Directories Take Center Stage

Directories Take Center Stage

From The Search Engine Report
April 30, 1998

Most of the major search engines have long had associated directories, Yahoo-like lists of editor-selected sites to complement their raw search results. However, search engines largely backed away from their directories over the past two years, primarily because reviewing sites is a labor-intensive process. There were relegated to being a just a part of "channels," which feature less labor-intensive content, often provided by content partners.

Now the emphasis on directories is back. Earlier this year, both AltaVista and HotBot added the LookSmart directory to their services. Then in April, Infoseek and Lycos began promoting their directory listings above their raw search engine results.

There are some advertising benefits to this, in terms of creating additional page views for the services. But directories are on the rise mainly as a response to users continuing to perform overly broad searches, which can leave them feeling lost among a sea of off-target results.

"We're still getting a plethora of one and two word queries where we don't know what the user is looking for," said Infoseek product manager Jennifer Mullin. "We can't change the users' behavior, but hopefully we can help them navigate better."

Lycos Product Manager Rajive Mathur said likewise: "It's hit or miss sometimes, with one or two word queries. But with a directory, you can give them a whole bucket to look through, which is helpful."

To see this in action, imagine the person who searches for "travel." Do they want information on a particular destination? A cheap place to buy airline tickets? Without more specific search terms, a user will likely be overwhelmed by hundreds of matching web pages and no guarantee that any are relevant to their specific desires.

Directory topics are an excellent way to avoid this problem. I've long felt they are the main part behind Yahoo's success. Over there, someone searching for "travel" is presented with a list of matching categories first, not actual web sites. As they scan this list, they discover a category for travel agents, which may match what they are looking for. Or, they spot a category for travelogues, and suddenly they've discovered something useful they hadn't anticipated.

The helpfulness of directories may be part of the reason LookSmart is beginning to make its mark. The service broke into RelevantKnowledge's Top 25 web sites in February and stayed there in March, with traffic beginning to approach that of Excite's WebCrawler.

The biggest traffic source has been from visitors independently returning to the site after discovering it, LookSmart said, and it thinks part of the reason they come back is because they want editor choices and categorization.

The following two articles take a closer look at the directories offered by Infoseek and Lycos, which are now about to get more attention to the their respective design changes.