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Growing Pains At Volunteer Directories

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Both the Open Directory and Go Guides make use of volunteers to catalog the web. In fact, there are now thousands of people involved in the process at both places. All this people power has definitely made it easier for those with good sites to get listed in these directories, compared to using the standard submission systems at Yahoo and LookSmart. In contrast, those two directories have small staffs of professional editors, which means that they simply cannot handle as many requests. But with the good comes the bad. The use of volunteers generates a different set of problems that webmasters may encounter during the submission process at the Open Directory and Go Guides.

One of the chief concerns I hear regarding the Open Directory involves multiple listings. Some site owners register multiple domain names that all lead back to the same site or virtually identical sites, then manage to obtain listings for each of these domains.

For instance, imagine that I run an online shoe shop at buyshoesnow.com. I submit to a shoe category and get my site listed. Then I register three more domain names -- supercheapshoes.com, reallycheapshoes.com, shoesforsaleonline.com -- and make it so these names resolve back to my buyshoesnow.com site. Now I submit my site to the Open Directory again, each time using one of these new names. That may allow me to get the same site listed four times in total, either all within the same category, or perhaps in different categories.

Let's call what I've described "alias" spamming, because someone is essentially creating different "aliases" for the same site or web page. A variation is "mirror" spamming. This is when someone creates completely independent web sites that look slightly different, then tries to get all of these sites listed.

Mirror spamming can occur even if the sites are completely different in look and feel. For instance, imagine someone who creates 10 web sites. Each site has a single page, and none of them look the same. Indeed, each site is designed to seem as if it is owned by a different company. However, the pages may all link to a common web site, list the same order phone number, or they may simply benefit the same company in some way. They are basically puppet sites for that company.

Tactics like these are spam, pure and simple. If the Open Directory spots it, they'll yank the bogus listings and perhaps even the legitimate ones. Despite this threat, people are getting away with this type of spam at the Open Directory. I suspect one reason for the success is that because so many editors are involved, it's likely that the submissions are all seen by different editors, and so no one catches on. This is especially so when submissions are made to multiple categories.

As you might expect, the people most likely to spot this type of spam are those who offer products and services similar to the sites which are spamming. But how do you contact the Open Directory to be sure they will take action?

First, message the editor of the category where you spot the spam. You'll find a link to each editor at the bottom of the category pages (if there is no editor, go up a level). Click on the editor's name, then select the "Email: Sent to" link to bring up a contact form. Provide as much information as possible about what you found, and be polite about it. Yes, it can be annoying that the spam got through -- especially when it seems obvious to you. But if you are insulting or derogatory, you are likely to cause an editor to ignore your message, even if it is a valid concern.

"The more factual the information, the better. If you threaten us, we aren't going to be happy," said Chris Tolles, Director of Marketing for the Open Directory. "Be specific, talk about what you think is the issue, and we'll investigate"

Also, phrase the complaint in terms of how it impacts the directory and its users, not yourself. For instance, don't say something like: "My site is listed in only one place, but you allow this other site to be listed all over the directory." Instead, something like this is better: "I've found a site that seems to be spamming you. It's listed in X, Y, Z categories under A, B and C web addresses."

You should get a response or see action taken on a legitimate spam complaint within a week or so. If you don't, then follow up with the editor in the category immediately above the editor you originally contacted. That's because the Open Directory does have bad editors and editors that do act in their own self-interests. Going up a category level should put you in touch with someone more senior that will look into the issue.

Still no response? Then try the general feedback form. You'll find a link to it at the top of all Open Directory pages. Put "Abuse" in the subject line. The Open Directory says this absolutely should bring action on any legitimate complaint.

"We have two full time staff who monitor feedback," Tolles said. "We don't look at every piece of email we get, but we do look at everything that involves complaints about unfair competition."

You should also complain any time you spot an editor that seemingly is killing sites or changing listings in a manner designed to promote their own interests, or even any time you think something odd is going on.

Another issue that's come up from readers is an inability to find an address for the Open Directory in order to send formal, written complaints. I'd agree some contact information like this within the site would be a help.

Over at Go Guides, a noble attempt to have checks and balances also leads to a lot of confusion. As a refresher, anyone can sign up and become a Go Guide. Once you do that, you may submit your own site or any site to one of the Go Guide categories. Then, one or more people need to approve this submission before it will be added.

It sounds great, but I've experienced first hand how the approval process can almost be farcical. In one of my submissions, I was told to reduce the rating from three stars to one star because the site did not "contain rich content."

Yes, the site itself didn't have rich content, because it was about a service that didn't need more than a page or two of description. But the service itself was superior to anything else in this particular category and worthy of three stars. The star rating should have taken that into account, but the person approving the submission seemed to think that only the page content mattered. Another person I know had a similar encounter. A page she submitted had to be reduced in rank because it was a single page, she was told. The quality of information on the page didn't seem to matter.

In my case, I followed up with the person and argued politely on behalf of my submission, did get the site in at two stars. You should also follow up in similar situations. Don't be afraid to defend your point of view. Be polite, but explain your reasoning.

Of course, another problem is that contacting guides for followups is an incredible pain. You have to click to view the guide's profile, then copy their email address and paste it into your own email program to contact them. An internal messaging system would be much better, so that comments could be sent in association with the submission.

For instance, in another case, I had a submission come back from the topic editor asking that the site be moved to a new category and reduced from three stars to two stars. Unfortunately, there was no way for me to send the submission back to the editor with a response. Instead, I had to get the editor's email address, describe the situation and my concern about moving the site, then wait to get a response -- which never came.

In the meantime, a different person sent me a request, asking that the site be reduced from three stars to one star. This person had no clue about the existing request, so now I had to message both people to see how they wanted to proceed. No response came from either party. Ultimately, I just reduced the site's rank, and that finally got it approved.

To help with these type of problems, Go says it has promoted someone internally to spend more time handling disputes and to dispense advice. Go is also considering whether to upgrade its system to allow internal messaging.

"That's something we are debating right now, how to treat internal communications," said Ramsey Ksar, Director of Go Guides. Ksar said the Go Guide's link management system is also due for an upgrade in the near future, which should help guides collaborate on listings more easily.

Open Directory
http://dmoz.org/

Go Guides
http://guides.go.com/

Lords of the Links: Go Guides
Traffick, Feb. 4, 2000
http://www.traffick.com/story.asp?StoryID=51

A great, funny look at valid weaknesses with volunteer directories. But it overlooks the point that the reason these services have enjoyed positive press is because they are listing many great sites that were ignored by the "full time, qualified" editors at Yahoo and LookSmart. Sites can get into the Open Directory and Go Guides quickly and for free. Of course, you can also get into Yahoo and LookSmart quickly, but it will cost you $199 for the privilege (though its money well spent by any webmaster). On a positive note, I've been getting and seeing reports of faster success at Yahoo, for submissions done through its free, normal submission system.

LookSmart Launches Express Submission Service
The Search Engine Update, Feb. 3, 2000


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