March 11, 2006

Directory Fever

by Nick Montfort · , 1:23 am
Yahoo in 1996 Yahoo in 2006
The Yahoo! home page in 1996 and 2006. The inverted region on the right shows the space occupied by the Web Directory, once the sole feature of Yahoo!

Paging through a few of the many archived versions of the Yahoo! home page on the Internet Archive shows that the Yahoo Web Directory’s rate of disappearance has been pretty steady over time: Feb 1998Jan 2001Jan 2003Jan 2005.

Part of this encrustation of advertising, services, customization, news, and so on around the core function of a site is a general phenomenon I call “portalitis,” one which has afflicted many a page. Portalitis is not always irreversible. Flipping through the archived home pages of Altavista ( through 1998; switched to by the beginning of 1999) shows a different progression, toward a busy mess that is trying to provide one-stop shopping for everyone and then back to the Google-like minimalism of the current Altavista page. Whether this improvement in interface led anyone back to search using Altavista is another matter, of course.

The disappearing Yahoo! Web Directory is certainly not only due to portalitis, but to general problems with maintaining a large, human-edited directory of the Web. The Open Directory Project was an interesting idea, with a different concept of how to organize editors, that shone for a while when Google friended it as the “Google Web Directory,” featuring it late in 2000 and then adding a “Directory” tab. But you can see this tab go the way of the gold standard between March 6, 2004 and March 25, 2004, when Froogle was introduced.

It’s hardly controversial to say that search engines have trounced Web-wide, human-edited directories in general Web access. To bring new resources to our attention – ones that we wouldn’t know how to search for – there are other systems: blogs, schemes based on tagging rather than top-down categorization, and word of mouth (and email, and MUD). Wikis, while turned inward onto themselves by virtue of the greater ease with which one can make internal links, are also stepping up here and there to provide some usefully contextualized, if spotty, sorts of Web directories; Wikipedia is the real Web-wide case in which this is happening.

I’m curious, though, to learn about specialized directories that don’t seek to encompass the whole Web, but are run by more than one person. Are there useful ones out there? And if people still regularly turn to the Open Directory or, retro as it may be, the Yahoo! Web Directory, I’m interested to hear about that, too.