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    4 mins

    Online Directories

    31 January 2023

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    Directories: Old Hat & Black Hat?

    Conceived as the web’s answer to the Yellow Pages, online directories played host to huge lists of links, often broken down into useful categories for the reader. These directories would send link juice to the sites they listed, boosting the Google rankings of the pages they linked to.

    SEO practitioners quickly cottoned on to the SEO benefits of listing websites in such directories, and the practice of bulk submitting batches of links to directory sites became common practice in SEO, and soon directories became a staple of blackhat SEO. Dodgy webmasters set up online directories that had no intention of ever actually being used as a means by which a real user might find a website, but instead existed solely to gain link juice via spammy backlinks.

    Google did not like this.

    Planting links on suspiciously spammy online directories has, for a very long time, been considered black hat SEO. Updates to Google’s algorithm have become extremely effective at penalising websites that get links from such directories. Best case scenario, since Penguin 4.0 and SpamBrain, Google will just ignore such links and pass no link juice, or ranking benefit, via them. Worst case scenario, they’ll slap you with a manual action (penalty).

    Is it ever okay to use an online directory?

    Yes, but it depends heavily on the quality of the directory. Search engines may dislike or even discount bad online directories, but good ones could be useful to your site, both for SEO purposes and for web users themselves.

    If you do want to list your site on a directory, be very selective and make sure you check its reputability. In 2011, Google’s Matt Cutts made a video differentiating between the spammy online directories (part of what he calls “link schemes”) that search engines penalise, and the higher quality ones that search engines respect.

    Generally, if you’re paying simply for the power of the link, Google and other search engines will do everything they can to stop it having any effect, and they may give you a penalty. On the other hand, a good, curated directory that genuinely exists to help users find great websites (for instance, perhaps there’s a curated list of great wedding planners, that have been hand selected by an industry expert and published in a selective online directory) will have all the benefits of a link from a high quality website with none of the drawbacks.

    Online directories can be good for business and local search

    Before we take a look at what makes a good link directory or a bad one, we should explore the areas directories can be most advantageous: business and local search. Just like the phone books of yore, online directories can still be useful for people looking for a particular service online. As long as these directories are high quality, of course, and not made solely for the link juice.

    If you are listed on a reputable online directory, make the most of it by editing your listing. Always include a link to your website, contact details, high quality photographs and a well written description of what you do. If allowed, include a Google map. This will help visitors find your business and strengthen your page ranking in your area.

    How to tell a good directory from a bad one

    As discussed by Matt Cutts and others, there are several criteria for telling good and bad directories apart. Here is our quick checklist of what to check before deciding to use one.

    Is the directory a household name?

    Some of the most well-known phone directories such as the Yellow Pages have online equivalents. Having a Yelp profile’s also a great idea. If you (and your potential customers) have heard of a brand, it’s more than likely that its directory site will have plenty of quality control, only accepting the best businesses. Search engines will take this on board and the visibility of your site will be boosted.

    Does the directory reject applicants?

    There are two types of directories: the first type accepts any business no matter what, the second filters through applicants, only awarding places on their directory to top quality businesses that will be of genuine interest to their visitors. Guess which type Google likes, and which one is considered spam? (In case we aren’t being clear enough, they like the selective ones and do not like the free-for-alls.)

    Does the directory list good businesses?

    If a directory only lists reputable and trusted businesses, such as your own competitors, it’s likely that Google will take it seriously and reward these businesses accordingly.

    Is the directory page relevant to your industry or service?

    There are some directories that cater for specific or niche areas that are considered useful, both by Google and by visitors, and are therefore trusted. Arca’s directory of asbestos removal contractors in Greater London is a great example of this. To find the equivalent for your sector, try googling, and check the rest of the steps on this list to make sure any directory you find is legitimate.

    Is the directory well-designed?

    Just because you have never heard of a directory, doesn’t mean it isn’t reputable. One factor to take into account is a directory’s design. The rule of thumb is, if it looks like spam it probably is spam. And even if it isn’t, a badly designed directory is still best avoided. This rule of thumb has been in place for many moons, largely since Google Panda update. If your website is badly designed, its rankings will suffer.

    If the directory looks as though its intention is to provide useful information to prospective clients through a clean, easily navigable interface, then it will probably be okay. If it looks shifty, as though its sole function in life is to gain link metrics for its listed businesses with little thought given to people using it as a genuine place to search for businesses, then it is probably a link farm or part of a link network.

    Should you remove old bad directory links?

    Your website might already have links from bad directories leading to it, and these could be doing some damage. In most cases, these days such links are more likely to just be ignored by Google, passing no ranking benefit but also not triggering a penalty.

    However, egregious over use can still result in a manual action. You could use the Google disavow tool. But, be warned, Google’s Garry Illyes has warned that the disavow tool often does more harm than good. Use with caution and, ideally, request your SEO agency to do it for you. Check our page on link spam to find out how to search for bad links, and for details on removing them.