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Lords of the Links: Go Guides

Ah, the eternal tension: democracy vs. wisdom. Plato went for wisdom. Today, we generally favor democracy. That must explain why everyone is so slow to criticize "open source" web directories maintained by volunteer editors, such as the Go Guide and its more well-known counterpart, the Open Directory Project.

At the risk of sounding pre-modern: there is too much democracy in these guides, and too little wisdom. Ironically, though, a hidden hierarchy lurks underneath the veneer of chumminess.

Evidently, I have a bone to pick with the Go Guide.

It seems like a good idea. Volunteer editors suggest sites, assign them to categories, write summaries, and even assign star ratings. Problem #1 is that the categories sort of got decided in advance, ostensibly by qualified Infoseek staff. The categories don't always make sense, but guides' suggestions are frequently rejected for being in the "wrong" category.

Go's submission system is unique in that it has a hierarchy of guides. Sites don't get accepted until two senior guides have approved a more junior guide's submission. You get to be a senior guide by racking up points, primarily by successfully submitting sites. Unfortunately, experience in racking up points by following community norms of site submission is not the same as literacy, discrimination, or expertise related to the topic or industry you submit sites for.

After a couple of months doing my halfhearted best to be a Guide, I felt like I was in the middle of a reenactment of Lord of the Flies. Setting up a hierarchical system in the context of zero criteria or qualifications is a little like having a hierarchically-ruled island populated entirely by children.

I found it curious that in such an enormous directory, no one had yet bothered to register the magazine Atlantic Monthly, though it offers some of the finest content on the Internet. In my submission, I was chastised for using the "affective" term "venerable" to describe the venerable East Coast publication. Bah! The punk who instructed me to re-word my submission probably wasn't even born when I was reading The Atlantic's riveting James Fallows articles about his struggles with a word processor called Wordstar. Come to think of it, that was a long time ago.

In another case, I submitted the portal site Go2Net in the category for portals, to put it in with Yahoo, Excite, and AOL where it belonged. Somehow this wound up as "Go2Net Meta Search Engine." Go2Net does own a metasearch engine, but Metacrawler is probably about 2% of what Go2Net does. Grrr.

It's only gotten worse with time. A guide named "eegoo" has inserted a site called Absolute Authority in the same category as the major portals, with this description: "Specialiazes [sic} in very specific topic areas." Below that, they've included the Mamma metasearch engine (again, hardly a portal like MSN). And worst of all, with no rhyme or reason, this category has been overrun with the likes of "HeyIdiot.com: a parody Internet company." I'm thinking, maybe another category would be better for this one. But who knows, HeyIdiot's counterpart in the portals category, AOL, might be a "parody Internet company," too.

The guides have their own message board, which is helpful for guides seeking advice or rule clarification. On the other hand, squabbles frequently break out, and it's difficult to see past people's aliases. The latest bickering centers around an independent site set up by some guides at http://www.go-guides.com . Apparently it's so complicated to be a guide that a separate advice site needed to be organized. Now folks are debating whether this site is authorized, unauthorized, or semi-authorized by Go Network.

The Open Directory Project is a larger open-source directory which has now become the underlying directory service for AOL Search, Hotbot, Lycos, and dozens of other top search sites. Open source in this case (again) means that it's put together by hundreds of volunteer editors. Editors have to apply. Again, the qualifications for editorship are pretty mysterious. One of the key qualifications seems to be a willingness to catalog a large number of low-quality sites. It's too bad, because the ODP was pretty nice when it started. It's just become an unwieldy tangle.

I'll never understand the kid glove treatment that the Open Directory is accorded in the technology press. Unless... unless... people are afraid of jeopardizing their own listings.

Call me a snob, call me pre-modern, but I still like Yahoo and Looksmart, and other directories which employ full-time, qualified editors.

Related Traffick story: Why the Open Directory Isn't Open, by Andrew Goodman.

 

 

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