A question that might be nagging at SEO beginners starting to learn about online search (which is intertwined with the History of the Web) is: What Exactly Is A Web Directory? And maybe even further: Why Should I Care About Web Directories? The short answer is they can still boost your fledgeling website by amounting to a foundational link profile and giving you a chance to promote yourself to a wider audience.

The long answer is more complicated. Directories have been in decline, can be spammy and with the ever more sophisticated Google Spider and Rankbrain, keywords and perhaps even links (gasp) could become obsolete. Through a combination of mass data aggregation and interpretation, precedent and deep learning the machine will process information as we do. Isn’t that the goal? This cuts to the core of why web directories are a historical phenomenon, why they were extremely popular and continue to linger into the present as a search staple. SEO strives to solve the document relevancy problem. This means organization and presentation are a major solution and directories become one of the easiest ways to serve relevant documents to users and store them among others.

Now, let’s dig in further. A Web Directory is like a Luddite or doomsday prepper’s Search Engine. If someone had serious arachnophobia or was allergic to web crawlers and there was simply no way they could use Ask, AOL, Baidu, Bing, DuckDuckGo, GoogleWolframAlpha, or even Yahoo, they’d abandon the Web entirely. Or start looking for a simple list of website links. And that’s all directories really are. A collection of links organized into classes like industries, music, art, countries, industries and so on. Those categories break down even further into sub-cats and can be further refined according to how good the directory is.

From a technical standpoint, web directories are catalogs served by a database organized in a tiered tree structure. They list a website’s root directory, while a search engine indexes the web site’s page. But web directories and engines aren’t always disparate entities. Since web directories use human editors, they typically also use third-party search engines for adding locations and for increasing the relevance of the returned result.

In web directories, a submission fee is often added to cover costs for human editors who review the site that want to be on the list. If your website has unique content and is professionally designed, it will have a higher chance of being accepted into a directory. In that sense, directories are more humanized as their contents are generally approved by human editors who are biased to non-machine elements like aesthetics, imagery organization, and cultural norms. All this contributes to the ways a directory can achieve its distinct hierarchical footprint.

From the SERP Pages of History

It’s well known that the first ever Web Directory surfaced in ’92 and was created by Sir Berners-Lee and hosted at CERN. This is the mythological beginning of the Web and Web Directories in general and will certainly be preserved as a historical object.

After that, web directories started emerging at a rapid pace as they were becoming a viable solution to online search on an exponentially growing Internet. The big four directories to emerge in the 90’s were Starting Point, Lycos, Yahoo! and Looksmart. Sadly, only Starting Point remains and are still one of the best pay to play directories in the business.

According to Web Directory Digest — the site we heavily reference in this section and encourage you to visit — the golden era of web directories is known to have lasted from 1995 through to 2005. During these years the rate of submission, traffic, and investment in technology was the highest. Eventually, the pure strain of an expanding Internet, web traffic, and search demands made an alternative solution extremely critical. This vacuum led to the creation of modern search engines like Overture (GoTo) and Google in the late 90s.

By early to mid-2000s search engines were becoming a household name and even though SEOs retained their love for directories because of backlinking power that value was eventually called into question. Google’s search engine outpaced all other engines purely through relentless R&D, establishing patent after patent and refining their algorithms. In 2011, Google itself shut down its web directory and in 2014 Yahoo!, an old and respected directory closed down.

But there are plenty of directories that are still active including Top Web Directory and many more which we’ve listed here. Take some time to explore them and learn to judge the quality of their build and unique organizational structures.

Why Choose a Web Directory? What About Backlinks?

Link building is simply a way of acquiring “approval” from other quality sites on the Internet that proves your page or domain to be trustworthy, quality and informative. It becomes the best document to serve for the situation because it’s been optimized for humans and machines. The more quality links or approvals you get the more likely it will be served up in Google Search.

In a way, that’s how society works as well. You start as a newborn and nobody can really vouch for the quality of your person or “character” — not even your parents can be sure. As you grow and encounter situations in life they create approval or trust flow from other people involved in those encounters. Obviously, the approvals have a higher quality if they come from authoritative sources such as your father or mother, community leaders, business leaders and so on.

If some shadowy, criminal (spammy) figure emerges from a dark alley and gives you a compliment and an approval it might boost your confidence or “cool factor”.

A Majestic SEO trust flow graph.

But in terms of a wider community that will not improve and even hinder your trust flow or approval rating. It’s all about the characters you want to associate with and what sort of approval you desire.

If we continue to carry the previous metaphor you can see that you also carry different “types of approval” or “approval profiles” in life. Most people in their work lives put on their “work hat” and carry themselves in a certain way to gain approval in that work setting. In return, they get work approval under a specific job title.

People also carry out hobbies or personal habits inside of their community lives that give them approval in that personal sphere. In return, they are known in their community as a good person with certain approved characteristics. Finally, you can have intimate social circles and habits that are known to a specific subset of people that also give a form of approval and contribute to your overall character.

In the Search world, these are considered link profiles and are important factors in the ranking of your site. Each profile is tied to different corresponding anchor styles, content and typically, a different corresponding type of link. Your site has a “work-life” where it can get citations tied to Branded Anchors and Keyword Anchors. It can also receive Naked or Domain Anchors as well as Social Signals and No-Follow Mentions which are more intimate and specialized.

The main point of this explanation is to show you the importance of a distributed link scheme and variety of link sources. In fact, the main Google patent for link building is US 8176056 B1 known as Determining Quality of Linked Documents and references the importance of varied link sources. Google’s new and aggressive Local Search algorithm updates in recent years place added value on business listings to prove local relevancy. In a way, business citations and web directories have regained some of their foundational importance and the best thing is around half of all directories out there give you a DoFollow link!

Web directories have minimal direct traffic and position at best. Nevertheless, if they are well managed and suggest specific functional categories on niche topics, then they may be worth your while. And like any other type of marketing online, if it’s great for searchers, then it is excellent for search engine optimization and search marketing.

In a recent unlikely turn of events, the local search relevancy craze and mobile first indexing have contributed to a late-life resurgence for directories. The old SEO joke that Google considers every business to be a pizza shop unless proven otherwise has now become more of a reality.

As SEOs and business owners across the world look to distinguish themselves as a niche entity in a local business district they must provide local relevancy indicators to the Google Search algorithm. In order to do this, they must turn once again to local citations which are currently best achieved through hyper-local directories, local link aggregators, charity and association lists as well as local map listings. Beyond that, a not so recent trend in consumer habits which prefers the micro marketplace, social media buy and sells as well as local review services like Angie’s List and TrustedPro has strengthened year over year.

Although Google is as strong as ever we can always catch a glimpse of regional web directories, niche listing sites and hand-curated local destination websites today and well into the future in one form or another.

A Summary Q&A on Web Directories

Are Web Directories The Best Way to Access Web Data? Certainly not.
Are Web Directories the Only Way to Get Noticed? Absolutely not.
Are Web Directories Still The Most Popular SEO Practice? No.
Do Web Directories Serve as a Decent Start For Your Web Presence? Sure!
Do Web Directories Help Solve the Document Relevancy Problem? To Some Extent.
Do Web Directories Help You Show Categorical Relationships? Sure they do.
Do Web Directories Give You Brand Mentions and Signals? Yes, they can!