So Why are Directories Important?

A web directory is very different from a search engine. Directories are categorized, typically organized by subject or topic, where a search engine is just a tool for accessing one page in a database of many. In the Yahoo! exploded onto the directory scene, and maintains a large market share to this day. Still, Google remains the tool of choice for people to locate information on the web. So why are directories important?

Google is certainly an excellent tool for finding specific pages. Searching by website name will typically find the site immediately, but what if you want to browse through a list of shoe retailers? You could search for “shoes,” or “buy shoes,” but your results will only reflect pages that have been visited by thousands of people. This is great for a large manufacturer, but if you’re looking for a smaller shop, you may be hard pressed to find it. A directory would let you browse shoe retailers, perhaps by selecting retail, then apparel, then footwear, depending on the organization of the directory.

The directory browsing experience is a lot like shopping on any website. Each category has a subcategory, until the browser can find what he or she is looking for. A good directory, like a good website, will be intuitive, so that you can find the information you need quickly. Imagine shopping for a car, and all you had was a search box. You might search by color, manufacture, model, year, and so on, retrieving thousands of results which may be totally irrelevant. Wouldn’t it be easier to filter through categories to find your car? It would be, but only if the organization of the directory matched your own mental organization. A directory’s structure has to be determined by someone, and hopefully that structure will translate to a vast majority of the directory’s users.

Web developers are starting to address the translation issue by letting the users define the structure. Sites like allow users to “tag” products with short, often single-word descriptions. While browsing, users can click on a tag to find all objects that share the given tag. Obviously, this can be an excellent tool for organization, though it is subject to several shortcomings. First, the user generated content may not be relevant. Browsers can tag products or sites with whatever tags they like, so accuracy cannot be guaranteed. Spammers also become a concern. Internet marketing companies may find the most searched for tags and add that tag to all products of which they wish to sell more. This floods the network of tags and essentially nullifies their value.

Directories are likely to feature prominently in the future of web browsing. As people purchase more and more goods and services from the internet, a tool to sort through all of the information will be invaluable. Directories can also aim to counteract the “page-rank” style of indexing used by search engines such as Google. By this system, relevant pages often get lost below scores of quick marketing pages developed to exploit search engine ranking trends. Also, as the internet continues to grow, and server space continues to get cheaper, more and more pages are bound to exist that have little value to most users. Directories can allow a user to filter down to just the selections he or she needs, and nothing more. As mentioned above, the greatest obstacle for a good directory is a system of definition. Someone has to decide the structure, and whether it’s an individual or a community of users, the definition has to work for everyone.