Web Directories have been the norm for the world wide web and for search engine optimization for a long time. But are they still relevant in this age of advanced AI Google Updates?
Well, as Head of Web SPAM at Google John Mueller said, “in general, no”. But the key words in that answer are “in general”. That’s the usual answer we get from John and, as much as we’d like to say we will dissect it, the truth is that we can only be speculating and interpreting things based on own knowledge and experience.
Let’s jump to it and find out whether web directories are still useful for SEO in 2021.
- What Are Web Directories Really?
- Do Web Directories Still Work for SEO in 2021?
- Should You Disavow Directory Links?
What Are Web Directories Really?
In order to better understand why directories work or not in 2021 we have to create a background for them. Like an introduction.
Most people probably think of directories as just sites that list other sites. While that’s true, the reality is that they’re much more.
Before modern search engines, such as Google, web directories were THE INTERNET.
Why Web Directories Were Created
In the very early days of the internet, only a few people had websites. Internet connections were uncommon and there wasn’t much profit to be made out of it. Still, different websites emerged, in different niches.
However, you had to actually remember the domain names in order to access those websites, as there was no Google.
But, as the internet grew, more websites started showing up. Soon enough, people couldn’t remember all those names. But some clever guys from Yahoo! had the brilliant idea to store the best website into something they called a web directory.
At first, only a few websites were listed, the most ‘popular’ ones or the ones that they thought were worthy of being listed. This way, you would only have to remember one website (Yahoo!) if you wanted to find all the other good sites.
At first, the sites were listed alphabetically but, as the number grew, they started getting listed under categories and subcategories. This way it was easier for users to find what they needed.
Web directories made money out of selling advertising space or boosting certain results in exchange for a fee.
Why Web Directories Died
Unfortunately, when the number of sites started getting way too high, people soon realized it wasn’t so convenient to browse through all those categories. It would take too much time and, ultimately, the best results were mixed up with the less good ones.
This is how search engines appeared. It was by far more convenient to type in a keyword and get a list of top results than to browse through categories trying to figure out which website is the best.
The search engines worked on algorithms, just as they do now (although not as complex). Depending on the keywords in the title and other factors, some sites would rank better than others.
Yahoo! had its own search engine. However, it is no secret that Google took the lead because of their improved algorithm, but this isn’t the only reason why Google eventually took the lead. Yahoo! was a giant back then, in the days of Yahoo! Mail, News, Answers and Messenger, but a number of bad decisions made them fade out.
The Web Directory Legacy
Even though web directories dropped dramatically in popularity, people still used them. But not for what they were supposed to used them.
As much as people say that web directories are still useful, the truth is that people have been using them merely for link building and online marketing for a long time.
I’m 25 now and I’ve been using a computer since I was 6. My first contact with the internet was in 2002 and I can’t recall ever browsing on a web directory. I remember Yahoo! and Google. I remember ODC ,DC++ and other popular hubs. I remember Floppy disks with drivers. But I don’t remember web directories.
In fact, my first contact with web directories was back in 2013, when I first started learning about SEO. I had probably ended up on similar websites before, but not solely for searching a specific website.
Although the truth was that web directories weren’t of interest to the general public, new web directories kept popping up.
There were of course, useful directories, such as business listings (Yellow Pages), which people visited if they wanted to search for a particular business (name, phone, address, legal details, etc.).
There were also niche directories, which only listed websites in a particular field. Those might have got some organic traffic and potential customers when people searched for things like “list of XYZ websites”.
But the truth is that, most of the time, web directories were only there because links brought better rankings. People found ways to get listed on as many directories as they could, therefore destroying the purpose of a directory. Even paid directories were full of SPAM.
Fees were usually low, ranging from $5 to $20 if you wanted to get a listing on the homepage. However, most of the time that wouldn’t bring much more traffic to your site, since most of the users visiting web directories were SEOs trying to build links.
I’m not afraid to say that I only visited web directories for link building purposes. Everybody was doing it and it worked. It was easy and convenient.
But the question is… do they still work now?
Do Web Directories Still Work for SEO in 2021?
In a local SEO social media group somebody tried to prove a point by showing us a #1 result for a keyword, claiming that he had only built 2 directory links to that page and it’s now #1.
He was trying to attack us “white hats” that always state web directories don’t work when, in fact, he had proof that they do. Only problem was the keyword he was ranking for had virtually 0 searches and the competition was basically inexistent.
Did the web directory links actually helped him to rank better in Google’s search results? Probably… Did he prove any points? Definitely not.
Web Directories probably still have a small impact on your rankings, just like any other site that links to you and passes Page Rank. However, because they’ve been abused as an SEO tactic over the years, Google penalizes people that use web directories. With the rise of Penguin 4.0, many of them are probably ignored.
Or, as John Mueller (the current Head of Web SPAM @ Google) said:
— ? John ? (@JohnMu) February 25, 2017
Bu that answer can be interpreted in very many ways. Let’s see first why web directories got such a bad reputation in SEO.
Web Directories’ Main Issues for SEO
I’ve already discussed how web directories don’t really provide much value as users don’t really use them for anything other than SEO.
However, the story doesn’t end there:
Web directories got spammy & tricky: As people always want the quick way, they started automating processes. With more automation, more SPAM came along. These types of things are inconvenient for Google because they waste a lot of resources. Don’t you just hate spam comments? I know I do.
Google eventually figured out that the best way to deal with this was to penalize people that would use directories as a way of improving their rankings. So when important updates such as Penguin started to roll out, web directories had the perfect opportunity to make money.
Although some websites were listed for free, now that Google was penalizing websites for spammy link profiles, some web directories asked for removal fees.
Web directories are not managed anymore: Even if you do find a good web directory, chances are that nobody is going to answer you.
A couple of years ago, I was in the process of building links for someone. Advertorials were too expensive for his budget and all their competitors had the directory links. Without exception. They ranked well, so I thought I’d better try it at least.
After a few days of efforts, it was pretty clear that it won’t work. Not because Google penalized me or anything, but because the directory sites either had errors on their submission forms or nobody replied/approved my sites.
Since they don’t make as much money as they used to, people have stopped putting effort into managing them.
Web directories are not efficient: Even if you manage to get some business directory listings, they will probably have a very little impact, if not none at all.
Your time is better spent creating content and engaging with your audience. 1-2 links won’t help at all and scaling this is risky and can result in penalties.
Google penalizes you: Of course, the biggest issue with web directories these days is that your website can get penalized if it tries to trick the Google algorithms.
Building links in mass, be it through web directories, blog commenting, article submission, guest posting, you name it, is risky and can get your site in trouble.
Now I’m not saying that you’re going to be penalized if you submit your site to a directory. By all means, if you find an interesting site that also happens to have a list of other interesting sites, go for it!
But it’s a good idea to check their background a little bit. What’s their domain authority? Is their backlink profile spammy? Are they linking to quality websites or a bunch of phishing potholes full of malware?
In other words, does that website bring any value at all to the internet or for any users? Is it in any way relevant to your site? If the answer is no, then you should definitely stay away from it.
Local SEO & Directory Listings
When it comes to local, it’s probably the only field where people actually still visit renowned “directories” to find a good location.
For example, Google My Business is considered to be a web business directory. To some extent, it is. It lists businesses. However, it’s turning more and more into a search engine itself. The rankings are done based on algorithms.
People do browse and look for reviews, but most of them just stick with the top businesses (the ones that get listed first by Google My Business on local search and Google Maps) because they are, usually, the best results.
When it comes to local SEO, it does help if your NAP details (name, address, phone) are listed on multiple websites. However, title, distance from the user and reviews probably play a more important role.
The key thing with NAP is consistency. Google might have some issues if you keep having a mixture of different names, phones and addresses all over the place.
However, let’s all be honest that citations here and there aren’t the key to local search SEO success. It’s not that they don’t help (they do, you get brand visibility) but whenever you have a citation, you should accompany it with a backlink.
Local business directories are a great start. For example, you might find sites such as “yourcitynews.xyz” that have a section called “Great Locations in Our City”. If you can list your local business there, that’s great because the relevancy comes from the local orientation of the website itself. Most news will be about your city, which means your business should be there to rank better in that particular city.
If you can’t find a local business directory, you can also find these types of backlink opportunities with BrandMentions. This tool monitors when your name/brand is mentioned on the web. You can then engage with people and build relationships (and also ask for a backlink in case they haven’t made one).
Directories That Are Still Good
Now obviously you’re probably asking “Hey, where can I still find good web directories if all are bad?”
Well… there are some. This isn’t really the purpose of this article, but I’ll only list a few so that you get an idea how modern, useful web directories actually look like.
White Hat SEOs will probably jump and say “How can you recommend profile link building or any sort of web directory link?”
The key word here is RELEVANCY. If the listing is relevant to your site, it is going to help you.
I don’t want you to take “web directories are bad” for granted and miss an opportunity that might actually be helpful to you.
Many search engine optimization experts react badly to blog commenting or forum posts, because they know it doesn’t work. However, blog comments are still the fuel of blogs. Forums are still popular in industries such as music, automotive, health and even fashion.
Matthew Woodward built an award winning blog and much of his direct and organic traffic was thanks to the posts he made in the BlackHat Forums. Just don’t spam. Be relevant. Be useful.
An example of good directories were the local sites that might have listings. I can’t really give a specific example, but I hope you get the point. If they have an active social media account, post from time to time and bring in some traffic, you can try to list your local business there.
It all comes down to relevancy. Is the listing relevant to your scope/niche? If yes, go for it!
Here I can give a specific example. SoundCloud is a directory for musicians, for example. If you’re a musician, you can get a profile backlink from your SoundCloud profile. Another similar example is last.fm.
Is this spammy? It could be if you just create a profile and leave it like that. But if you’re a musician, maybe it also makes sense to post on your SoundCloud account from time to time, build an audience there and actually send some traffic to your site through that link and maybe even get some potential customers.
Other good local listing sites are Yelp or maybe Yellow Pages. Although Google has heavily bashed them because they’re evil, it’s still a good place to list your business.
Why Do We Still Have Web Directories?
Most businesses, such as Moz or Yahoo, have closed their directories (Dmoz and Yahoo Directory).
The truth is probably that the web is still full of directories because of low maintenance costs (hosting and domain).
Many directories if not all lack moderators (which actually cost money), but still probably make some small amounts of revenue from advertising.
This whole article idea started from us observing these weird anchor texts such as “.2523765 yourdomain.com” in our tool for multiple clients. You might see these anchor texts in your cognitiveSEO dashboard as well.
They’re generated by The Globe network, a sort of directory that crawls and indexes websites by simply linking to them on pages which contain thousands of external links. The network is owned by Ascio Technologies Inc (a domain registrar). Luckily, I’ve looked at their backlink profile and they also have the spammy anchor texts, so at least it’s fair.
Their model is different. They want to sell the entire network of sites for millions of dollars. They present it as some sort of world wide web, the most visited site on the planet (which obviously, it isn’t). I’m not sure how old this thing is or how it started, but there’s a BlackHat Forum thread about the network where you can read more about this.
Should You Disavow Directory Links?
One thing that people rush in to do is disavow links that they think Google might consider spammy or that might get their websites penalized.
This is an entire topic to discuss and I really recommend that you read my article about disavowing links.
However, just to give you a short answer, in general, it’s a good idea not to play with the disavow tool unless you’re sure your site has been penalized and you have isolated the reason to be the link profile, after you’ve checked and excluded everything else.
For example, most of The Globe network, the site I’ve mentioned above, isn’t even indexed in Google, so it doesn’t really make any sense disavowing those links, since Google already doesn’t count those links in any way.
Generally, you should avoid them, but sometimes web directory submissions might be useful, especially when it comes to local businesses and local SEO. Before you submit your links, make sure that the online directory is relevant to your niche and has a good link profile.
What do you think about web directory submissions? Have you ever used them? Do you still use them? Do they still work? Let us know in the comments section (but be careful with the links if you’re a WhiteHat SEO as you might get penalized!)