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The Open Directory Project

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When you're looking for information on the Internet, it's usual to either be following links from something you read elsewhere, guessing a URL, or mostly searching on a search engine such as Google. This is a bit hit and miss, and some engines display sponsored links, while the relevant information may be hidden under pages of less useful stuff. The solution is to use a great little project called the 'Open Directory Project' (ODP) - a human-edited directory.

What's That?

The Open Directory is the brains behind a vast number of online directory sites, with results used by such sites as the great and mighty Google Directory to power the listings facilities.

While most sites run their own system for navigation, they do look broadly similar to the ODP itself. Indexing well over three million sites is no mean feat, since the project isn't maintained and updated by machines and search robots like most search engines. Instead, a vast army of volunteer editors performs the massive task of keeping the directory up to date and in order.

Who Are They?

The background behind the ODP is a confusing one. The directory is run by Netscape, which has links to AOL. However, this is not allowed to influence the way the sites are indexed. The whole emphasis is on being unbiased and precise. As for editing the sites, it is true to say that anyone can be an editor for the Open Directory Project. However, it's quite an art becoming one, and it can take several attempts to get your first category to look after.

When Did All This Start?

The project has been around since 1998, and is constantly being updated, although most directories are restricted to updating their data weekly as an update is released by the project. The ODP has a truly global community, with people contributing from around the world in many different languages, 24 hours a day. This can become confusing, but in practice you end up getting on with your own areas and leaving others alone.

How Do I Get Involved?

The registration form asks you for several details. Firstly, a username and appropriate password are required, for ID purposes, along with an email address. Of course, anyone can manage that part. The tricky parts are finding the right category to apply for - something small is recommended to begin with, you're not likely to be allowed to start on Top: Regional: UK as a co-editor, as that's a very general and important category. A good way to start is by applying to edit the entries for your hometown - if no one else is.

The next stumbling block is describing to a submissions editor the exact reasons for your application - about eight lines explaining that you are knowledgeable, interested and enthusiastic. After you've done that, you must declare any business affiliation that you have with sites that could potentially be listed in the category. While you are allowed to have an affiliation, you risk being removed if it is seen to be having an impact on your treatment of submitted sites.

Once that's all out of the way, you must contribute three sample URLs, titles and descriptions that are not already listed in the category. Brief description is vital, as is describing the site first, with the entity behind it being an optional extra. For your first category, the process is very harsh, with a verdict by email. It can take several submissions to become an editor, but after that, gaining new categories is a relatively easy affair.

Why Would I Want To?

There's something intriguing about being part of such a massive project, and a certain pride in keeping your categories in good working order. However, your job is constantly on the line, and so it's important to maintain a good quality.

Somewhat surprisingly, there's a significant community, with the UK and Ireland regional forum positively buzzing with activity. You have to be an editor to access these forum pages, and off-topic rambling is restricted to a forum of its own.

Where Is It?

The complete, real-time updated Directory is accessible at Of course, hundreds of sites use the data. However, they are free only to update from the data each week. For the live data, with the most up-to-date listings, the ODP's own site is the best bet.

How Do I Use It?

Using the ODP is fairly easy. It works in two quite separate ways to achieve the same end result:

  • Navigate: - The ODP is fully categorised, with the main page giving the most general topic at the top. So, if you wanted to, for example, find the category 'Top: Arts: Literature: Authors: A: Adams, Douglas: Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy', you would go to the main page and click 'Arts', then 'Literature', then 'Authors', and so on. Then, you would read down the list of descriptions of sites, and finding the reference to 'h2g2' in the list on the page, you would read the description. If you decided that you wanted to visit the site, then all that is necessary is to click the title. You may have to try a few times as this requires you to second-guess some of the listing categories, but this won't take any longer than digging through irrelevant search results and sponsored links on AltaVista.

  • Search: - At the top of the page, there is a search box, which will search through the directory for you, finding two types of result - appropriate categories and sites. Most of the time, it's the sites that are of interest, but if you're doing general research, for example for an h2g2 Entry, then the categories can throw up useful results.

Site Descriptions and Cool Sites

The site description given in the directory is a carefully considered thing. The guidelines place the most important details as being what is to be found on the site. No indication of the quality of the design of the site is usually given, although helpful details such as required plug-ins or notification of the necessity to register are sometimes given. Any description of the entity that runs the site is purely optional.

For example, the description given of h2g2 in 'Top: Arts: Literature: Authors: A: Adams, Douglas: Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy' is:

H2G2 - The Official Earth Edition of The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy. Consists of hundreds of entries on subjects ranging from Aerosol Deodorants to Zoos, and discussions upon them.

Note how short it is, and how it is relatively unbiased. There's no indication that it's run by the BBC, although the URL is up-to-date.

Also, the h2g2 listing, as mentioned above, at this page, is given the 'Cool Site' accolade, as denoted by the little star and the bold link. This simply means that the editor that added it liked it more than anything else in the category. An editor is forbidden to 'cool' their own site.

Submitting a site is as easy as providing a URL, description and email address (optional), and in choosing the right category1. It's the human editors that make the ODP what it is - as summed up brilliantly by their slogan 'Humans do it better!'

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1Editors might not take the trouble to forward it to the right place if you don't - they're busy people!

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