It answers questions rather than serving as a medium to ask them through.
For its functioning, The New Directory relies on its would-be-submitters to also play the role of reviewers. They will provide the core content of the directory while remaining anonymous to each other [until their article is posted]. Editors will provide some oversight to ensure quality articles don’t somehow get left out.
I don’t pretend to claim that The New Directory is infallible. There are certainly minds more clever than my own out there that could figure out how to spam it despite the quality control system. I wasn’t trying to make the claim that my concept for a new type of directory is spam-proof. All I did was try to incorporate some safeguards into it.
I do think, however, that directories as they currently stand are obsolete old sites in the era of my search engines. My further claim is that by changing their paradigm of the purpose to be served by their directories, directory owners can make their sites relevant to surfers again. And by providing answers – who knows? They might yet reclaim their place as the starting point in a search as people bypass the search engines entirely in favor of their favorite directory. That is The New Directory.