DMOZ: A Solid Directory Or The Great Pumpkin Of Search?

Love it or hate it, the Open Directory Project (ODP or “DMOZ”) always seems to creep into the conversation when we’re discussing links and/or SEO. Check any forum, social news or answer site and you’ll see a wide variety of opinions on the 11 year old directory and how it’s managed. When talking about the […]

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Love it or hate it, the Open Directory Project (ODP or “DMOZ”) always seems to creep into the conversation when we’re discussing links and/or SEO. Check any forum, social news or answer site and you’ll see a wide variety of opinions on the 11 year old directory and how it’s managed.

When talking about the DMOZ two camps typically emerge, those who support the directory and its mission (editors) and those who support getting into the directory (SEOs). While the two sides tend to clash, I’ve found the “directory trust” SEOs seek is the same trust DMOZ editors feel they need to protect. The determination by both groups to satisfy their goals fuels the constant struggle between webmasters and directory.

Since DMOZ is not a search giant, and seemingly does little to promote itself or the core values of the directory, you have to wonder why editors and SEO’s even bother with it. But since they do, I decided to approach DMOZ for input on a number of commonly asked questions and post answers and viewpoints here at Link Week. Nothing earth shattering came out, but I did pull a number of interesting tidbits from the interview and the research I conducted to support my input.

To get things going, I asked my good friend and AOL Manager Simon Heseltine to introduce me to someone at the DMOZ. That led to a meeting with ODP Editor Myron Rosmarin, which led to a dialogue with Founders Rich Skrenta and Chris Tolles who pointed me to Bob Keating, Editor In Chief of the Open Directory Project who graciously agreed to the interview.

Debra: Tell us a little about yourself Bob, how did you get started with the Open Directory Project (ODP) and how long have you been there?

Bob: I have been working on the ODP since I joined AOL in June 1999. Initially, I was brought on to work on a directory solution for AOL Search. I joined the ODP team shortly afterward to help develop the ontology and the community self-governance model. About a year later, the ODP Founders appointed me Editor in Chief.

Over the years, I’ve worked on number of search and publishing projects at AOL. In 2004, I left full-time employment with AOL, and took a position with the Federal government to start-up a new search engine program, but I remained as a consultant on the ODP. Since 2006, I’ve worked in the strategy consulting space, helping Federal clients develop product strategies around search, social media, and web-based services.

But through all these career changes, the ODP has been a constant in my life. For the last five years, my involvement has been more focused on overseeing the community and advising the ODP team at AOL on everything from the project’s history to community interaction.

Debra: Why is the directory sometimes referred to as the ODP and other times DMOZ? Is there a difference?

Bob: The directory’s “official” name is DMOZ: The Open Directory Project. DMOZ means “Directory Mozilla” – the idea was to align the directory with the Mozilla brand, even though it was not actually part of that group. DMOZ and ODP are now used interchangeably to refer to the directory.

Debra: Most of us know that DMOZ is owned/operated by AOL, but the site still lists Netscape as “hosts and administrators”. Who ultimately makes the “big decisions” at DMOZ?

Bob: By design, it is the community that makes the “big decisions.” But in terms of the corporate entity that is ultimately responsible for DMOZ, it is AOL.

Debra: Can you explain the chain of command at DMOZ?

Bob: DMOZ is essentially a meritocracy in which editors are granted high permissions based on their interest and quality of participation. There are two general types of permissions: those that allow one to edit anywhere, and those that allow one to participate in community management. An editor with the former permission is known as an “Editall.” Editalls can edit anywhere are engaged in discussions around taxonomy and the editorial guidelines.

An editor with the latter permission is known as a “Meta Editor.” Meta Editors are community managers and are responsible for reviewing editor applications, investing and resolving abuses, and leading editor discussions. For all intents and purposes, Meta Editors and Editalls are “equal” permissions but focus on different aspects of the community.

The “Administrator” permission is the highest community management permission, and is granted to a few, trusted editors to oversee the day-to-day operations of the community. They ensure that Meta Editors and Editalls are being fair and equitable, and that the guidelines are kept current.

The ODP’s governance model is intended to be self-regulating, so there are checks and balances in place to ensure all topics and all points of view are represented, and to foster an inclusive environment in which any editor who wants to contribute is encouraged to contribute. This model doesn’t always work perfectly, but it has been very successful in creating a self-regulating environment, which actually has less to do with the model and more to do with the extraordinary group of editors who contribute to the directory’s governance.

Debra: How do you respond to the allegations some DMOZ editors accept money for submissions?

Bob:Accepting money for submissions is strictly against the community codes of conduct. In cases where we have confirmed this is happening, we revoke the editor’s account. That said, in more cases than not, the allegations are just that… allegations. Still, accepting money in exchange for submission is a consequence of an open directory operation in a closed community.

As I mentioned previously, our challenge is to create a system that allows Webmasters to contribute to the ODP, rather than feeling disconnected from it, which gives one incentive to abuse the system. This solution involves expanding the ODP’s scope, offerings and participation levels. I can’t promise the solution will rid the ODP of nefarious activity, but I think becoming more inclusive while still retaining the directory’s self-governance model will be a significant improvement.

I think it’s important to note that our editor application review process is very thorough. From a directory quality perspective, the best time to identify potential abusers is before they get a foot in the door. We ask that applicants provide a thorough listing of site affiliations and we use full disclosure (as opposed to the affiliations themselves) as a criterion for selection along with general editing quality of the sample sites they provide. While this may mean that we occasionally reject good applicants, the end result is that we keep out many potential abusers. That’s good for everyone.

We unfortunately do sometimes encounter editors who abuse their editing privileges for personal gain. We have a system of community policing to help weed out these “bad eggs.” The public, as well as other editors themselves, are able to report suspected abuse via our abuse reporting tool. When a report comes in, meta editors investigate these allegations fully and if we find that they have merit, we revoke the editor’s account. In the case that a meta editor is suspected of abuse, the case will be investigated by an admin.

We recently did a blog post about what editor abuse really is and what information we need to have in order to fully investigate it.

Debra: There are a lot of categories at DMOZ without editors. I know there is an open invitation for anyone to apply, but what is DMOZ doing to recruit people to fill the empty categories?

Bob: Even though there are lots of categories without listed editors, anyone listed in a parent category or with directory-wide editing permissions can edit these categories. So, even though an editor is not listed in a category does not mean the category is not being maintained.

We are an all-volunteer force, so recruitment is primarily through word of mouth from our current editors and through data users themselves. The editors reach out to others within their own communities and this has produced tremendous growth in some areas. We also get new editors who find us via the DMOZ data attribution badge on other sites or because they learn about us by seeing our results in Google or another search engine. DMOZ gets hundreds of applications daily, and routinely accepts those most likely to edit well and contribute more than just their own site.

Debra: Yes, I understand category editors can/do pitch in, but when I look at a major category like Real Estate and notice seven of the first nine categories are without editors and one category shows 2007 as the last date the page was updated, I have to wonder what the Directory is doing to keep its results fresh. How can a handful of people in a major category like Real Estate keep that section of the Directory current?

Bob: The date at the bottom of the page can be misleading. It’s not always an indicator of freshness. Some pages are not updated frequently simply because they are directional pages (i.e., they direct users to categories where sites are listed); or because the kind of site listed in the category is so specific that few sites are listed at that particular level. is a good example.

The category description page explains how agency sites are listed.

The lion’s share of agency sites are directed and listed in the Regional area of the site, which is where a lot of the editors in this area are spending their time and effort.

Debra: Has there been any discussion about the ODP offering a paid review program?

Bob: This issue has been raised and discussed many times. Paid review really goes against the whole idea behind the ODP. In fact, our Social Contract with the web community takes an especially firm position on this issue.

Debra: Why can’t DMOZ notify webmasters when their sites are included or rejected? Has there been any discussion on being able to pay for this feature?

Bob: Because the ODP is not designed to be a site listing service, creating a notification system has not been a priority. In the past, there was a “check my site status” thread offered via the editor-run public forums at Resource Zone ( It was not hosted or administered by AOL. It was a good faith effort to reach out to the webmaster community.

However, the thread got quite unruly and unmanageable, so it was taken down. Moreover, some editors felt the “check status” thread conflicted with their other editing pursuits. Nonetheless, I can see us adding this as a feature in the future. As with any feature associated with DMOZ, it would be provided at no cost.

Debra: What are the top three reasons sites don’t make it into the ODP?

Bob: They are:

  1. The site was submitted to the incorrect category. Editors may move these submissions to the correct category (which can significantly delay review); or delete them from the submission queue.
  2. The site is incomplete, under construction, returns an HTTP error, or lacks adequate or unique content.
  3. The site’s content mirrors a URL that is already listed in the directory.

Debra: Mention DMOZ to a group of webmasters or read forum posts discussing the directory, and you’ll usually find the negative comments far outweigh the positive. How is the ODP dealing with their legacy issues?

Bob: Webmaster angst stems from the fact that the ODP is not designed to be a site listing service for webmasters. Webmasters have worked very hard to make the ODP work for them, and the editors have worked equally hard against Webmaster tactics that are contrary to how the directory operates. As result, this conflict has created a cloud of distrust and negativity between both camps.

The Webmasters feel shut out of a community that was intended to be open to all types of contributions. For a while now, our challenge has been to create system that allows Webmasters to contribute to the ODP in a mutually beneficial and meaningful way, while preserving editorial quality.

The solution is not as simple as turning the ODP into a submission service or maintaining the status quo. Rather, the solution involves expanding the ODP’s scope, offerings and levels of participation. This is at the heart of what we are working on today.

Debra: It’s great to hear the ODP is working to expand its scope, offerings and participation levels, can you tell us a little more about your plans and when we can expect to see them implemented?

Bob: ODP is committed to expanding its scope, offerings and participation levels, but I can’t share any details with you at this point. When we are ready to announce more details, we will be sure to let you know.

Debra: Do you think people would be so passionate about being included in the directory if it wasn’t used by Google?

Bob: It depends if you are talking about Webmasters or editors. Clearly, webmasters would not care much about DMOZ if it weren’t for its influence on search engines. Editors, on the other hand, have a different perspective. The reasons editors participate in the ODP are as diverse as the global makeup of its participants.

Debra: There was a post on the DMOZ Blog recently where an editor (crowbar) outlined what makes content unique by ODP standards. It listed a number of points but seemed to dwell on the issue of mirror sites, or that “A site should not mirror content available on other sites”. Since this is a strong criteria for inclusion (or not) in the Directory, why does the DMOZ give away its content through the dump program? On one hand, DMOZ admits to deleting sites submitted that don’t have unique content and yet they provide mirror content to anyone who asks. Is this a case of do as I say and not as I do?

Bob: There are two separate issues here. One is content distribution and syndication, which the ODP does as do billions of other websites. Sites that include syndicated content are not considered “mirror sites” simply because they include syndicated content.

The other issue is content that an entity replicates over different branded domains. This is a common tactic in e-commerce, and is the issue the guidelines around “mirror sites” are intended to address.

The interview ended there. Here’s my tidbits and takeaways:

The tidbits

When I heard Bob make this comment:

the lion’s share of agency sites are directed and listed in the Regional area of the site, which is where a lot of the editors in this area are spending their time and effort.”

The word “regional” caught my ear. I’ve been following Tim Armstrong since he came on board as AOL’s CEO and understand he (and now AOL) have a strong interest in It’s interesting to note is a regional, community specific platform showing news and events from specific cities and towns. Seeding with regional results from a respected directory would make a lot of sense, so if you’re bricks and mortar based, now might be a good time to submit your business to DMOZ.

The second tidbit worth noting, is the comment about the notification service. Notifying webmasters why their sites aren’t being added to the directory would go a long way in eliminating the frustration many feel about the ODP; after all, education is preferable to being ignored. I sincerely hope this project moves along much faster than the DMOZ 2.0 project they dropped hints about back in June 2008.

The last and most notable takeaway from this interview, IMO, is the response to my question on why sites don’t make it into the DMOZ. Bob’s answer is informative and also very unsettling because it speaks directly to what I feel is the core problem with the DMOZ – a lack of editors.

Here’s what he said when I asked “What are the top three reasons sites don’t make it into the DMOZ?”

The site was submitted to the incorrect category. Editors may move these submissions to the correct category (which can significantly delay review) or delete them from the submission queue“.

I’ve spoken to many DMOZ editors who all say the same thing, they delete submissions made to incorrect categories rather than send them along. Why? I’m told it’s because so much of the directory is without editors and/or because they have the authority to do so.

Hmm. This attitude is interesting especially since the DMOZ states “fairness and objectivity prevail here” in their editor requirements. It doesn’t seem “fair” or “objective” to simply delete a submission added to the wrong category but hey, that’s the way things go at the DMOZ. Say anything and even top management is quick to point out “the ODP is not designed to be a site listing service for webmasters”. I think you’ll find a lot of webmasters support that statement and want a quality DMOZ maintained, they just don’t always get it right when they submit. Submitting your site to the wrong category should not preclude you from being added to the directory.

One of the reasons for doing this interview was to find out what the DMOZ was going to do about recruiting editors to fill its very empty ranks. While Bob reaffirmed the DMOZ’s commitment to quality editing, he didn’t address the issue of recruitment, even though I asked the question twice.

How can the directory maintain quality content with so many categories missing editors? Case in point, when I view the page dedicated to the hot topic of H1N1/Swine Flu, see no editor and note the page was last updated October 18, 2009 I wonder if the DMOZ is really a serious search source.

Add to it, I don’t see popular sites such as the Mayo Clinic, the World Health Organization, MedicineNet or FluView listed and now I’m also wondering about the ability of ODP to provide relevant information. It’s not hard to list the top health sites on the Web for the term H1N1/Swine Flu, but it’s  impossible when you don’t have a editor working the category.

Yes, yes – I know section editors can and do come in to edit but they’re obviously not doing that here, are they? For topics in the news or representing financial/health issues, every effort should be made to fill those categories with qualified editors and keep the category updated. To do anything less is a disservice to the public and the directory.

I sincerely hope DMOZ doesn’t become invisible like the Great Pumpkin, as it has been an integral part of the search industry for 11 years and deserves respect for its contributions. A hand-edited directory of 4.5 million websites is an accomplishment no one else can claim and I support the stringent admission standards they have in place. But I also hope the directory makes every effort to utilize the vast resources AOL has to recruit quality editors to its empty categories. The H1N1/Swine Flu category is a classic example of how out-of-date the directory is and how important editors are to keeping it current. I believe once editors are in place, many of the other issues will take care of themselves.

Hey AOL, this is no trick, we want DMOZ to be our favorite treat! Are you listening?

Contributing authors are invited to create content for Search Engine Land and are chosen for their expertise and contribution to the search community. Our contributors work under the oversight of the editorial staff and contributions are checked for quality and relevance to our readers. The opinions they express are their own.

About the author

Debra Mastaler
Debra Mastaler is an internationally recognized authority on link building and is an OMCP Certified Link Building Trainer. Based in Washington DC, Debra is also a columnist for Search Engine Land, has written for or been featured in numerous tech publications and is active on the search marketing conference circuit as a speaker and trainer. Debra serves as a judge for the Landy Awards and is the President of Connect with Debra on Twitter and LinkedIn to stay in touch.

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