Business directories and SEO – what’s legit?

Let’s say it up front: business directories are often spammy

One of the most important ranking factors in SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) is incoming links from other websites, also known as backlinks. But not all backlinks are created equal. Bad backlink practices can be seen as spam, and many businesses get themselves in trouble by buying into SEO schemes that don’t follow Google’s guidelines for links.  In particular, Google’s Webmaster guidelines forbid:

  • Buying or selling links that pass PageRank (i.e. are not “nofollow”)
  • Low-quality directory or bookmark site links
  • Using automated programs or services to create links to your site

Let’s dig a little deeper on that second one. What makes a “low quality directory”?  Google search engine team member Matt Cutts describes the issues in this video:

So to summarise, here what Google says counts as a “low quality directory”:

  • You’re guaranteed inclusion if you pay the fee.
  • They don’t do any substantial review of your entry.
  • You can choose any text or content to enter into the directory, possibly including the link text.
  • They don’t exercise any substantial editorial discretion.

Here are a few other warning signs we’ve noticed:

  • The directory is advertised through direct marketing (unsolicited commercial email, cold calling, etc).
  • Submission to the directory is automated, or comes as a package of submission to a large number of directories.
  • The directory offers nothing but links to other websites – it doesn’t represent a real business or organisation, doesn’t have substantial and valuable content, doesn’t offer useful services or functionality.
  • The directory claims a certain scope (eg. a particular city or industry) but includes links that don’t match that. This is a sign that there’s no editorial discretion.
  • The directory is owned and operated by an SEO company, and inclusion is listed as a benefit of their service.
  • The directory meets many of the above criteria AND the links are not “nofollow” (you can check this with one of these tools).  A high quality directory, such as those described below, shouldn’t need to “nofollow” their links, but a low quality one that accepts payment for “dofollow” listings is basically operating a link scheme that is forbidden by Google.

What’s the risk?

If you’re listed in too many low quality directories, Google may consider that you (or your SEO provider) has been engaging in spammy, unethical behaviour and penalise you. In short, it can be bad for your search engine ranking, and result in lost business.

Beware of SEO link schemes and low quality directories

Sketchy SEO practices can get you in all sorts of trouble

What paid directories are legit?

Having scared you off low quality paid business directories, what are some examples of high quality ones?  Here are a few examples that we think meet Google’s guidelines for a high quality directory, even if you pay for inclusion.

Chambers of Commerce

Your local Chamber of Commerce is a legitimate membership organisation providing a range of services to its members. They probably host networking events, professional development, offer advice to local businesses, and so forth. Their website will most likely include a membership directory, which will bring you leads and referrals from people seeking local businesses. Your chamber of commerce probably also has a strong Domain Authority, so a link from their directory to your website has considerable ranking benefit, and with its geographic specificity it may also bring a boost to your local SEO.

Industry Associations

Any organisation that offers memberships to professionals in your field fits this category. An example might be a local tourism association, an organisation for licensed practitioners in a certain field, or a peak organisation for whatever your niche is. Usually you will need to pay to join one of these organisations, and they’ll offer a range of benefits which may include training and education, marketing and promotion, or advocacy as well as listing in their online directory.  They might be specific to your local area, national, or even international in scope. These associations usually have a strong domain authority and are a worthwhile link to pursue, from an SEO perspective.

Networking Groups

Some networking groups offer memberships and benefits that include a listing in their online directory.  These might be aimed at a certain  demographic or business niche. An example might be a women’s networking group, entrepreneurs under 30, or creative freelancers.  These groups might hold regular in-person networking events with a relevant speaker, or offer a valuable online forum. These are usually less formal than a chamber of commerce or industry association, offer fewer benefits to members, and often have weaker Domain Authority for their websites. Still, if they offer a member directory where you can be listed, and it doesn’t match the red flags listed above, there can be some SEO benefit to getting a link from them.

paid business directories should offer benefits beyond links

Join groups you want to belong to. Don’t just pay for links.

Don’t pay (just) for links

The key to paying for SEO backlinks from business or professional directories is that it should be a side-benefit of your membership. Look at the membership fee, and see if you’ll get your money’s worth in professional development, advocacy, networking, and other benefits.  Then consider the backlink from their professional directory as an SEO bonus.

A side-benefit of directory listings, especially for local businesses, is the opportunity to list your name, address and phone number (NAP) whether or not you get a link to your website. NAP citations across the web are one of the strongest signals for local SEO – that is, searches like “Ballarat yoga studios” – so make sure your details are correct and consistent wherever you are listed in a professional directory.

How Flax Digital manages professional directory listings

We recommend the same practices for our SEO clients as we use for our own business. When we take on a new client, we review existing directory listings, recommend new ones, and can help deal with past penalties that may have come from bad directory listings.

For most businesses, we think it’s a good idea to be a member of your local chamber of commerce and industry associations, and can help make sure that your backlinks and NAP from your membership listings are bringing you the most SEO benefit they can. But we’ll always be clear: you don’t join these organisations for the SEO, you join them for the wide range of benefits they can offer. The SEO is just a very nice icing on the cake!


Alex is the owner of Flax Digital, a website consulting agency based in Ballarat, Australia. Alex has over 20 years' experience developing websites and digital strategy for businesses and non-profits in Australia and internationally.

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