Running an online business directory has to be one of the oldest forms of internet business out there.
In essence, it’s almost too simple:
Advertisers acquire profiles.
Visitors browse providers.
And the directory owners score floods of
Building an online directory takes an organised mind, but anyone can do it.
And with the increase of beginner-friendly content management platforms, like WordPress, lowering the bar for new entrant publishers – launching an online business directory has never been easier.
In this article, you’ll learn a best practice method for building your very own online business directory using WordPress CMS.
What is an online business directory?
An online business directory is a web page index of company profiles, often ordered in alphabetical order with companies grouped in categories according to type of business.
Online business directories can vary dramatically in size and complexity. But the premise of a searchable, browseable resource for finding companies remains the same.
Directories are typically funded by advertising revenues generated by selling ad spots within the directory website.
General operating duties involve: web maintenance, vetting advertiser applications, editing submission and improving search engine visibility.
Can a solo entrepreneur make a living from running an online business directory in today’s online marketplace?
In practice, it’s a lot tougher to execute and make profit from online business directories today compared with some years ago.
This is because the value of the generic online directories has totally diminished.
However, it’s true that online directory submission was once the first important step online marketers would take when laying a foundation for their SEO projects.
But today, not so.
Since their peak popularity, web directories have gotten much less attractive largely due to search engines becoming much smarter.
The relationship between search and directories
Not long ago, online directories wielded great influence over internet marketing.
These were days when the phrase ‘Googling’ would sooner have been mistaken with a sporting practice or perhaps a street dance, than recognised as a global daily digital pastime for billions.
Back then, names now unheard of in relation to search, such as AOL and Prodigy were synonymous with finding information online.
How the 1st search engines failed & directories took the lead
These first mass-consumer search engines and their algorithms were primitive to say the least.
Therefore search result accuracy was nothing like what we expect from today’s ‘intuition rich’ search experience.
So to combat unreliable search results, we relied heavily on business directories to enrich our ability to discover new business providers online.
Online business directories got BIG
Directories like DMOZ were the de facto resources for businesses getting ‘linked in’ to web circles that would lead them to referred web traffic. And company profiles ranked highly.
Their operations scaled rapidly with armies of hired editors paid to vet the incoming floods of applications.
And then there was Google
But since Google took center stage in online search, swept up the vast majority market share (largely due to its ravenous digital ad company M&A moves and colossal index of over 500 billion web pages to date) the value proposition for web directories has changed.
Has the online business directory bubble burst?
Yes and no.
What online directories are NOT anymore
Yes – directories have lost the battle to dominate the online commercial advertisement landscape. Google’s vested interest in being the 1st solution on the consumer’s mind for discovering or finding information online is unlikely to be overtaken by a directory post 2022. That battle is won.
What online directories COULD be today
But, no – in that there is a strong business case for niche ‘value-adding’ directories that serve a specific audience with well sourced and vetted user profiles, PLUS more. Quote generation, for example, is an emerging trend. Lead gen businesses leveraging the reach of an online directory footprint to convert visitors into a tradable commodity, sold back to advertising companies. And the list goes on for alternative directory models.
In short, if you are seriously thinking about, or even persuaded on running an online business directory – then the ‘never-been-seen-before’ levels of online competition actually present a unique opportunity for value.
The clamoring dimness of ‘me-too’ background noise calls for a startling bright spark of originality and innovation to light up the scene.
Enter – your new online business directory.
How does an online business directory model work?
The online business directory commercial model is quite straightforward in principle – but still a bit mysterious in practice.
Once up and running, all the website operator needs to do is keep up the addition of quality listings, signing up new advertisers and the rest sort of looks after itself.
The difficult part is…
…how to get things started from a standstill.
The problem with starting up a business directory
Directory web visitor traffic grows primarily from the accumulation of advertiser listings.
And yet advertisers aren’t attracted to a site without significant traffic.
It seems that each one is entirely dependent upon the other.
So, what’s the solution for taking your first steps?
Taking on non-paying advertisers to first fill the site with content and then from the resulting traffic, leverage your first wave of advertiser arrangements.
This early stage revenue then justifies further reinvested time in adding more non-paying listings.
This admin effort furthers the site’s organic search reach.
Now, as a dynamo you simply continue to wind up the motor until you can let go without fear of grinding to a halt.
The problem with running popular online business directories
One issue every directory will experience with gaining popularity is vetting the quality of submissions.
They can become a magnet for spam submission.
Without appointing a gatekeeper for this, the overall quality of the directory content is in jeopardy.
Poor quality content = lower ranking, traffic and earnings.
Manpower, Quality & Cost
The only way to curb the threat of poor quality submissions is to appoint diligent copy editors who govern the acceptance or refusal of new company listing submissions.
This of course is costly in the short term, but presents long term profitability through the preservation of quality content.
Benefits of running an online business directory
An online business directory is actually quite a lean business model at its core.
Low time commitment
So, in terms of workload, it’s entirely feasible that one person can manage the entire operation in their spare time even.
So, the prospect of owning a directory does appeal to many one-man web entrepreneurs.
All you need is a laptop, an internet connection and perhaps in the first instance up to 3-4 hours per day to add new listings, prune existing ones, optimise your site and maintain advertising arrangements.
Passive income generation
Another advantage is the passive nature of the advertising income generated.
Your income isn’t a direct expression of your physical output or time dedicated.
Traffic is correlated to content…quality, relevance and volume.
The benefits in terms of better rankings, increased traffic and higher conversions are cumulative.
They snowball with a ‘little and often’ approach to your caretaking of the directory. A bit here and a bit there every day leads to magnified and exaggerated impact in the future.
Two complimentary audience
The often unrealised benefit of running an online business directory is ‘the marketplace effect’.
This is when your directory begins to attract both prospects wanting to advertise, as well as visitors looking for product and service providers.
It takes some time of running your directory to reach this threshold, but once you cross the tipping point of visibility – demand generation and lead generation begin feeding one another without you having to get involved.
This presents economies of scale that vastly improve profitability.
How to monetize an online business directory
Until now, we’ve talked a lot about advertising in general.
Whilst ads have been the mainstay of online business directory revenue, there are alternative means of income also.
Online directory revenue
But first, let’s delve deeper into the different types of advertising revenue strategies that are common with online business directories.
Various forms of ad revenue generated by online business directories
Advertisement platforms like online business directories usually display ad fees by way of rate card.
This is a simplified cost menu declaring advertisement tariffs for gaining access to varying degrees of audience exposure.
This exposure is typically valued by way of impressions.
In this manner, higher exposure featured ads are rated at a higher price than ads which will have lower exposure.
Then there is the type of feature.
Dimension of coverage and placement within the on-page real estate are the factors that affect the value to the advertiser and therefore price.
Here’s how that looks:
The larger the ad feature – the greater the impact on the viewing audience and the higher the ad fee.
The more prominently placed e.g. in the header vs. the footer, the more viewers and the higher the ad fee.
Some premium may be applied for more sophisticated file types. In other words, moving images like GIF, video or animation might fetch a higher ad fee.
They are more distracting and are likely to take the reader’s attention away from the main page content.
Plus, they typically have large file sizes, meaning they take up more resources to display the page. If significant enough this can slow the site down marginally.
A disadvantage to the publisher and viewer, but if recompensed with a higher ad rate, one that could be worth accepting.
Besides these on-page ad arrangements, directory operators might keep email lists or social media channels – which also could be used to attract advertisers.
Going by the number of subscribers and posts/mailshots delivered via these alternate methods – appropriate CPM (costs per thousand impressions) can be calculated and charged advertisers.
Other types of revenue
Beyond traditional web advertisements, some entrepreneurs are discovering innovative methods of leverage to diversify directory site income.
One such alternative route to success is selling qualified business leads.
Lead selling is an obvious value add if you can support it with the right internal operational infrastructure.
An outline in principal of how it works:
 Visitors search for a particular type of service via search engine
 They arrive at the corresponding directory site landing page
 Landing pages are filled with relevant company listings
 Within the landing page there are calls to action directing the visitor to get a quote
 Visitors preferring to get a quote leave details of their requirement via a web form
 Email summary request for quote is received by provider for a fee
With the aid of email autoresponder notifications, both the enquirer and the provider can be connected without any hands on from the directory team.
If a directory can retain the custom of advertisers, lead generation can be more profitable.
This is because well qualified sales leads are of more value to a business (and therefore command higher fees) than ad impressions.
The more sales an advertiser makes via your lead generation services, the more persuaded thye are to use it.
Therefore for directory owners, the key factors for success with lead generation income is:
- Volume of leads
- Quality of enquiries
- Timeliness in handing over enquiry to advertiser
Delivering on these points will maintain a solid value proposition and sustain a win-win for both the directory and advertiser.
Best ways to attract businesses to list on your directory
As a directory publisher, you are competing for ad budget.
Google adwords, local publications and channels, other online spaces…
Most small to medium sized businesses have the attitude that advertisement is unavoidable.
The battle for budget
That said, budgets can only go so far. And the platforms that drive more sales will naturally receive a higher proportion of the ad spend.
So, the battle begins – to convince advertisers that your directory service warrants the biggest spend.
But on what points of negotiation will you maximise your deal potential?
According to the Association of Directory Publishers (adp.org), there are 3 main deal makers when selling advertisement packages to business buyers:
The Value add
Businesses want to sell more, bottom line. Whilst getting exposure is nice, getting return on your investment pays the bills.
So, as an online business directory retaining custom comes down to demonstrating you value added to their bottom line.
I.e. Adding actual sales and profit to your customer’s business.
An example, could be lead generation, as mentioned above. In other words, selling your business customers qualified sales potential rather than a glance from a would-be buyer.
Upgrading your value proposition takes some investment of time and money to engineer new processes.
But strategically, can become a sustainable competitive advantage.
This could set your business apart from the crowd in the minds of your customers.
Trust drives sales online.
It’s the sole reason for why customer reviews have become such a valuable and sought after digital commodity online.
Peer to peer recommendations have become the golden star of online commercial brand building.
As a directory owner, gaining the confidence of site visitors as well as advertisers is key to future success.
Transparency and user-generated, verifiable reviews go a long way to achieving this.
Again, it takes work to get the communications right but once nailed it overcomes a critical objection in your marketing dialog.
Get advertiser and visitors talking on-site about their successes. And as they say, this will only breed further success.
Encouraging a community dynamic on your online business directory has many long lasting benefits all round.
Most of all self-generating sales conversions which snowball your profitability.
User advocates are always your most persuasive sales people – and free too.
In addition to the above topics, one highly influential ‘value add’ that many successful online entrepreneurs use to dramatically increase their uptake of new advertisers is:
The Free Sample.
It’s a farmer’s market classic.
You walk up to a market trader’s stand – he notices that you like what you see and immediately puts a free sample into your hand.
That simple gesture of open-handedness bridges the gap and wins the heart of a prospect and 8-times out of ten, converts them into a paying customer soon enough.
The same works with lead generation.
Ippei Kanehara, a full-time online entrepreneur providing lead generation services to small business owners, says:
“Here is the key with this. To send enough free leads to a local business until they close jobs and you help them make money FIRST before you ask for anything in return.
Too many digital marketers are too quick to try to take value from people, instead of giving value first.
The only reason a business owner wouldn’t want to invest in marketing is because there hasn’t been enough trust built yet.”
Example online business directories
So, then that’s the theory on the matter. But what about a practical example?
Here’s just that. A practical close up of a ‘value adding’ online business directory site with breakdown of the business model and metrics:
Meet Bark (www.bark.com).
Their about us page describes them as being “a world-leading services marketplace with over 5m customers in 8 countries around the world.”
But in simple terms, Bark sell consumer sales leads to small businesses. They’re leads brokers extraordinaire.
Today, Bark’s website hosts some 1.17 million web pages registered on the Google Search Index. To put that im perspective, that’s 7% (1/14) of the pages indexed by a major global news network like CNN.com, for example. (Not at all shabby.)
Looking at web traffic, the estimated monthly organic search traffic according to Neil Patel’s Ubersuggest is somewhere in the region of 1.8 million visits.
For how that translates into sale revenue – your guess is as good as ours, but taking an informed punt from extrapolating the figures above using their rate card for average lead price – it could be realistic to say they’re likely to have an 8-figure turnover. But don’t quote us on that.
Beside the speculation on numbers, it’s clear to see that Bark has set a new standard in online lead gen and their crossover to leading marketplace status is fruit.
Was it always that obvious they’d be there?
Their rise to superstardom as an international online marketing promotional platform for local area service providers has taken many by surprise.
However, their founder Andrew Michael (serial online entrepreneur and founder of Fasthosts.co.uk at 17) had an early vision of success for the project and self-funded the entire venture from day one, which is now cash generative.
What’s remarkable about Bark is that looking at what you see of the business today, it would never lead you to know that Bark’s beginnings (and underpinnings of its success) started out with a humble business directory.
A simple A-Z index to the naked eye.
But according to technical SEO experts, like Michael Perosi founder of jWAG jewellry blog (and jewellry industry technical columnist) getting the code level and performance basics right is paramount to future site success
In the quote below, Michael shares some insights gained from a consulting project with directory site owners from the French wine industry:
“During my brief analysis of the wine tourism site I identified how confusing their navigation structure was and how difficult it would be for both users and search engine spiders to find the main sections of the website. I also found a problem with the way their contact form worked that would lead to a Google visibility issue; an issue that I assumed any SEO agency would be able to spot.
In my opinion, any site that has more than 100 pages should carefully monitor technical SEO because one little mistake can cause a site wide problem. Any SEO company that only talks about keywords and content topics isn’t really worth the money you’ll pay them.”
The marketing industry calls this kind of information layout, flat site architecture. It has the advantage stated in the quote above of making it easy for search engine spiders and consumers to find what they are looking for in your site.
Flat site architecture has long been touted by SEO experts as the most efficient user experience page arrangement for optimal website performance.
In a picture, the practical user advantage of a flat site architecture over a deeper site might look like this:
On the right hand side, the flat site structure helps the user find the information they’re looking for within only one click from the home page.
Whereas by contrast the deep site design with fewer click options from the home page would force the user to do more work to find their gem.
Therefore sites with a complex array of content, like a directory, would be advised to adopt a flat site architecture.
A flat site structure presents a broad set of links on the homepage that promotes the user quickly finding the info they need.
Looking back at their early days approach, it is clear that Bark had their priorities set from the start.
In adopting a category-based link index on their homepage, Bark laid a technically sound SEO foundation of user-friendly information architecture.
Today, the Bark website above-the-fold looks like this:
A open-top-funnel for their lead generation enterprise. It puts their money first. Any other business would be the same.
Their home page dialogue now begins with a multi-step consumer quote web form leading the user through a comprehensive set of questions qualifying their needs in detail, plus contact details inc. email address.
Below the fold, the homepage looks like this:
More consumer friendly than the ‘wayback version’ from 2014. But taking a closer look, although the front-end layout is different, the navigation principal is STILL the same.
It’s a simple list-based index of service categories – only supported by stock photo images and coloured icons.
At a source code level, however, the Google spider sees the page, much like the old version:
A list of category links.
Nothing’s really changed at the foundation.
But like we said, the above-the-fold content has a lead ge engine embedded for revenue maximisation.
And all round, a more cosmetically appealing skin (or theme) for consumers to browse as they search through the directory.
The bottom-line take away though with this case study is to see your online website directory website as:
- List based index, first (with sound information architecture, no frills)
- Value added vendor services on top (for revenue boost)
- Scaleable platform (seeded in one territory, but can grow into MANY others)
And in that order.
As in the case of Bark, their growth wasn’t all organic. In 2015, Andrew Michael (Bark, founder) personally funded the acquisition of Skillpages.com – a similar platform with 20million userbase worldwide. The supplier-side heavy Skillpages was an obvious compliment to Bark, whose platform at the time had a very strong buyer-bias.
This acquisition literally bought Bark immediate compliment and scale that otherwise would have taken many years to grow naturally.
That said, their platform has held up and prospered until the present day and doesn’t seem be showing any signs of slowing down soon.
Making an online business directory using WordPress
And back to your online directory project.
Having now seen exactly how it’s done and where running an online business directory site can take you – we are going to walk through the steps of building your own using WordPress CMS.
Why use WordPress CMS?
WordPress has credentials.
Coupled with this undeniable statistic that speaks volumes in WordPresss favour, it also has landed some of the world’s most notable names as users of it web building software, including: The White House, BBC and Bloomberg.
WordPress is a CMS, which is content management system, for short.
It supports web owners who have heavy content schedules and want an enterprise standard framework that offers all the time saving and technical / information architecture benefits of a leading web building tool.
The WordPress ecosystem is booming. Rated in 2021 as being worth $597.7 million, the WordPress economy of plugin, theme and hosting vendors have the combined revenue to out perform the world’s #1 electric automotive manufacturer, Tesla.
WordPress extensibility and innovation therefore is well funded. And not only that, it really sells. WordPress is successfully solving real life business and organisational problems and vendors of such solutions are handsomely rewarded for their efforts.
WordPress is free and open-source. Freedom to modify and extend WordPress to suit your project’s need is given with an open hand…no claw back. This is great liberty and allows users to take on custom developments that become proprietary and can even be remarketed for a paid premium without any legal trespass against WordPress’s owners, Automattic.
How to build an online business directory using WordPress
Now, for how it’s done.
- Directory home page with siloed categories
- Ad platform
- User registration
- Lead generation forms
- Job board
- User feedback
- Customer support
As we’ve discussed earlier, your online business directory should host some key features for sustainable future growth and success.
Without these, you’ll be undermining your project ROI and setting your site up for underperformance.
Here are some best practices to keep you on course for getting results that’ll give you something to ‘bark’ about:
Directory home page with siloed categories: an SEO-friendly A-Z categorised link hub for your directory homepage. This is the information architecture that Bark.com built their fortunes on. At the essence, every successful online business directory should be the same.
Use the Heroic Knowledge Base plugin to for an instant and hassle free set-up for your directory index, flat site structure.
Digital sales: automated digital sales of ad space and invoicing leaves you with hands free to grow the business, relieving you of the administrative drag of processing transactions. With the use of a digital transactions tool, you produce a self-service environment for vendors to buy, renew, upgrade, downgrade or cancel their arrangements without having to communicate directly with you or your team.
Use Easy Digital Downloads for a comprehensive online digital sales experience for both you and your directory advertisers.
Ad platform: as we’ve demonstrated, web page advertisement is THE traditional route to income for online directory sites. Selling ads is one thing, but placing them and scheduling their display etc. can be a highly laborious task – especially if you’re doing it all ‘long-hand’ so to speak. Having a neat digital automation tools to manage all the tough stuff for you will be a huge cost and hassle saver ongoing.
Use Advanced Ads for super simple management of your ad display and targeting optimal revenue. No code, no sweat.
User registration: vendors need a secure area to log into within your directory site for managing their account details etc. Doing this in WordPress is too easy. It was built for content management after all. Natively WordPress will allow this anyway. But if you want to integrate this with recurring payments, invoicing etc. to manage vendor arrangements, then a specialist plugin is required…and we’ve got just the recommendation for you.
Use Restrict Content Pro to seamlessly add a secure layer of restricted pages and content for vendor’s eyes only to keep their agreements up to date.
Lead generation forms: lead generation requires a smooth user experience (UX) experience coupled with sophisticated database driven processing and workflow management. There are very many ways to get around this problem with web tech…custom development, enterprise SaaS solution, a hacked collection of plugins or one single, highly capable framework. And here’s the answer…
Use Gravity Forms to engineer your perfect, zero-friction, conversion-rate optimized lead generation funnel for value added directory income.
Job board: as your directory audiences grow and your suppliers look for more reasons use your platform, why not present them with hand picked career opportunities from hiring firms and recruiters? Having a job board is just another method of deepening the communal ecosystem in your directory site.
Use WP Job Manager for speedily setting-up a stable job board with all the time saving management benefits you can imagine. Its a proven, lightweight (yet fully-featured) WordPress job board solution with lots of developer cred.
User feedback: serving your audiences at their point of need the make or break of your directory business. As we said before, there is tons of competition for their time and money elsewhere and unless you get to the bottom of what they really want and deliver – then you’re project is likely to sink. No better way to gain insights than to ask.
Use the Heroic Knowledge Base plugin to embed user feedback loops into your you directory pages for generating general improvement opinion poll data.
Analytics: ‘seeing’ exactly how your directory visitors and advertisers use your site, provides useful validation for decision on improvement and development. Having data driven hypotheses for tweaks needed helps focus the mind on what will make the most profitable impact for your online directory business.
Use the Heroic Knowledge Base plugin for in-built real-time analysis which will help inform further invested development focus based on audience behaviour.
Customer support: corresponding with your advertisers directly out of your Gmail inbox is an inefficient and inconvenient ordeal. Skipping between browser tabs as you reconcile subscription details from their account summary in WordPress whilst also attempting to view their latest conversational thread in your webmail inbox can lead to long term frustrations. Would it be great if WordPress had an enterprise standard email email helpdesk solution. Well, actually it does…
Use Heroic Inbox Plugin for transporting all customer emails and support tickets into your WordPress admin dashboard cutting out all those costly duplicate administrative efforts.
Take home points
An online business directory is a relatively lean web business to run, but with viable commercial scale at the other end should you want to go that way.
A sole operator or small team alone has exactly what it takes to manage operational daily duties and regulate quality.
Monetization can be as traditional, or as innovative as you would care to take it.
But either way the key to sustainability is successfully engaging your advertisers to use your service and donate the budget to keep receiving the benefits.
Selling impressions is just the beginning, but selling real quantifiable sales potential is more fruitful.
And that’s for all involved.
Building your directory site on a solid platform that promotes all the information architecture best practices of a flat site will provide long term SEO and UX benefits.
This will convert into ROI on money spent today.
Market leading plugin solutions like Heroic Knowledge Base plugin for WordPress give you a distinct headstart in building your site.
With an instant site structure laid down following a one click install, such a plugin immediately gets your project off to a flying start without any thought.
It also is proven to integrate with all the notable plugin partners mentioned within this guide.
And together they pose a formidable platform for launching your new online business directory.
Are you currently setting up an online business directory site?
Are you looking to migrate or redevelop your directory in WordPress?
Either way, we’d be interested to hear from you.
Leave a comment below.