I have found that one of the most difficult types of links for a site owner to look at objectively when doing a backlink audit is a directory link. Sure, there are some that are obviously bad links, but there are a good number of directory links that can be difficult to classify. If you are doing a backlink audit and trying to remove or disavow unnatural links, this article should help you when it comes to making decisions about links from directories.
Before we start looking at specific types of directories, let’s look at what Google considers an unnatural link. There is a good discussion here on some of the types of links that Google may view as unnatural. A simplified definition of an unnatural link would be to call it any type of link that is self-made with the intentions of manipulating your search engine rankings. Where directories are concerned, this can be a bit of a difficult call at times.
Obvious Signs of an Unnatural Directory Link
Some directory links are very obviously unnatural. One quick look at a directory like the one below should tell you that this was a directory that was only set up for the purpose of creating unnatural links:
Here are some criteria that immediately make me decide to disavow:
- The directory contains keyword anchored links to sites. Even if your site is linked via your brand name or your URL, if the directory allows keyword anchors, then it’s likely to be considered an unsafe source of links in Google’s eyes.
- The directory contains words like "add your URL" or "suggest a site" or "submit a link." It is quite obvious that these directories were created just for the purpose of creating links.
- The name of the directory contains words that make it obvious that it exists for the purpose of creating links. Or, the URL contains those words.
- The directory boasts of its high PageRank (PR). This is a definite sign that the directory was created just so that links could be made and not for people to use.
What Directory Links ARE Acceptable in Google’s Eyes?
Some SEO purists might argue that any directory link is an unnatural link because they are all self-made. However, Google likely is OK with some links from directories. Google doesn’t give us a black and white list of what is and isn’t acceptable, but they have given us a few clues. In this video from 2011, Matt Cutts talks about some ways that you can identify whether a directory link is a good one.
One of the criteria that he says to look at is whether just anybody can get a link in the directory, and if so, how much control you have over the listing. He says, "They don’t do any substantial review and let you pick exactly everything, every attribute about it, they don’t execute substantial editorial discretion. In many cases these are the sort of directories that are like, 'I found an expired domain and let me just register it and now I’m a directory and I will take your money, and I will link to you.'" He goes on to say that there are some directories that are OK: "There are some directories like Yahoo that tend to exercise editorial discretion. They might reject a substantial amount of the entries. And that tends to be the litmus test." He also says that when Google is evaluating a directory, "We look at the value add of that directory and we look at how much work they are putting in and if it’s not a substantial amount of work, if it appears to be primarily more or less a link scheme then it’s absolutely the case that paid directories are held to the same standards as paid links."
I want to add a little note here to say that unpaid directories can be unnatural as well. I have seen many people who think that as long as a link is not paid for that it is an OK one. If it’s self-made with the sole intention of improving your PageRank, then it is not a good link.
Here is another Matt Cutts video in which he addresses the same topic. The question was whether links in directories like Yahoo and Best of the Web are considered paid links:
"Whenever we look at whether a directory is useful to users we say, 'OK, what is the value add of that directory? Do they go out and find entries on their own? Or do they only wait for people to come to them? How much do they charge and what’s the editorial service that’s being charge? If a directory takes $50 and every single person who ever applies for that directory automatically gets in for that $50, there’s not as much editorial oversight as something like the Yahoo directory where people do get rejected. So, if there’s no editorial value add there then that’s much closer to paid links."
Matt ended that video by saying, "The question that should be in your mind when considering a directory is 'What is the value add? Do they have high standards?’"
Don’t Be Too Hasty With That Hatchet!
Those videos from Matt are not new. He has been saying the same thing about directory links for years now. So, why am I writing this article? Why talk now about whether or not directory links are natural? I have noticed a trend lately of site owners actually causing damage to their rankings by being too aggressive with their disavow of directory links. Please know that there are some directory listings that are not only acceptable, but are vital to maintaining your local rankings. In my opinion, directory listings are one of the most important factors when it comes to ranking well in the Google maps or local pack positions. Your directory listings, if done properly, count as citations. You definitely don’t want to cut out the good ones.
So, which directory listings are good ones to keep? Here are some criteria that I use to determine which directory links are valid ones. Keep in mind, though, that these are rough guidelines. It’s very easy to bend some of these suggestions so that you start including links that are not really good ones. Be sure to be brutally honest when assessing these links. Please note that this list below is just my opinion of links that would be considered natural by Google:
- A listing in a well known directory such as DMOZ, Yahoo directory, Best of the Web, etc.. The exception would be if for some reason you were able to sneak a keyword anchored link past one of the editors. But, in general these are acceptable links.
- Local directories. In most cases a listing in a local directory for your city is probably OK. Again, use the criteria mentioned above. If it’s a followed keyword anchored link then I would either remove or disavow it. Also, if it appears that this directory is linking out to absolutely everyone who wants to be listed, then it’s probably not so good.
- Niche directories. Here is where there can be some grey area. If I am a photographer and I am listed in directories that list wedding photographers or real estate photographers, that’s probably OK. But, if I come across a directory that’s called "Wedding Photographers directory" and has links to casinos, payday loans companies, and other completely unrelated sites then that’s not so good. Think honestly whether users would actually use this directory before making your decision.
What About Paid Directories? Are They All Unnatural Links?
Not all paid directory links are bad links. If you’re a professional and you have paid money to be accredited by your licensing body and this includes a listing in their directory of recommended professionals, this probably is not going to get you penalized. Where you can run into penalty problems is when you are paying for directory links just so that you can get high PR links. If there is very little chance that you will actually get traffic from this link, then think twice about purchasing it. Also, if your entire backlink profile is made up of links from paid directories, then this could look unnatural to the webspam team should you get a manual review.
Other Directory Links That You Can Probably Ignore.
There are a huge number of scraper directories out there. These are directories that have scraped and reproduced all of the listings from Dmoz, Yahoo, or other well known directories. If you see something that says, "Help us build the largest human-edited directory on the Web" on the listing, then you know that these are just scraped Dmoz links.
When I do a link audit I ignore these links. The rare exception would be a case where someone was able to sneak a keyword anchored link pas the Dmoz editors. If this happens, then I want to clean up all of the scraped links as well.
I also ignore most directory listings that are nofollowed. However, if it’s a really spammy looking directory, I often do disavow it just in case they somehow change their links to followed links.
By the way, if you have a whack of links from subdirectories of m.biz, you can get rid of most of those by disavowing "domain:m.biz" at the domain level.
Should You Pay to Have Directory Links Removed?
A lot of low-quality directories will request a fee if you ask to have your link removed. I believe that a good number of directories were created just so that they can make money from people who are desperate to get links removed. At this point, I do not recommend paying to have directory links removed. I might possibly pay a small fee if I have a listing in a large spammy directory network and the owner of the network is willing to remove all of the listings for a reasonable fee. But, John Mueller from Google has very adamantly said that you should not have to pay for link removal. If you are trying to remove a manual penalty, then make a note in your progress spreadsheet that you have asked for link removal and that the site owner asked for money. If you are simply cleaning up your links to escape or avoid being affected by the Penguin algorithm, then in my opinion, disavowing these links will be sufficient.
Do You Agree?
I know that not everyone will agree with the guidelines that I have laid out here. It’s never a black and white decision. However, I hope that this article will help you to identify which of your directory links should be kept and which should either be removed or disavowed. I also hope that it will help some site owners avoid the costly mistake of disavowing their valid directory links.
If you have additional comments, I’d love to hear them!