Category Archives: Directories

Guest Obituary for Zeal, by Alice Swanberg

I’m excited to have a guest writer for the Lounge, Alice Swanberg. In this article she writes about her experiences with LookSmart and Zeal. Alice and I worked closely together for 5 years and I have tremendous respect for her work.

The Ancient Past

I started working at LookSmart in 1999, as a junior contract ontologist. I basically created categories in the directory and helped out with directory growth planning and maintenance. It was a lot of fun, like many early dotcom jobs, and I soon got hired on permanently and promoted above my abilities like everyone in the Internet industry at the time. After almost 18 months, a long 18 months, the senior management announced the acquisition of a new company called Zeal. At this point we’d already tried and had limited commercial success with another community-style project, LookSmart Live. The LookSmart management was trying to figure out a way to scale the directory to make it competitive and as relevant as a web search engine. No matter how many paid editors you throw at the Web, you’re never going to be able to index it all. Therefore, why not see if other people are willing to help?

I’ve been in online communities of one kind or another since 1992. That probably dates me quite a bit. Even with all my old school BBS-roomaide and other community experience, I wasn’t really prepared when I was told that MY directory at LookSmart was going to be opened up to a bunch of average joes. I was pretty tweaked out. I didn’t want just anyone messing around with the categories I had painstakingly built. It sounded crazy. No way would random internet users be able to grasp the style guidelines that took LookSmart editors two weeks of intensive grammar and style bootcamp to master.

Every site description in the directory at that time was copy edited within an inch of its life. You could get fired for bad grammar and spelling. The pressure to produce more and more site reviews was intense for the editorial staff. Because the team was split into subject specialties, people became pretty territorial over their areas of the directory. Around this time I was promoted to Ontology Manager, and as far as I was concerned, I owned the top node of the United States directory and everything underneath it. Talk about territorial.

It was pretty shocking to suggest to such a quality-focused staff, who had been trying to carefully grow a balanced directory of sites, that we should allow just anyone into the system to edit. We were, however, given a lot of say on how the systems were integrated. The prep time for merging Zeal with LookSmart was intense. We had to move from our directory management tool, which I loved even though I griped, to this web-based platform whose strengths were not immediately apparent to us. For one thing, the old tool was drag and drop. It gave us the whole picture of the directory hierarchy. We could link categories to other locations with a flick of the wrist, and create hundreds in just an hour. As a manager, I could just see our productivity stats circling the drain. I was certain this was going to be a nightmare.

The Salad Days

When D-Day came and all the Zealots were allowed back in, it was chaotic for a couple of weeks. The editors on staff had been trained and relatively well-prepared, but we didn’t really internalize the fact that these were volunteers. We tried to control the volunteers and we marked them harshly and inconsistently. Pretty quickly we caught on that most people knew what to do already and that the only thing we needed to do was answer questions and help people regain their points from the old system, which they did incrementally. The members were annoyed to have to start over again, and were loud about it. A lot of the editors had never been exposed to Internet hyperbole, where a user feels the only way to get attention is to wildly exaggerate his or her feelings or position. While I giggled at being called a “soulless automaton” by a frustrated community member, some really took the community’s harsh criticism of them to heart. It took a while to grow a thick skin and start to read the messages from the community for their content and not for their emotion. I was proud that as one of the community moderators I never deleted a message that was critical of the company or staff. I think I probably deleted only a few messages a week, and 99% of those were spam.

Once Zeal started running smoothly, I loved it. Watching the community members build their own system and monitor each other was great. Thinking up new and clever ways to track down the porn spammers and non-subtle SEOs was like a game to me. I really felt like I “knew” some of the zealots well.

To my surprise, the directory’s quality didn’t suffer. We’d streamlined our style guide quite a bit (although I think it was still pretty hard for new members to get used to), which helped everyone. Having a lot of people from different walks of life participating in the project meant that the directory focus shifted from “A general directory which focuses on things young, single people in San Francisco are interested in” to “Things a lot of people who use the Internet are interested in.” We got resources for the elderly, home schooling from an inside perspective, gardening for people who actually have the room for it, sites about goats, and teenage diaries. I soon became a firm (and only occasionally rabid) advocate for the community within the company. I’d always take a few hours at the end of the day to make sure all the community activity and requests were being handled “properly.”

Along with these great sites came plenty of commercial submissions of one type or another. At the time LookSmart was growing its paid inclusion program where commercial sites paid for inclusion in the directory, and so the editorial team was stuck as the unlikely guardian of LookSmart’s main revenue stream. Because of this delicate balance I felt like a post-modern critic a lot of the time – I didn’t want to judge intent, they had to fall inside the lines of acceptable content that we ourselves had drawn. We had long battles with some submitters which helped us refine our guidelines.

Monday Morning Quarterback

LookSmart itself was still trying to find its way after six years – having lots and lots of sites in a directory still didn’t make them a search engine, and eventually MSN decided to move on from using the LookSmart directory as their means of making money from search through paid inclusion.

Here was our chance to try for real search relevance, and we didn’t take it. Chris writes in this very blog about non-search search companies. This was the real turning point, where we didn’t have the significant advantages and disadvantages of the 800-pound gorilla that was Microsoft. We didn’t have to answer to their needs first any more, and could finally become a real search company.

I think that LookSmart should have thrown everything at Wisenut (which was and maybe still is a nice search engine) and possibly the directory. I would have liked to have stripped all of the granular subsites and categories out of the directory. A directory should never try to be a search engine, and that was where we screwed up. It shouldn’t contain all the web, only the best of it. In the early days of Web directories, it was possible to index a lot of the content out there, but as it grew, that became a pipe dream. It didn’t really sink into the skulls of Yahoo!, ODP, and LookSmart for quite a while, as we were having “who has more sites?” cage matches almost up until the point I left the company in June of 2004.

Zeal had a site-rating tool when it was acquired, and this tool was never really integrated. If we’d turned it on, maybe we could have started sifting the “good” sites to the top of categories. With the innovative community piece, there might have been a way to capture people’s thirst for “good” information, the sort of thirst that Wikipedia is answering. If you want to know a single fact, you go to Google or Yahoo! Search. If you want the big picture with reasonably authoritative sites, go to a directory. The ODP, Zeal, and best of all (in my opinion) the Librarians’ Internet Index can give you this.

Do I really think LookSmart should continue to support Zeal? Not if it doesn’t fit their strategy, no. It’s not a horrible thing to drop an underperforming product which you can no longer maintain or don’t wish to maintain. I’m quite surprised that they are essentially taking their toy and going home, though. I’m sure they could continue to make a few bucks off of the (PageRank 8 ) domain and content. Heck, I’d try to buy it if I was in any position to do so. I do think LookSmart has never had a great feel for the Web community at large and how to build up trust. They dabble in purchasing or creating popular community sites, and then shut them down, suggesting to the community that it move onto their next venture. Compared to companies like eBay, who still keeps half.com open based on their community’s wishes in spite of their own often-expressed desire to totally integrate it with eBay Stores, LookSmart looks pretty callous. On the other hand, it’s clear this has been in the offing for months. I noticed when they took the directory off of looksmart.com several months ago – at that point, why not warn your loyal community?

LookSmart’s going to go the way it goes, and it seems comfortable as a third-tier search company – I hope they stay happy there and find a way to make pots of money. I still know former co-workers who bought stock in the IPO and would like to cash it in someday. . . and findarticles.com and furl do continue to rule.

Zeal.com, R.I.P.

Something I knew about for a while has finally hit the airwaves, Zeal.com is closing. I was part of LookSmart’s Editorial Management team in 2000 when Zeal was acquired. We thought it was a great idea because it allowed the directory to scale. Whereas ODP was a bit of a free for all, the differentiation of Zeal was the editorial oversight. We thought the two ideas, openness and oversight, blended well together. But as time wore on and the Zeal executives who came with the acquisition moved on to bigger roles, LS lost interest in the directory and peeled away resources to work on other projects. Zeal was left to die on its own.

When I first heard this was going to happen I was a bit bummed out. A lot of people, community members and editors, had put a lot of work into Zeal. The LS directory in general got a bad rap because it was part of LS and because people who write about search love to tell everyone how directories aren’t used by anyone. But, IMO, that’s because it wasn’t properly used. It’s a perfect example of a non-search search company not supporting a product that could have had niche value. It could have been truly integrated into blended search (mixing directory and algorithmic results) or in today’s environment it could have been an interesting foundation for a tagging system or social networking site. It already had morphed, in essence, into a folksonomy in that it was built by many people. But instead of trying to make it into a valuable resource LS pursued other goals and left behind what had been the foundation of the company.

To read more:

On the Search Lounge Guest Obituary for Zeal, by Alice Swanberg

Ontologista They are shutting down Zeal

Search Engine Journal Looksmart Closes Zeal, Concentrates on Furl.net

Search Engine Watch LookSmart’s Zeal Directory To Close

The Information Literacy Land of Confusion The End of the Zeal Directory

When Giant Directories Roamed the Earth

Written by guest contributor Dave Jansik

Back in the day, directories were the definitive sources for finding quality content on the Web. Following the success of Yahoo, several companies and volunteer-driven efforts sprung up to get a piece of the action. The concept: we do all the searching ahead of time for our users, we establish proprietary traffic, and then the inevitable follow up: we charge businesses for inclusion in the directory. Brilliant. Simple.

Over the last six years, I have been involved in building one of the largest editorially and volunteer driven directory of Web sites. LookSmart’s founders recognized the need to “sort through the crap” that search engines were spewing out in the late 90s. At the time, their intentions were pure and good. The bubble was growing when Microsoft contracted LookSmart to create comprehensive directories of all the best sites out there. With all that money flowing in, we could afford to hire over 100 editors and ontologists worldwide. With the acquisition of Zeal.com we enabled a Web-based platform to harness the skills of hundreds of volunteers to add non-commercial sites and manage categories. Some were in it to get traffic for their own sites while others truly wanted to help build a great search experience. They searched for sites that were determined to be the authority on a topic. Descriptions and titles were hand-written one at a time. The platform enabled users to add numerous types of metadata, link sites and categories, perform mass edit functions, and easily find transgressions such as empty categories. Soon after, we began a paid inclusion service that played off the huge traffic numbers LookSmart received through its distribution on MSN. Thousands of companies were given the right to have as many product pages as they wanted placed in the directory. Suffice it to say that from a quality standpoint, directory search results were heavy on commercial and light on the quality we first intended. I was on the Ontology team whose task was to create and manage an ontology that accommodated what ended up being over 2 million commercial and non-commercial sites neatly organized into a highly intuitive 250,000 category ontology.

When Google entered the fray, directories came to be considered limited in scope. Many specific queries – the quick answers – couldn’t be answered by a directory. Google got you what you wanted in that crucial first five site returns. LookSmart responded by acquiring WiseNut and Grub.org to position it in the search arena. MSN recognized the need to compete with Google, dropped our contract in favor of building their own search engine from scratch, and we were sent scrambling to find a way to replace seventy percent of our revenue because MSN accounted for the bulk of our user traffic. Without Microsoft, resources to maintain our search products were pared. Editorial took a big hit, and with such a large directory on our hands the remaining staff and dwindling number of Zeal volunteers couldn’t keep up with the exponential growth of the Web.

It’s 2005 and most of the editors are gone. I have spent much time clearing out most of the commercial sites that once challenged our credibility. A handful of passionate and dedicated volunteers continue to shape and develop the directory – some oversee its vast landscape while others continue to focus on the topics they hold dear. It is their hobby and their community of friends. It’s their baby. Still, fly-by-night contributors and savvy SEOs endure the Zeal quiz solely to submit their sites knowing that being in LookSmart’s directory will boost Google PageRank.

So, what is the future of the directory? The web is a vast, vast place. Will search engines be able to deliver specific content out of the billions of pages they are able to index? Those of us on the directory bandwagon feel that contextual search and browse tools will always be an essential tool for researching the Web. Consider how useful it is for a searcher looking for everything on the paper and packaging industry to have neatly organized categories of guides, associations, major companies, professional journals, and equipment suppliers already found for him. Kids can search for information on mummies and then climb back up or across the directory to find facts on King Tut, the pyramids, and Cleopatra. People who aren’t sure where to go on vacation can look up official travel guides to hundreds of cities worldwide and see what kind of hotels, entertainment, activities, and restaurants are there before booking.

Here are a few other uses and features that can keep directories relevant, interesting, and even profitable:
Search engine seeding. From a technical standpoint, it is widely acknowledged that search engines can use directories “seeded” with relevant URLs to improve relevancy.
Marketing to a specific segment of Web users by creating verticals. The best of the Web has already been categorized – it’s a great place to start zeroing in on an audience and advertisers. Freely distribute the category structure to other verticals to build traffic.
Making them more consumer-friendly for users and contributors. Add simple site rating and ranking tools that bring the best sites to the top of category site lists, incorporate message boards to share ideas and suggest other sites to fellow users, make it easy to submit a new site, offer basic search engine features such as preview panes and highlighted keywords.
Address staleness issue. By including topical RSS feeds, news feeds, or links to community bookmarking services such as Furl. Once a directory is built it is fairly easy for a small staff to maintain and add new content.

It will be interesting for me to see if directories last as a useful research tool. Yahoo’s directory, once their crown jewel, now occupies a smidge of real estate towards the bottom of their homepage. There are other players popping up solely for the submission money, though just about all of them are so thin on content that one visit is plenty. Bookmarking services like del.icio.us and Furl are helping us dynamically learn about what people find interesting on the Web, yet there are issues with the free-wheeling and personalized metadata, or folksonomies, that users of these services employ. No one has invented the perfect, omniscient search tool yet. And ya know, I wouldn’t be surprised if the person who creates one gets their idea while in a directory.

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Dave Jansik is a Senior Ontologist and Content Producer at LookSmart.com. He has worked on Web directories for 6 years.
[Editor’s note: I’d like to thank my friend Dave for taking the time to put this commentary together. He has been a quiet advocate for helping people find information on the Web for years and it’s great to have him sharing his thoughts with us.]