Directories: Old Hat & Black Hat?
Directories were once an SEO staple. 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. As a perhaps too welcome side-effect, 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 effectiveness of such directories, and the practice of bulk submitting batches of links to directory sites became common practice in SEO. Recognising the potential for huge profits, enterprising webmasters set up online directories that seemed to exist solely for SEO purposes, no longer keeping the user in mind.
Google did not like this.
Planting links on suspiciously spammy online directories is now considered black hat SEO. Updates to Google’s algorithm have since penalised websites with links coming from bad directories, so steer clear from them at all times!
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 are 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. Using a good directory on the other hand 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.
Services like Moz Local allow you to keep track of all your local business listings across directories and make sure all of them have the requisite data. It may even be possible to claim reputable directory listings for your business that already exist. Try Googling your business and see if it shows up in any good directories already. If it does, get in touch with the website to claim and customise it.
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. Online-native trusted directories include Yahoo Local Listing, Yelp! and LinkedIn. If you (and your potential customers) have heard of a brand, it is 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 is likely that Google will take it seriously and reward these businesses accordingly. As Matt Cutts says, these websites are executing editorial discretion, always a plus for Google.
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, by Google and by visitors, and are therefore trusted. Arca’s directory of asbestos removal contractors in Greater London is one such example. 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. Since the Google Panda update, design has become even more prevalent in website ranking. Websites that are poorly designed have seen their rankings suffer. This will impact the link juice and direct traffic passed from the directory to your website.
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?
Whether they were put there by a well-meaning SEO agency or a black hat one, your website might already have links from bad directories leading to it that could be doing some damage. Check our page on link spam to find out how to search for bad links, and for details on removing them.
Online directories reading list: