Once upon a time Google did not exist and many people discovered websites by browsing directories. Originally, they existed as a method for people to find websites on the internet by browsing categories. The webmasters of directories tended to exercise a significant degree of editorial control and only allowed relevant and useful websites into a particular category. Obviously, if the directory allowed nearly every website into a category then fewer people tended to visit the directory since they could not rely on it as a place for find pertinent websites. Thus, these directories functioned in a similar manner to Yellow Pages. Before Google they provided an extremely valuable way for people to find information on the web.
Over time search engines evolved and fewer people relied on directories in order to find information on the internet. During this transition period a few of the more well established directories still attracted visitors (e.g. Yahoo) in part since people found themselves accustomed to locating information via this approach. This time frame is particularly interesting for those who optimised a site for the search engines since Google and others often still considered links from directories as relatively strong indicators that a website is authoritative. This allowed SEO experts across the globe to obtain links from directories as a method to easily boost a websites' positions in the search results.
Now, fast forwarding to the present, there are an extremely small number of people who visit directories when looking for information and most instead turn to Google or another major search engine. The result of this transformation is quite prevalent for those who wish their websites to appear at the top of the search results.
Unlike the past, there are many more directories that exist solely for the purported purpose of helping a website obtain rankings on the first page of Google. Essentially, a cottage industry formed that sold webmasters listings in directories to turn a profit without regard for the quality of the websites in the directory. Sadly, these payments generally only benefited the directories' owners and not those who purchased the listings. This holds true since most directories exercise no editorial control. Upon visiting a directory and clicking on a category such as 'SEO Specialists' visitors may find that half the listings point to entirely unrelated sites. Thus, rather than finding information about SEO specialists people see information about flower shops, shipping companies, and even companies engaged in nefarious activities.
The end result of this behaviour is that Google no longer trusts the vast majority of directories and instead views listings within them as a means to manipulate their search results. Thus, submitting to countless directories can actually cause harm to a website by triggering an unnatural links penalty either for specific queries or an entire domain. Therefore, it is crucial that webmasters are extremely cautious before submitting their websites to directories to ensure that only ones that exercise editorial control and comply with Google's Webmaster Guidelines are considered. Certain directory owners realise that a listing may trigger a penalty and even charge websites a fee to remove the listing. Talk about adding insult to injury. That particular directory owner charge customers to insert a listing (knowing it could well harm the site’s search presence) and then charges the customers again to remove the listing. Of course one should never compensate an entity for removing a link (another topic).
The silver lining is that there are still a handful of directories that use strict standards and follow Google's Webmaster Guidelines. Adding a listing in these select directories can still boost sites' search rankings. However, an even better takeaway for webmasters it to focus less on contrived methods of link building and instead seek ways to develop a diverse link profile. Contact one of our SEO specialists to learn about the various methods to naturally obtain links to websites and increase their rankings in Google. Please feel free to use the space below to add your thoughts, comments, and questions.