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UTN Directory - Shawn Walters Interview

April 10, 2005

How did you get into the web?

When I was in college a project of mine was to register a domain name and build a website. So I built a fitness website (I was really into staying fit and keeping off that “freshman 15”!). After that semester in school, I kept with my fitness website, and made it into a forum with pictures, articles discussions and more. A year later as classes got harder I sold it to a magazine for more than I paid for my new car. Today it’s one of the most popular fitness and bodybuilding websites on the internet.

Some people think that the average business can be made extraordinary via SEO. Is this true? How do you view SEO?

Well, first I’m no expert in SEO or anything, but I do have some experience. In the end though, I think most people out there can afford to do their own SEO work. There really isn’t much involved. My personal opinion on the matter is to make a good site, and it will rank because it should rank, not because you manipulated the results to make it rank.

What SEO Tools do You Find Useful?

I think self serve type tools are the best resources. For example, tutorials on how to clean your code up, html tidy, conversion tracking software etc. Software that monitors keyword positions in search engines are useful I guess, but it seems like too much trouble to me to worry about the daily variances of website rankings. The worst type of seo resources are page generators or nonsense type tools. Overall, if I had to refer someone to an seo company or service I would recommend online tutorials or your seo book that you offer before I would an actual company.

When & why did you launch UncoverTheNet? What makes it different from other search services and directories?

It was launched on October 7th, 2004. Since conception, we've hired a dozen or so editors who literally scour the web every day to find the "best of the best" and add it to the directory. I started Uncover the Net because I saw an opening or lacking of the “special something” in the other directories and search engines out there. I wanted to create a new breed of search engine that would have that “special something”.

Some people (such as Danny Sullivan and Rich Skrenta) have recently stated that directories are no longer as important as they once were. Do you agree with this view? Do you see them becoming more relevant in time?

I agree that search engines by far will be the driving force of the internet in the future. But I also believe that as the search engines get smarter at fighting spam so will the attackers who produce the spam. Our slogan is “The search engine powered by Humans, not Machines”. So yes, machine ran search engines will undoubtedly have more sites listed, but they will have more spam as well. Uncover the Net is somewhat a combination of the two. Essentially it’s a search engine that lists only sites that our editors have personally evaluated.

It seems as though you spent a good amount promoting UncoverTheNet. Some directory owners prefer to build link popularity and promote slowly over years. Some seem as though they do not believe in advertising at all. Why did you approach it differently?

Basically, we just took out some ads on various websites to help get the name out a little while we are still building the database and the brand. What advertising we have now, is really only a taste of what is to come in the future. I believe that a search engine or directory should be well known or who’s going to use it? My mother always said “If you’re not going to do it right, don’t do it at all”!

With directories many webmasters instantly know of Yahoo! and DMOZ. Most other directories are thought of in the (others) category. Do you think you will be able to build a brand strong enough to compete with Yahoo! and DMOZ? Is that a goal of UncoverTheNet?

Absolutely. It may not happen overnight, but that is certainly our goal. I’ve studied many of the other directories and search engines, and have found flaws in them. So in Uncover the Net, we basically created it as a combination of all the good aspects of the others, without the flaws.

What are some of the better ideas you have picked up? What are some of the flaws you aim to avoid?

Well, several things, really. For example, some directories don’t really have any rules for what sites get listed and where. Some allow the customer to pick the title of their site, only to have every site listed have the exact same keyword title. Others rely on volunteer editors to add sites, and then wonder why there is talk of corruption. Others rely on machines to determine if a site is worth listing in it’s index. There are many more, and I’m sure there are many that we missed as well.

Many directories run into scalability problems. Off the start it is easy to add thousands of sites, but as time passes and the directory grows the cost of maintenance grows logarithmically. Do you think you will be able to create a business model that will work well long-term? Will you eventually charge recurring review fees?

We have already talked it over, and yes that is exactly the plan. Currently, our submission price is rather low, but we have it low to help populate the directory. By the year’s end, expect to see big changes and a higher submission price to help pay our increased expenses.

How do you prevent bait and switch or other spam techniques from having an averse affect on UncoverTheNet?

We currently have an editor whose sole job is to visit all of the websites listed and make sure that they are running correctly, listed in the correct category and that they haven’t changed into some other website (a pornographic site for example). We are also building a database tool that will spider all the sites and report to us a listing of all the sites that return an error message. Maintaining the integrity of the directory is one of our core goals and will remain a top priority.

Many newer directories have pointed a good amount of link popularity at their home page and then did not build a strong database. What convinced you that you needed to work hard building a database as well?

I believe the database is more important than links or popularity or anything. Without it, no one would ever use the site. If you went to Google and searched for “cars” and it returned 3 results, would you ever go back there again? Most likely not. With Uncover the Net, we’re trying to build the database first while we do moderate advertising. Once we have a few hundred thousand hand reviewed sites, we’ll start a more aggressive advertising campaign.

I believe you use a (highly modified) version of a script that many low quality directories are using. Did you remove any footprints from the script? Do you think software footprints matter much?

Yes, I know of the script you’re talking about. We bought the script knowing we would make modifications to it. I’ve worked with the creator of the script now for over 6 months on almost a daily basis, and the script is now almost completely different code than when it was purchased. As far as footprints, that just seems like it’s another SEO’er term that they use. Again if you make a quality web site, it wouldn’t matter if you had footprints or handprints!

Some directories more or less just sell links to anyone. Many directories have been hit in recent Google updates. How do you ensure that search engines will continue to see the value of your citation data / directory service?

Yes, I see that. Many of them will list any website in any category that the webmaster wants. I guess this goes back to the fact that the webmaster is not our customer. Sure they help pay the bills, but without everyday visitors, the site is worthless.

As for the second question, my only solution to ensuring that other search engines and customers see Uncover the Net as a valuable resource is to keep focusing on the customer. On every change that we make or every site that we add, our team is trained to ask themselves, “If I were a customer, what would I think of this?” That’s kind of our best guideline without getting too technical. In essence, if a website is spam and offers no value to a user, it won’t be listed, because that alone would hurt our credibility and our service.

You seem to have a strong core group of editors. How did you find them and what tips do you have for finding good editors?

We look for professionalism and experience when hiring our editors. We didn’t want a computer geek with a computer science degree to be the core of our editorial team. Why? Because that’s not what the general public is comprised of.

For example, our associate editor of reference and education is the head of a department at Michigan State University. Our editor of shopping owns her own small business. Our editor of Arts and Humanities is photography major. And so on. This helps us build a strong database of useful sites that were added and evaluated by experts in their respective fields.

What are your biggest regrets thus far with UncoverTheNet?

My biggest regret is not building a stronger database before launching the site. In retrospect though, I probably wouldn’t have done it different. I like the concept of people seeing us grow instead of us popping out of nowhere with a full database. We’re really getting a strong following and repeat users.

What has surprised you or worked better than expected with UncoverTheNet?

I guess the level of traffic is the most surprising thing. For example, a friend has a clothing store that listed in Uncover the Net (a Sponsored Listing), and they are getting 200-500 hits a month from the listing! So, I’m happy that we’re able to deliver customers to merchants and that we’re able to help customers find what they’re looking for.

You seem to be adding many other features outside of the directory realm to UncoverTheNet. Do you intend to create a full fledged portal?

Not really. But we have thousands of articles submitted by our everyday users on hundreds of topics ranging from home decorating to building a website. We also have a music lyric database of music lyrics for literally thousands of songs. We want to be able to provide as many useful resources to our customers as possible. As for anything else, it’s still in beta testing, and might not be implemented. To me the perfect version of Uncover the Net is a combination of Google (a pure search site), Yahoo (a portal and directory) and About.com (excellent articles). Together these combined would make a great and informative site.

When you first launched you had AdSense ads on UTN. Later you switched to Overture feeds. What do you like and dislike about each program?

Overall, I would have to say I like Overture more, if nothing else simply because of the ability to integrate the ads into the directory in a seamless fashion.

I don’t like the fact that Adsense is so strict on its rules, and how it’s a predetermined size in a JavaScript code. Google is a great company, but everyone I talked to at Adsense is so scared of saying what it is on their mind (and actually helping me) almost seemed like they asked an attorney before they reply to each and every email. Heck, for all I know maybe they do, but that makes for horrible customer service.

With Overture, I have my own rep that helps me with reports, integration and is a real person who treats me like a person not client # 1234567879.

You changed the layout of UncoverTheNet many times. Do you like the current layout, and where can people go to check out the latest version?

Yes, that's my fault. I get picky sometimes, and see flaws in our design. The last change was mostly a css change, but it reduced the page size and loading time dramatically. As the more traffic and users we get, the more importance the roles of usability and speed play. You can see the latest version of the site on the homepage at www.uncoverthenet.com.

- by Aaron Wall, owner of Search Marketing Info

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