How The Open Directory Works

Recent Articles

The articles below appeared in the Search Engine Update newsletter and have important information not yet added to this page. Please review them to find out about any new developments. Further below, you will also find a list of other articles about this search engine that may be of interest.

  • Searching The AOL Time Warner Way, 11/01
    Review the section on the Open Directory at the end of this article for some new answers to commonly-asked questions and new webmaster information that the Open Directory has made available.


The Open Directory (formerly NewHoo) is a human-compiled guide to the web, not a search engine that gets its listings automatically by crawling your pages. You find an appropriate category for your site, then submit a short description to that category. The information in this description, rather than on your web pages, is what affects how you are ranked.

Please read the How Yahoo Works page to understand the basic principles of submitting to any directory, including the Open Directory. It will help you realize the importance of picking a good category and the need to carefully write your site description, among other things. Below are some details specific to the Open Directory.

Information from the Open Directory is made available to searchers in two ways: directly at the Open Directory site or through license agreements with other search services. Major licensees include AOL Search, Netscape Search, Lycos, AltaVista, HotBot and Google. These are discussed more in the Licensee section, below.


As with Yahoo, submitting to the Open Directory starts with finding the right category for your site. The easiest way to do this is to simply search for key terms related to your site. A list of matching categories will usually be displayed. For instance, if I wanted to be found for the term “camping,” I would enter that term and get a list of categories, as shown below:


Scan the list and find an appropriate category, then click on the category link to go there. In my camping example, selecting the first category shown is appropriate, assuming my site was about camping in general.


Power Tip: Finding an appropriate category by searching at one of the Open Directory’s licensees may bring you more traffic. The Advanced Category Selection section below explains why.


Sometimes, you may search for your key terms and discover that no categories are listed, only web sites. If this happens, look beneath the descriptions of each web site. Their “home” categories will be shown, and one of these categories may also be a good home for your web site. An example of a home category is circled below:


On each of the category pages, you’ll find an Add URL link at the top of the page (if you don’t see this, you may be trying to submit to one of the top level categories such as “Computers.” You can’t submit this high up. Drill down to a lower category.). Select the Add URL link to submit your site. You’ll need to enter a title, a description, a URL and an optional email address.

If you have already submitted to Yahoo, you can use or modify the same information to fill out the Open Directory’s form. Likewise, follow basic Yahoo guidelines to optimize your submission. This includes not trying to make your site appear at the top of the list by artificially starting your title with a letter high in the alphabet. See the How Yahoo Works page for more advice like this. Descriptions should be no more than 25 to 30 words in length.

After submitting, your site should appear within three weeks. If your URL is not listed within this time, follow the instructions in the Resubmitting section, below.


Anyone is free to make use of the Open Directory’s information, and several major search services do. These licensed users mean that when you are listed with in the Open Directory, your site may also appear at these other services. The most important licensees are noted below.

Be aware that the listings at these other services may not exactly match those at the Open Directory. Licensees usually have slightly older information than at the Open Directory site itself — the typical delay is anywhere between one week and one month. Licensees may also rank and display information from the Open Directory differently. Finally, licensees may take only some of the Open Directory’s information.

Major Licensees

AOL Search, Netscape Search and Lycos are all major search services that use Open Directory information for their main results. To understand exactly how Open Directory information appears at each service, please see the pages below:

  • How AOL Search Works
  • How Netscape Search Works
  • How Lycos Works

FYI, AOL actually owns the Open Directory and supports it through AOL-owned Netscape. However, the Open Directory is run independently as a resource that anyone can use.

Other Important Licensees

HotBot and Google are two other major search services that make use of Open Directory information, though not to the strong degree as do the services named above. See the pages below for more information:

  • How HotBot Works
  • How Google Works

Licensees & Submitting

It’s possible to submit to the Open Directory via some of its licensees. For instance, all of the major licensees display an informational box at the bottom of their categories which contains a “Submit a Site” link, as follows:


Don’t submit via these boxes if you have already submitted directly at the Open Directory itself. Doing so will generate a new submission, which isn’t necessary. It will not decrease the lag time to appear at a particular Open Directory licensee, and the extra submissions could possibly annoy an editor.

Similarly, if you do use one of the boxes, then do not go over to the Open Directory afterward to submit. Nor should you submit via another partner.

I know this can be confusing. The best policy is to always submit directly at the Open Directory itself. If you do that, you can safely ignore the Open Directory submit links that its licensees display.

Advanced Category Selection

I mentioned earlier that submitting to the Open Directory starts with finding the right category, and the way to do this is to search for a few terms related to your site. You may want to do this category selection only after also reviewing the categories presented at the Open Directory’s major licensees, which I’ve named above.

This is because when you search, each licensee may present different results than does the Open Directory itself. Ideally, you want to be in an appropriate category that is top ranked at these licensees, because far more people go to them than to the actual Open Directory web site.

Let’s see exactly how reviewing top categories can at licensees can be helpful. Let’s assume the top term you’d like to be found for is “tents.” You do a search at the Open Directory and discover these as the top categories:

  1. Recreation: Outdoors: Equipment: Tents
  2. Society: Relationships: Weddings: Reception: Rentals and Tents
  3. Business: Industries: Arts and Entertainment: Equipment: Staging: Tents and Canvas Structures
  4. Recreation: Outdoors: Equipment: Retail
  5. Recreation: Parties: Party Supplies: Rentals

You might decide that the first category seems best. That’s only true if this category also appears at one or more of the major licensees, in response to a search for “tents.” If it doesn’t, then choosing a different category may send you more traffic.

A check at AOL Search shows these categories top ranked for “tents:”

  1. Recreation > Outdoors > Equipment > Tents
  2. Society > Relationships > Weddings > Reception > Rentals and Tents
  3. Business > Industries > Arts and Entertainment > Equipment > Staging > Tents and Canvas Structures
  4. Recreation > Outdoors > Hiking > Outfitters-Stores
  5. Recreation > Parties > Party Supplies > Rentals

OK, so far, so good. You can see that the Open Directory and AOL Search both top rank the Recreation > Outdoors > Equipment > Tents category.

That’s not the case at Netscape Search or Lycos. These important services don’t list the Recreation > Outdoors > Equipment > Tents category at all, in response to a search for “tents.” Instead, they list these categories:

  1. Recreation > Outdoors > Camping > Equipment-Supplies > Tents
  2. Business > Industries > Arts and Entertainment > Equipment > Staging > Tents and Canvas Structures

Because of this, it might make sense to instead choose the Recreation > Outdoors > Camping > Equipment-Supplies > Tents category, because by doing so, you would appear in the top ranked category at two major services, Netscape Search and Lycos, rather than at only one, AOL Search.

Of course, AOL Search is a hugely popular search engine, and you may decide being in a top ranked category there is more important than doing well at Netscape Search and Lycos. This is a decision only you can make. But the main point to understand is that by also checking the Open Directory’s licensees, you can make a more educated choice about which category seems best for your site.

The Open Directory Matrix

When I’m considering what category is best, I build a little table I call my Open Directory Matrix. You may also find this technique helpful. Basically, you place all the appropriate categories for your site in one column, then list whether it is top ranked for each of the major licensees. For instance, here’s how the matrix looks for a maker of camping tents:

Category AOL Nscape Lycos
Recreation > Outdoors > Camping > Equipment-Supplies > Tents No Yes Yes
Recreation > Outdoors > Equipment > Tents Yes No No

By doing this, you can see at a glance which category may offer the most exposure. Here’s another example, this time assuming you make tents for entertainment events:

Category AOL Nscape Lycos
Business > Industries > Arts and Entertainment > Equipment > Staging > Tents and Canvas Structures Yes Yes Yes
Recreation > Parties > Party Supplies > Rentals Yes No No

Here, it becomes even clearer which category is the across the board winner. Of course, you’ll still need to review the category to ensure it really is appropriate for your site, and that you think it would attract the buyers you are looking for.

I keep stressing the word appropriate, and that’s for a good reason. Often you’ll do a search and see several different categories presented. You can’t just submit to the first one on the list because you think it will get the most traffic. Your site really must be suited to that category. But if you search and find several categories that all seem appropriate, then you definitely should submit to the first one on the list. It will probably attract the most visitors.

Why not submit to both categories? Perhaps you can. This is covered in the multiple category section, below. But first, some special category rules to keep in mind.

Special Category Rules

  • Adult sites can only be submitted within the Adult section. This category isn’t visible on the Open Directory home page, but sites within it do appear in response to searches for sexually-related terms.
  • Sites not written in English should be submitted within the World section, and their descriptions should also be written in the same language used on the site, not in English.
  • Sites with a strong regional aspect should be submitted within the Regional section.
  • Sites offering online shopping should submit to the Shopping section. If you are a “brick-and-mortar” store that only sells regionally, then don’t submit to Shopping. Instead, submit within the Regional section.

Multiple Categories

The Open Directory follows the “One Page Per Category” rule, which basically means that it is fine to submit multiple pages from your web site to the directory, as long as each page is submitted to only one unique and appropriate category. If you decide to submit to multiple categories, follow the rules below, and you should avoid problems.

First and foremost, find the single best category for your entire web site and submit your home page to that category. Don’t submit your home page to multiple categories. Instead, leave it to the Open Directory editors to decide if your home page should be listed in multiple places.

Next, it is perfectly acceptable to submit more pages from your web site to other categories. If the pages offer unique and substantial content that benefits the categories they are submitted to, then the odds increase that they’ll be accepted.

When submitting your high-quality “inside” pages, follow the same rule as for the home page — find the best category for that page and submit it only to that category. Don’t submit the same page to multiple categories.

Furthermore, don’t use the same description for all of your submissions. Use a summary that describes the exact page you are submitting and which makes sense for the category you are submitting to, all the while making use of the key search terms you wish to be found for. Doing this helps the Open Directory editor understand why your site should be listed, helps searchers understand why they should visit your site, and it helps increase the odds of ranking well at the different Open Directory licensees.

Multiple Categories In Action

To help you better understand the process of submitting to multiple categories, here’s an example, which assumes you run a site that is broadly about cars.

In a perfect world, you’d like your home page to appear in one of the top ranked categories at Open Directory-powered services for the word “cars.” The first step is to create an Open Directory Matrix, as I mentioned above:

Category AOL Nscape Lycos
Recreation > Autos > Exotic Cars Yes Yes Yes
Recreation > Autos > Enthusiasts > Classic Cars Yes Yes No
Sports > Auto Racing > Sprint Cars No Yes Yes
Recreation > Autos No No Yes
Recreation > Autos > Enthusiasts > Kit Cars Yes No No
Recreation > Autos > Enthusiasts > Muscle Cars No Yes No
Shopping > Autos > Parts > European Cars No Yes No
Shopping > Autos > Parts > Japanese Cars No Yes No
Shopping > Autos > Parts > American Cars No No Yes

NOTE: For purposes of illustration, I’ve listed categories at Lycos that didn’t actually appear for “cars” at the time this was written. Also be aware that these categories may change over time.

As you can see, ideally you’d like to be listed in the Recreation > Autos > Exotic Cars category, which appears top ranked at all the different services. However, this probably isn’t the most appropriate place for the home page of a site about cars in general. Furthermore, relatively few people interested in cars are likely to click on this category than other choices, given that it is rather specialized.

Instead, for a general site about cars, the Recreation > Autos or Recreation > Autos > Enthusiasts categories are probably better choices. Of course, the first is only top ranked at Lycos and the second isn’t top ranked at all. Doesn’t that make them bad choices? Not necessarily. For one thing, people who enter into a “lower” level category such as Recreation > Autos > Exotic Cars may click one level above to see what else is offered. Additionally, the exact categories that are listed may change over time to become more favorable to you. Finally, submitting pages to the other categories will ultimately help increase your exposure.

For instance, let’s say that within your site, you have a substantial page or section about exotic cars. This is the page you should submit to the Recreation > Autos > Exotic Cars category. Similarly, you may have pages about Muscle Cars or Sprint Car Racing. These can be submitted to the appropriate top ranked categories listed in the matrix. By doing so, you increase the odds of people finding you for the general search of “cars.”

Additionally, the more categories you are listed with, the more likely you will be found for a wide range of car-related terms, not just “cars” itself.

Avoiding Multiple Category Trouble

At this point, you may be ready to go out and submit hundreds of your pages (if you have them) to the Open Directory. Don’t. Although there is no limit to how many pages may be listed with the service, the more aggressive you are, the more likely you are going to cause some editor to believe you are spamming the service. Here are some tips to help you stay out of trouble.

Do things in moderation!

Spread multiple submissions out over time, because doing them all at once can send the wrong signal. Consider doing one submission, then leave a gap of a week or so, then do the next one. It is especially good if you don’t submit until your previous submission has been processed.

Add value!

Don’t submit pages to categories unless they have substantial content on a particular subject. In particular, this means not submitting any “doorway” pages you may have created for crawler-based services, especially if these pages automatically forward the user to another page, such as your home page.

Ask yourself if the page you are submitting will actually hold a visitor’s attention for about two minutes or so (which is a long time on the web). If so, then it probably has substantial content and would be accepted by the Open Directory. But if a user is likely to leave that page almost immediately, don’t waste your time or the Open Directory’s by submitting it.

Submit to distinct categories!

Like a tree, directories such as the Open Directory have different “branches” for their categories. Remember those car categories from the matrix above? Here’s how some of them reside in the Open Directory:

  • Recreation
    • Recreation > Autos
      • Recreation > Autos > Enthusiasts
        • Recreation > Autos > Enthusiasts > Classic Cars
        • Recreation > Autos > Enthusiasts > Kit Cars
        • Recreation > Autos > Enthusiasts > Muscle Cars
  • Shopping
    • Shopping > Autos
      • Shopping > Autos > Parts
        • Shopping > Autos > Parts > American Cars
        • Shopping > Autos > Parts > European Cars
        • Shopping > Autos > Parts > Japanese Cars
  • Sports
    • Sports > Auto Racing
      • Sports > Auto Racing > Sprint Cars Recreation
        • Sports > Auto Racing > Sprint Cars Recreation > Autos

You can see that there are three main branches, Recreation, Shopping and Sports. When pursuing multiple categories, my recommendation is that you first find appropriate categories within different branches of the directory, rather than trying to submit to many categories within the same branch. Why? It’s not uncommon for the same editor to oversee many levels within a particular branch.

For instance, the same editor might be responsible for the Recreation > Autos > Enthusiasts category and many of its sublevels. Thus, if you submit to many sublevels in this branch, you increase the odds that the editor may consider you to be spamming the service, even if you are not, and even if the content is entirely appropriate for those categories. In contrast, if you submit to appropriate categories in different branches, you are less likely to encounter the same editor and thus you’ll possibly avoid problems.

Of course, if you run a site about cars and have substantial pages for many of the subcategories within the Recreation > Autos > Enthusiasts category, then there’s every reason you should have your pages listed and nothing wrong with attempting this. The challenge is avoiding giving the editor the perception that you are doing something wrong.

Remember, the Open Directory is created by thousands of volunteer editors, and each editor can set their own policy about what’s considered spamming. The unofficial editors’ FAQ (see below) advises editors that 10 or fewer submissions is OK, but this information is outdated, in my opinion, and conflicts with what the Open Directory’s managers have told me and others.

To grapple with the perception problem, moderation is your best friend. Below is a recap of the main tips I think will help keep you safe.

  • Submit your home page. Wait until it gets in, then.
  • Submit appropriate inside pages across branches, giving it a week between submissions, then.
  • Submit to the most important subcategories within a particular branch, again waiting a week between submissions, and.
  • Always make sure the pages you submit offer real value and are on topic for the categories you submit to.

Finally, another strategy is to simply message the editor of a particular branch and ask for advice. For instance, in the cars example, you might message the top level editor Recreation > Autos > Enthusiasts that you have relevant pages for many of that categories subtopics (see how to message editors in the section below).

Ask how you should proceed — is it OK to do multiple submissions? They may actually want you to do this. If so, then you’re clear to submit more frequently than in the tips above. If not, you might note if other sites have been allowed to do this, especially any of your competitors, and report this to them.


If you don’t see your site appear after three weeks, you can try resubmitting. It may also help to send a message to the category editor, noting that you’ve resubmitted and briefly describing why you think your site is good.

Don’t repeat your site submission in this message! Instead, briefly tell them the date you resubmitted and your URL, along with a friendly and polite note explaining that you hope to be listed. With the date and URL information, they can find your original submission and act upon it. Be sure to mention if you’ve linked to their category from your site (see Other Tips, below). It may help.

You’ll find the category editors listed at the bottom of every category page. There may be more than one. If so, pick one and only message that person. Move on to the next person if you never hear back from the first editor. The names are displayed as links, and clicking on the link will bring up a page about the editor. Click on the email link on this page to bring up a feedback form.

Some categories lack editors. This may be one reason why your URL hasn’t been processed. In these cases, follow up with the editor that runs the category immediately above your category, or with an editor that runs a closely related category. They may be able to help.


To update your listing, go to the category you are listed in and select the “Update URL” link at the top of the page. A form will appear, where you can enter your URL. Your listing will be displayed within a form, so that you can edit the title, URL or description. There’s also a section to explain to the editor why you are making changes.

Changes are not acted upon immediately, and editors are not going to react well to attempts at changing your description in order to rank better. Only use this form to make substantial alterations, such as if your URL changes, or if your description needs to be radically revised for some valid reason.

Spamming & Things They Don’t Like

We’ve already covered issues of spamming as it relates to multiple submissions. There are other things that the Open Directory editors consider to be spam, or which you should avoid.

Affiliate Programs: Some people become affiliates of places such as Amazon, then build sites that essentially are big link lists to products at online merchants. These type of sites are not wanted by the Open Directory.

Redirection: Submitting a page that redirects to another page is not allowed.

Mirror Sites: Some people register multiple domain names, then try to submit each name to the Open Directory to get multiple listings. Don’t do this, as it is considered spam. Pick one domain name and stick with it. For a longer look at this particular issue, see the Growing Pains At Volunteer Directories article.

Other Tips

It doesn’t hurt to have a link back to the Open Directory or even better, back to a particular Open Directory category from your site. While it’s not a requirement to get in, it may make a busy editor more inclined to list your site. Remember, unlike Yahoo or the commercial directories, Open Directory editors are volunteers. They feel a sense of ownership and personal pride in their categories, and they want to promote their areas as much as you want to promote your site.

Also consider becoming an editor of a category, if you have the time and interest. You’ll quickly get a keen idea of what directory editors like to see, which may help you in your own promotion efforts. To sign-up, navigate to a category you are interested in, then click on the “become an editor” link at the top of the page. You’ll have more luck being accepted if you apply for a category that doesn’t currently have an editor.

In March 2002, a new public forum project from editors of the Open Directory Project was opened. It is designed to foster communication between the general public and ODP editors. It is moderated by senior “meta” editors. You can read without registering but must create an account to post. Questions are accepted about submissions, listings, placement, becoming an editor and other topics. Visit the forum via the URL below:

Open Directory Public Forums

Past Articles

  • Google, Open Directory Get Foolish, 4/02
  • Community Search Blossoms, 7/00
  • Google Adds Directory, 4/00
  • Growing Pains At Volunteer Directories, 3/00
  • Open Directory Expands Submission Guidelines, 11/99
  • AOL Search Big Improvement For Members, 11/99
  • Directories Power On, 10/99
  • Direct Hit Expands Site (in briefs), 11/99
  • New AOL Search Unveiled, 10/99
  • New MSN Search, AOL Search Available in Beta, 9/99
  • Netscape Search Gets Rebuilt, 7/99
  • Google Goes Forward, 7/99
  • Netscape Enhances Smart Browsing, 6/99
  • Lycos Transforms Into Directory, 5/99
  • Netscape’s Smart Browsing Matures, 4/99
  • Netscape Integrates Directory, 2/99
  • NewHoo Becomes Netscape Open Directory, 11/98
  • NewHoo: Yahoo Built By The Masses, 7/98

More Information

Open Directory Guidelines

Read about other tips and guidelines. Most are common-sense. Be aware that the guidelines use the words “URL” and “site” interchangeably, which may make you feel you can’t submit to multiple categories. You can, if you do so as I’ve described above.

Open Directory License

Want to use Open Directory information? Here’s the licensing information.

Life After the Open Directory Project
Traffick, June 1, 2000

Former ODP editor David Prenatt found one day that he could no longer log in to perform his editing work. He soon realized that he had been expelled from the project. Far from a rant, Prenatt eloquently chronicles his ouster and illuminates aspects of the Open Directory with detachment. Prenatt describes a rather fearsome world where speaking up equals being attacked and highlights a backdoor allowing some large content providers like Rolling Stone and AOL easy edit control over their listings. This is obviously one side of the story, and any community has its problems. Nevertheless, it highlights problems volunteer directories may encounter.

Search Engine Talk: Refugee Sites
List sites where former editors of the Open Directory discuss their experiences.

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