I first encountered the subject of web directories somewhat recently. I was reading Jessica Livingston’s Founders at Work and I learned that Google was a modern version of the directory. They weren’t just any directory. Google aimed to make directories obsolete, which they essentially done. Whereas Yahoo! and other sites invested heavily in curation, Google took a different approach: crawling the web.
If I am remembering this correctly, Yahoo! at one point directed people to Google search results if they couldn’t find an answer to a query. The company cared more about the user experience than whether they were fuelling what could become a competitor. Whether or not that is a mistake is for your own individual consideration.
Web directories were lists of links. There’s nothing particularly special about them from a logistical perspective. What makes a web directory interesting is how those links are curated. Web directories don’t just make lists of links. Those links have some particular meaning. A web directory may have categories for different types of links, such as those about food and those about sports. Personal web directories, which I’ll talk about in a minute, had meaning because a person had curated those links. There was no algorithm to game other than the human mind.
The modern web has made content directory very difficult. Well, more accurately, discovery is still quite easy, if you know how to do it. Most of us – like me, until recently – rely on search engines to discover content. One query and boom, Google can return potentially millions of results. The thing is that I don’t need millions of results. I just want a result that answers my particular query, and I haven’t been finding that quite a lot when using search engines.
A lot of content on search is optimized for SEO, which I believe is making the web more centralized. Consider this: there are people dedicated to making a website rank higher on Google. When Google makes changes to their algorithms, what can the SEO master do? Can they complain? No, they have to comply with the changes that Google have made. It’s for this reason that we so much repetitive content on the first page of Google. Content on many terms is not about the content, it’s about whether that content has features that other platforms do.
Let’s not get too far into the weeds on SEO. I do want to highlight that SEO has made it difficult to find the content I’m looking for. It’s almost certain that I will not find a personal blog about Magic: The Gathering (which I hear is going to launch a Mac version by the end of summer, thereby allowing me to play again!) on the first page, or even the second. Most people are not going to optimize their personal blogs for SEO.
a different future
Web directories offer something different: a humble list of links. Surfing through a web directory may not be as intuitive as search because there could be a lot of links included. That’s why search dominated and web directories started to lose traction. Directories couldn’t answer every question because they were not as programatic as search. But, for the most part, I don’t really need one directory that answers most of the questions you can imagine.
A directory contains a limited list of links, which is what makes it interesting. All of those links have been hand-curated, which means you know that what you are looking at should provide some value. If someone has added a link to their directory, it’s a safe bet that person thinks it is a good site. It doesn’t mean you will like what you find, but someone else did.
The thing about directories is that there are no incentives for people to optimize content. Being included in a directory, I would imagine, is special because you haven’t asked for it. Someone has discovered your content, likes what they see, and have added it to their list of links. Thus, the quality of content is never affected. A certain kind of respect is evident between the owner of the directory and the content creator.
I was reading a blog post yesterday called Foundations of a Tiny Directory. It seems, from the blogs I have been reading, this site has inspired a lot of people to create their own directory. href.cool is another source of inspiration. In this blog post, the author makes an interesting comparison between directories and librarians. When you walk into a library or a bookstore, there’s often a “staff recommendations” section (I think you’d see the same thing if you travel in a time machine back to an old video store). There’s no guarantee that what you see will interest you. The owner may be really interested in science fiction, and that may not be your thing. That’s okay because you can still go search elsewhere if your curiosity has not been caught.
The place for web directories now is not so much in massive ones like Yahoo!, but small, personal, intimate ones. Web directories on blogs. Personal directories. The idea is simple: you’d have a list of links that you care a lot about on your site. You could maintain it whenever you want. That list of links may be updated over time. It all depends on what you’re interested in and what you discover. There’s no pressure to add links if you don’t feel like it.
Yesterday I went down the web directory rabbit hole and I found a number of interesting directories. Neonaut on Neocities has their own web directory. href.cool is another example. Marijin’s link roll is another. A lot of people refer to their directories as “links lists,” but the essence is the same. They are both methods of sharing cool links on the web.
One of my discoveries yesterday was an essay called The Egg. It’s an interesting take on what happens after you pass on from your life. I can say that I would probably never have read that essay, but it was in someone’s personal directory and I thought “hey, if this person likes this, maybe I will.” We’re both into the old web, so maybe we have other overlapping interests. It turns out that I was right. The Egg was an interesting and thought-provoking read. There’s probably a lot on that person’s directory that doesn’t interest me, but I found at least one web resource that did.
What are my plans? Am I going to build a web directory? You bet. In a departure from my usual tech stack, I’m thinking about building it purely in HTML. That way I’ll have complete control over the style, without having to change any components on my site or design new ones. It will be minimal and it may take some time to put together, but it will be my own.
I am convinced that one of the most valuable acts on the internet is linking. For readers like yourself, linking serves a valuable purpose: it helps you find other interesting materials to read. There is another beneficiary of the link. The creator of the content to whom you have linked. Someone linking to your blog post shows that they care about what you have written. That person has found some value in your content. That’s why I linked to the Foundations of a Tiny Directory page. It’s the same reason I linked to a few other resources in this blog post. I care about you finding good content, but I also want the people who inspired me to write this to get something else out of their work. A link.
I’m not entirely sure what the parameters of this experiment will be just yet. I’m thinking about a small directory to start that I will expand over time. I don’t really want it to become like the Yahoo! of the ’90s, but in design terms I do. We’ll see what happens, and I’ll keep you posted!