As the debate over paid links continues to wage a lot of innocent business owners get caught in the crossfire. They often hear bits and pieces of information and then have to make decisions based on that information. Rarely is the average business owner as fully informed as the average SEO. Heck, even the average SEO is in the dark much of the time trying to parse statements and warnings made by the search engine representatives.

One of the areas of confusion that many have regarding paid links is knowing when a paid link is really a paid link, and when is a paid link penalized. I think a fair argument can be that a payment doesn't necessarily always have to be monetary. Any quid pro quo on a link can legitimately be considered a "paid" link.

But not to worry, Google and the other engines don't work that way. In fact, in their attempt to eliminate all forms of paid links from affecting their natural algorithmic search results Google has left one giant loophole in the paid link witch hunt: paid directory links.

Why directories are exempt

The party line is that with directories you're paying for the site review. The inclusion into the directory isn't automatic based on payment. In fact, many directories will tell you that payment is no guarantee of inclusion and if your site doesn't meet their submission standards that no refunds will be provided.

Of course, this begs the question why paid reviews are considered paid links, or why other "paid reviews" don't get the same treatment. One can only assume that somehow directories have established themselves as a legitimate service business that isn't easily subject to manipulation. There is a whole other reality to that, however as in recent years a whole slew of spam directories were popping up left and right attempting to take advantage of the link algorithms.

But for once, the search engines didn't throw the babies out with the bath water. These directories, like any other site, are put to the test by the search engines to determine their legitimacy. Most of the high-quality directories withstood and still maintain their value while much of the junk directories were devalued and prevented from passing link juice.

Spotting quality directories

Of course, you should still be careful about which directory you submit to. Just because a directory says that you are paying for a review doesn't necessarily make it so. And just because a directory doesn't charge for inclusion doesn't automatically make it worthless. Each directory has to stand on its own merits.

The main thing to look for is whether submission and/or payment means automatic inclusion. If the directory you're submitting to provides a manual review of each and every submission, then that gives you an indication to the directory's overall credibility. But not all directories that say they review sites actually do. You can usually tell by doing your own review of sites listed in the directory. If enough of included sites look like garbage then there is a good chance the directory itself is junk and the search may already know it.

Another place to find quality directories is within your local area and specific niche. A lot of times you can find good, quality free and paid directories that have very high value, both to visitors and to search engines.

How to avoid the junk directory penalty

One thing to keep in mind with any directory is that if it turns out to be considered a junk directory by the search engines, you won't be penalized just by being listed. There really is no penalty to sites listed in directories, even if those directories are considered junk. At worst, the directory itself won't pass any link value to your or any other sites. This is really no different than if a nofollow tag was added to each link.

This gives you plenty of room for error. That's not to say that you should go out and submit to any and every directory without any consideration, but that you don't have to fear any type of penalty if you find yourself in a bad directory. As with any link building strategy, what you should be looking for more than anything is not the link value that it passes (though that's good too) but what kind of traffic that the link will bring you.

If the you feel you'll get quality, targeted traffic from any particular directory, then having little search engine value or nofollowed links won't matter a bit. Targeted traffic is what matters more. If it's link value 're looking for then consider the links you'll get from many of your site visitors alone, not just from any single directory listing.

The directory loophole won't be closed anytime soon. The search engines know there are a lot of quality directories out there that provide valuable information to web users. In fact both Google and Yahoo have direct ties to the two biggest directories, DMOZ and the Yahoo! Directory, respectively. That in itself should say enough about the value of a good directory link, and how they are treated differently than other "paid" links.

June 24, 2008

Stoney deGeyter is the President of Pole Position Marketing, a leading search engine optimization and marketing firm helping businesses grow since 1998. Stoney is a frequent speaker at website marketing conferences and has published hundreds of helpful SEO, SEM and small business articles.

If you'd like Stoney deGeyter to speak at your conference, seminar, workshop or provide in-house training to your team, contact him via his site or by phone at 866-685-3374.

Stoney pioneered the concept of Destination Search Engine Marketing which is the driving philosophy of how Pole Position Marketing helps clients expand their online presence and grow their businesses. Stoney is Associate Editor at Search Engine Guide and has written several SEO and SEM e-books including E-Marketing Performance; The Best Damn Web Marketing Checklist, Period!; Keyword Research and Selection, Destination Search Engine Marketing, and more.

Stoney has five wonderful children and spends his free time reviewing restaurants and other things to do in Canton, Ohio.


Sometimes I wonder if the only people visiting directories are online marketing types seeking real estate for their links. Seriously, who is using these directories? Most of the time, I have never heard of said directory, and wonder if I'm just completely out of the loop because I'd rather search for information on Google instead.

cochlea, I'm with you on that sentiment. I also wonder about all these other search engines that keep popping up. Who's using them? But the fact is that both these third tier engines and directories do have their users. Many of them boast quite a heft handful too. I don't get it, but I realize that that doesn't make it less legit.

Yeah, in the case of search engines, even 1% of a market comprising billions of searches is still a significant chunk :)

Still, I wonder what kind of demographic chooses to spurn the 'big dogs'. Perhaps this is along the lines of those lesser-known movies which have a strong 'cult following', as they say. Doesn't catch on in the mainstream, but appeals to a very small and incredibly loyal subset of the population.

I wish Google would just eliminate any and all penalties for bad links - count them as a big Zero, but don't penalize the innocent. Like you said, many people who manage websites or blogs are totally unaware of what is considered a paid link and what is not. And why enable a competitor to do harm?

Regarding directories specifically, I cannot tell you the last time I used any directory that wasn't an association or some thing 100% niche focused. It's been years since I use DMOZ or Yahoo for anything other than link building research purposes.

I find the whole generic directory thing a bit weird. I would have thought it stemmed from the early days of the net when things were a lot harder to find. They have just not quite gone the way of the dinosaurs just yet.

I have to agree with the above posters, I've been involved in web development and SEO for years, yet i have never used the directories to find anything. For search purposes i don't even use dmoz or yahoo's directory.

Its been bugging me for ages, Just who does use them?

Arnie, I agree completely. No penalizations ever need to apply. Of course there really is no evidence that there is any penalty. A while back Google threw in a PageRank toolbar penalty on sites that didn't nofollowing links that were purchased, but that was about it.

Links are a very confusing subject area and probably the most contentious. I find thinking about what to do and what not to do makes my brain ache, especially when finding page 1 sites that are so obviously 'at it' is so easy.


The question of whether directories = paid links has bugged me until now, so I'm pleased the article addressed it. I've used some of the same arguments as Stoney mentioned e.g if the big SEO companies are there, then I felt safe registering AdJuice. If not, I stayed clear. Also, I considered the fact that Yahoo is a paid directory. Mind you it has been NOFOLLOW for a long time so it wasn't necessarily a safe argument to rely on. Thanks. Ewan Kennedy.

AdJuice has received some traffic from these sites but I don't know why anybody uses them. I never have.

I'm not convinced that there is a penalty for bad links - or it would be so very simple for a competitor to bomb your site right out of the rankings.

While there are 1,000,001 useless directories there are a few other useful ones. I wouldn't count DMOZ or Yahoo as a valuable directory. With the robots NOODP and NOYDIR commands you are essentially saying that you don't agree with those directories.

Vertical search seems to be the "next big thing". With an entire directory or engine dedicated to a specific genre these may say a lot more about your site and quality of your site than you may know.

I wish Google would bring back the bomb -- at least one aspect of it. I rather enjoyed seeing 'Miserable Failure' and a few other choice terms deservedly resolve to Bush's profile.

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