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Yahoo Says Goodbye, ZEEF Says Hello
Human-curated directories have long been a staple of the internet, but ultimately they're very hard to scale. See how newcomer ZEEF hopes to tackle this challenge.
With the news that Yahoo! would be shutting down the very directory it built its fortune on, it seems wistfully poetic to me that as one human-edited directory leaves us, a new player, ZEEF, has emerged.
This past week, I had the opportunity to talk with Rick Boerebach, ZEEF.com’s Co-Founder and Business Developer. Below is a Q&A with Rick, where he discusses the inspiration for ZEEF, how ZEEF will attack the enormous task of curating the web, and what will make ZEEF’s expert-filtered link directory different from others.
But first, a little background.
What Is ZEEF?
ZEEF.com has picked up $2.38M in funding in the past ten months, the latest being a $1.55M Series A (EURO) funding round in September, according to TechCrunch.
ZEEF’s funding and current PR surge is fortuitous timing, certainly; but, we all know the challenges faced by human-powered efforts to organize and link to everything on the web.
It seems there remains an innate human desire to organize, catalog, link and curate the web, regardless of the seeming impossibility such an endeavor represents.
Enter Amsterdam-based ZEEF (the Dutch translation of “sift”). ZEEF describes itself as “an expert-filtered link directory to help people find the most relevant links to support their buying decisions.” Below are some excerpts from ZEEF’s vision statement:
We filter the world’s information with human knowledge
People are still dealing with online information overload. Particularly when searching outside their comfort zone. We believe that using human expertise as a filter is the ultimate solution. Crowdsourcing of knowledge and curation is made practically achievable and easy with ZEEF. Our mission is to help curators create subject pages, share their knowledge and help consumers find the right information. Quickly, easily and effectively.
While Algorithmic Search has come a long way, the internet still presents people with a serious information overload. The amount of digital data created, reproduced, and consumed is growing exponentially and doubling every two years. Can’t see the forest for the trees? At ZEEF, we believe that the answer lies in social, crowd-sourced curation of information by passionate individuals.
Search Engine Optimization (SEO) experts are manipulating Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs) to obtain or increase free traffic. SEO has become a significant industry and search engines have difficulty filtering this out. Especially when searching outside their areas of expertise, just like in normal life, people like to rely on expert knowledge.
Interview With ZEEF’s Rick Boerebach
Eric Ward: Rick, thank you for taking time out during what must be a very exciting and hectic time for you and the ZEEF.com team. ZEEF is off to a fast start, and the buzz surrounding Yahoo!’s directory shutdown is really focusing attention on you right now. Can you tell us a little about how ZEEF came to be?
Rick Boerebach: Search engine marketing is a huge market these days, and search engines have trouble filtering out the spam. In addition to this, the already vast amount of content available online is growing every day, especially since the rise of social media, which adds more references to content and complexity to link value. Everyone produces online content these days through social media and blogs.
Traditional search engines seem to be having trouble dealing with this information overload. Google gives you thousands of results, but that’s not what you want — you only want the best results. In addition to this, Google results contain paid ads and rankings are influenced by search engine marketers.
We believe human knowledge is the most effective tool to surface the gems hidden in this massive pile of content and give a feeling of trust. We want to incorporate the social graph into our model to give results of curators closest to you.
EW: What was web discovery like in the early days in the Netherlands?
RB: Back in the early days of the internet, startpagina.nl was one of the biggest websites in The Netherlands and still generates millions in revenue (€25M annually in just the Dutch market).
This was one of the first curated directories in the world. Anyone could start a page about a subject and curate and categorize the best links.
The biggest problem with startpagina was that it had a monopoly model; only one person could maintain a subject, instead of allowing competition between curators. This affected the quality of subject pages, as pages tended to become outdated because of a lack of competition. Eventually, curators often lost the incentive to keep their pages up-to-date because they did not get a fair amount of revenue share.
Another problem was the fact that the curator of the page wasn’t displayed, so it was unclear that the page was maintained by an actual person with expertise about the subject. The directory was generating so much revenue that it lost focus on its vision and innovation. It tried to take out curators of successful pages and maintain the subject pages itself, which was not scalable and did not result in sustainable relationships with curators.
The Open Directory project, DMOZ, also tried to succeed as a directory and came a long way. It had similar problems to the startpagina model, not displaying the curator and maintaining a monopoly model on subjects. DMOZ didn’t have a revenue model, which made it harder to sustain as a business. DMOZ also didn’t rank links, but sorted links alphabetically, so it wasn’t clear which links were the best ones.
EW: I was a DMOZ category editor for 8 years, and it drove me crazy that I couldn’t rank my curated sites. The only option I had was to select one site from my category and display it at the top.
RB: Yahoo wanted to categorize the internet using its own internal editors; the opposite problem of what Startpagina was doing; this was not scalable at all, so they couldn’t keep up with the speed and relevancy of Google.
During our work in affiliate marketing, we saw that startpagina was having the highest conversions of all publishers, which clearly indicated that it played an important role in the decision-making process of consumers. Consumers trusted the directory and valued its comparisons; they could clearly find what they were looking for here.
EW: So why launch ZEEF now? You must see something that tells you the web needs it.
RB: For the last 10 years, we have researched all directories and noticed they all had their flaws; there was no really good directory available on the internet. Even DMOZ and Yahoo weren’t getting the job done.
We thought it was the perfect time for a real human-curated directory, keeping the flaws of existing directories in mind and adding the social elements of platforms like Pinterest and Twitter. You can position ZEEF in between Twitter and blogging, which both aim at increasing authority and awareness of your knowledge.
Blogging takes a lot of time and requires copywriting skills, while Twitter is fast, but one big stream with a lack of overview or ranking of shared information. Directories are contextualized and focused on hierarchy compared to traditional search engines, something we believe is necessary to get out of the filter bubble and get trustworthy results.
We are collaborating on several research studies with the University of Amsterdam, mainly in the field of trust and usability.
EW: What are the current numbers as far as new topic pages being created, new curators coming on board, and new links being added? As of the time of this interview, ZEEF already has over 400 curators and 500 subject pages. (Disclosure: I’m one of them.)
RB: We just passed the milestone of 500 curators with published pages, who created about 850 pages together. At the moment we have over 5,000 pages total, most of them not published yet.
We’re working hard on helping these curators getting their pages ready to be published. Last month, we published 103 new pages, which was an increase of 12% compared to our entire history.
We welcomed 69 new published curators, which was an increase of 14%. We’re currently trying out several strategies to promote newly published pages and motivating curators and visitors to share pages with relevant audiences.
EW: One of ZEEF’s unique features compared to traditional directories and curation platforms is that ZEEF’s listings can be embedded as a widget on other websites. This is clever. Years ago, the Open Directory freely allowed any site to republish their individual directory category pages (what we might call “scraping” today). How will ZEEF’s approach differ, and what are the advantages to a webmaster to make them want to embed your widget?
RB: One of the differences between ZEEF and other directories is that we are a distributed directory instead of a traditional centralized directory. We believe that the lists of curated links on our platform will add value to content on other websites as well.
Bloggers know best what adds the most value to their content and can show their authority by creating their own lists; we provide a very easy tool to add lists to your blog posts or website. We’ve seen proof of the added value at blogs like MasterNewMedia.org and BalusC.blogspot.com, which saw surprising click-through rates (a KPI we believe shows the relevancy of an embedded listing).
One of the advantages of this model is that, in addition to brand exposure, these widgets will also drive new visitors to ZEEF, increasing the amount of curators and thus new curated lists available on the platform. It’s a cycle that enables effective growth of the platform.
An advantage of this model compared to the scraping concept of DMOZ is that lists of links are maintained in one place and changes will be reflected immediately on websites that embed these listings.
EW: Obvious question: In what ways are you dealing with spam? What checks and balances and quality control take place to ensure you don’t end up with curators only after a profile link and that the links they select are genuinely helpful? And with your widgets, will you keep them off pages you don’t feel are of a certain caliber?
RB: In addition to reviewing all pages before getting published into the directory, in the future we will use the judgement of our existing published curators for this, which is a scalable strategy compared to our current internal moderation.
We believe competition between curators will safeguard quality. In addition to this, ZEEF requires you to list your social profiles and profile picture at your page, making you think twice before spamming. Impressions on externally embedded widgets and social shares will also help identify quality pages.
EW: There’s a search box on the ZEEF site. I know ZEEF’s algorithms are trade secrets, but can you throw us a bone? Care to share any information with us about how ZEEF will surface the best ZEEF curated links?
RB: The search engine part of the website is being researched still. We want to offer contextualized search, but haven’t found the optimal way to present this yet.
Google, for example, only shows you a list of individual links — no context except for the entered search query itself. We want to offer, for each result, ranked and categorized lists to also inform about the way each link is ranked by experts and which alternatives are available in each category.
Currently, the search uses a fairly simple algorithm, but we plan to incorporate how users interact with pages in our rankings. Our directory is our main focus right now, though. We will create algorithms to protect us against people using ZEEF for the wrong reasons; we are still actively in development and need more statistics to figure out the most important KPIs to detect spam.
We aim to use crowdsourcing to assist in this, by giving our curators and visitors the tools to report bad behaviour. Difference in ranking between curators isn’t bad or wrong, as we’re a platform with subjective perspectives. It’s up to the visitor to pick a curator he/she trusts the most.
EW: I distinctly remember the outrage when Yahoo! started charging $299 for an editorial review fee, and there were always rumors that DMOZ editors were getting paid off. I was offered several bribes during the 8 years I was an editor at DMOZ. While I didn’t take any bribes, in retrospect now that I have three kids, maybe I should have. How will you police this?
RB: Quality and transparency are our key values. We know commercial activities like this are going to happen anyways, so we decided to, instead of closing our eyes, facilitate these activities by building a feature called ‘promoted link.’ This way we will have an insight in what exactly happens and can make it clearly visible to our consumers in a consistent way, as transparency is one of our key values.
Advertisers can send a request to the curator to pay per click or pay per thousand impressions. Promoted links will be bold links and are meant to give more visibility rather than influence their rank.
The problem with the model of most directories, like Yahoo, is that they didn’t list links to websites that didn’t want to pay, so you didn’t get a complete overview of the subject. If ranking is adjusted because of payments, then consumers (as well as other experts in your industry) will pick up on this and favor another curator.
This causes a decrease of traffic to your page and thus also eliminates the incentive for advertisers to get exposure on your page, as you drive fewer customers to their website afterwards. But in general, we believe competition between curators and focus on the profile of the curator will safeguard overall quality of the platform.
EW: Can you discuss how money will be made through ZEEF?
RB: We would love to have the Wikipedia model, but as discussed earlier, a revenue model is elementary to a sustainable business. Our key vision is to help people find the best quality information.
Affiliate marketing is an ideal way to measure the relevancy of a link to a consumer product or service, and combined with our background in affiliate marketing, this model was an obvious perfect match. This model also supplies our curators with more insights in the quality of the web shops and merchants they’re linking to.
We’ve built an “affiliate connector” that aggregates affiliate networks. When a visitor clicks a link on ZEEF, this affiliate connector will redirect the visitor through an affiliate link, if available. Revenue is shared with curators to reward them for their efforts. We will also add the option to donate your cut of the revenue to a charity automatically, which will also display a badge of this charity on your page.
We want to keep ZEEF clean and ad free, so this is a perfect model to monetize through links that are on the platform already anyway.
EW: Tell us the personal and technical characteristics of the perfect ZEEF curator. Who do you want participating?
RB: We want to have influential experts on every subject eventually, preferably with know-how of how the internet works, like bloggers and influentials on Twitter, to get the best lists of links. Subjects outside of the general population’s comfort zone are most valuable right now, as they solve a problem most clearly and attract lots of visitors.
EW I’m sure you have a vision for what you hope ZEEF will look like in the coming years. Let’s imagine it’s five years from now. What will ZEEF look like?
RB: We will be the biggest and fastest growing human-filtered directory on the internet, succeeding where previous big directories have failed. We want to have an office in most countries and our widgets (embedded lists of links) to be an integral part of the entire web. We have pages on almost any subject you can imagine, from hamburgers to rocket science, covering the majority of words in the dictionary by the most influential experts.
Eric Ward: Just for fun. Wikipedia editors are sometimes referred to as “Wikipedians”. Any ideas on what ZEEF curators will be called?
Rick Boerebach: It would be great to become a synonym for expertise. I would say ZEEFers would be the best way to call curators eventually. “To ZEEF or not to ZEEF, that’s the question.” People will be saying “Did you ZEEF this yet?”
Eric Ward: Any plans for a ZEEF app?
Rick Boerebach: Definitely, we are currently putting a lot of effort and resources into our mobile strategy, we’re soon releasing our responsive interface with an improved user experience and design. At the moment we are investigating how we can use native apps to improve the mobile ZEEF experience even more, for example by suggesting localized directories for your current location.
We plan to launch our API as a invite-only beta soon, with a wider release to follow shortly after. This will open up opportunities for other companies to create apps or integrate us into their services. A distributed directory in every sense, think of the endless possibilities.
Eric Ward: Thank you taking the time to tell us more about ZEEF, Rick.
Rick Boerebach: Thank you, Eric, and SearchEngineLand!
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