One of the leaders in the directory industry is the Best of the Web Directory.  Greg Hartnett, President of BOTW graciously took the time to discuss his directory and what has made it the success it is.

1. Please provide a brief biography so that my readers know who you are.

I started on the internet in the late 90s when my business partner, Brian Prince, and I founded Hotel Hotline.  A couple of years later we started another company and purchased the BOTW Directory from a handful of professors at the University at Buffalo.  Additionally, we own another startup, with a service just ready to come out of beta. So we keep pretty busy. 
I am a husband and father of two, I speak now and again at conferences, and I try to snowboard as frequently as possible. I’ve got a bit of a nomadic spirit, and have recently relocated to Northern California.

I currently serve as the CEO of Hotel Hotline, and the President of Best of the Web.

2. Why did you become a webmaster?

I knew that I wanted to work for myself, and the timing was perfect to get involved with an online enterprise.  At the time, the barriers to entry were remarkably low, the earnings potential was limited only by one’s effort, and there was this feeling that the business world was wide open.  A new frontier had opened, and I was determined to claim my stake. Much of the landscape remains open for those with the gumption to take a stab at it, which I imagine is why throngs of people continue to flock to the web to make their living.

3. Why did you create your directory script from scratch instead of using an off the shelf solution?  How is your directory script different from the major off the shelf scripts on the market?

When we transformed BOTW into its current state, there were no off the shelf directory scripts, so we really didn’t have a choice.  In hindsight, I’m very happy that it worked out the way it did.  In an effort to get our offering live, we probably would have chosen a script, and then we would have been less unique.  I really don’t know how we are different from the off the shelf scripts, as I have never had the need to look at any of them.

4. What about BOTW makes you the proudest?

There are many things I like about being involved with BOTW.  However, the thing I enjoy the most, and gives me the greatest source of satisfaction, is getting the opportunity to work with the crew that we’ve assembled.  Our core group of people is the best and brightest in the industry, and working with them makes me a better person.

5.  What has been the role of guerilla marketing in building BOTW?

We wouldn’t be around at all without guerilla marketing.  We started the company on a shoestring budget, and had to fight tooth and nail to survive.  Even to this day guerilla marketing permeates our culture – it’s kind of addictive when you have some success with it.

6.  How important are a directory’s backlinks?  What would you consider a “relevant” backlink for a directory?  How does BOTW go about improving the quality and quantity of its backlinks?

I would imagine that backlinks play the same role for directories that they do for most other sites – they’re pretty important if you want people to find you.  I think that any link that cites your directory for reference would be relevant.  It’s all about the context and how is the link being used? I’ll take a link from any site that wants to cite BOTW as a point of reference.  We just focus on building a quality resource and when we do our jobs properly, the links just come in.

7.  Do you think that adult categories are appropriate for a directory?  Why?

That would depend upon your objective.  With BOTW, our goal is to build a comprehensive collection of all information available online, which would include sites with adult content.  I guess if you have a directory that isn’t all-encompassing, it may not be appropriate for you.
8.  What percentage of links submitted get rejected?
If you look at all of our submission processes, our rejection rate is close to 40%.  There’s a lot of garbage out there, and it doesn’t have a place in BOTW. For webmasters who submit through the commercial queue, if their site gets rejected we do offer an appeal process.  Additionally, if after the appeal the site is still not BOTW material, we do offer webmasters the opportunity to present us with a different site for review.  But it is a non-refundable review fee, and site owners need to remember that they are paying for a review, and not a listing.

9.  I notice that when you speak about directories generally, you tend to bash the directory industry.  Why is that?
I’d argue with that observation.  I don’t know that I have ever bad-mouthed the industry.  I have upon occasion warned webmasters to avoid submitting their sites to low quality directories, and I’ll continue to do that.  Quite frankly, not all directories are created equal, and webmasters should be wary where they submit their site.

10.  Similarly, I notice that you normally don’t submit BOTW to be listed in other directories.  Why is that?

We do submit BOTW to directories.  BOTW is listed in DMOZ, MSN, Yahoo and a few other high quality directories.  I’m much less concerned with quantity, and more focused on quality,  a policy I would recommend other site owners emulate.

11.  One comment I often hear from webmasters is that they want to submit to BOTW, but the price is too high.  Why has the submission fee been set so high?

Pricing is a funny thing –  you’re not going to please every person, regardless of where you set the review fee. It’s all about the value proposition, and we set our pricing to what the market will bear.  We are one of the best directories out there, so why shouldn’t we be priced accordingly?  If you compare us to Yahoo at $299 annually or at $199 annually, our current price of $69 annually is quite a bargain. 
12. What do you look for in a quality directory?

More than anything, I would examine the quality of the sites listed.  Is the directory listing any site that pays or are they only listing sites that contain relevant information for the category?  Is the focus of the directory on the user experience, or is it simply a listing service for webmasters?  Are they adding sites on their own to create a resource of relevant information, or are they relying on paid submissions for their build?

Additionally, I’d consider the taxonomy, and navigability of the directory.  Are the sites being listed in a relevant and intuitive manner, or are they being placed in categories in a haphazard way?  Age of the directory is another thing I’d consider. A history of providing a quality resource would go a long way in my decision.

13.  What do you think of SEOMoz’s page strength tool as a measurement of the quality of a directory?

I think it’s a useful tool for webmasters, but I don’t know that I’d put much emphasis on it in determining the quality of a directory.  As mentioned above, the quality of a directory should be determined by examining a handful of factors, of which PageStrength would be a minor one, at best.  It’s great at telling you how strong the links are that are pointing to the directory, but I wouldn’t put too much weight in it (note: BOTW is a PageStrength 8 out of 10).

14. another spammy blog network, or making the internet a better place?

The BOTW Media blog network has a storied past.  We started the project by hiring a few dozen writers to post articles on a daily basis.  If you go through the archives, you’ll see that at the beginning we were jamming out a lot of content.  Well, the management of 60 freelance writers became too much to deal with, so we decided to change direction.  We didn’ want to just shut everything down, so we decided to change the blogs to best-of-class aggregators.  So for each topic you’ll get news from the best blogs of that genre. 

To answer your question though, I guess the jury is still out.  Quite frankly, I don’t know how much value they provide, and until we can get a handle on a long-term plan for the blogs, we have a moratorium on new blog development.

15.  How many hours per week do you work?  How do you manage to balance work and family life?

I work between 60 and 70 hours per week, which is down a bit from my more ambitious days. I’m fortunate to now being able to work from home, so the work/home balance is easier to manage, though the lines become a bit more blurred.  I still make the time to take my kids to school in the morning, play with them when they get home, and have dinner with my family every night.  I try to remember why I’m working so hard, and not let my ambitions take too much away from enjoying time with my family.

I’ve found that by getting up super early, I can get in 12 hours of work daily, and still have time to spend with my wife and kids.  By waking up at 4 or 5 AM, I can get in a full day of work, and be able to wrap things up early enough to enjoy a good part of the day.
16.  You are well known as a social activist.  Do you think that business and politics mix?  Would you ever post about a political topic on your company blog?
I think we’re mixing politics and social awareness here.  I’m more interested in larger societal issues than politics: poverty, peace, racial equality, human rights, wealth concentration, and corporate governance – all those types of things.  Those shouldn’t be political issues as they affect each of us, regardless of which side of the aisle you choose. 

Politics and business may not mix well, but there should definitely be an alignment of how you run your company, and how you want the world to operate.  Is your company making the world (and not just your bank account) a better place?  How do you treat your employees and those that you do business with?  Gandhi once said, “You must be the change you want to see in the world.”  I think that applies as much in the business world as it does in your personal life.  If you’re serious about making changes, how could that not carry over to your company?  I don’t see how there could be a disconnect.

However, I don’t think I’d ever post anything specifically political on the company blog. I don’t want to be speaking for the entire BOTW team on such matters, and we use it to communicate with our users about what’s going on with BOTW, so it really wouldn’t be relevant. I try to keep my musings confined to my personal blog, so if anybody feels alienated from what I am writing about, it has as little effect on BOTW as possible.
17.  With improving search algorithms and the rise of social bookmarking sites, is the job of building a quality and comprehensive directory becoming irrelevant?
Definitely not.  Social bookmarking sites and directories need not be mutually exclusive.  If a user wants to find quality resources on a given topic, a directory will always maintain relevance.  And search engines will continue to rely on directories for guidance – a quality directory makes the job of spiders easier.

18.  Could you give me one concrete recommendation as to how to improve Aviva?

I’ve got a few for you.  First, I’d remove the Reciprocal Link as an option of listing type – I think it sends the wrong message, and cheapens the editorial integrity.  Secondly, I’d recommend offering a recurring charge for listings.  A recurring revenue model will help in your long-term growth.  Lastly, I’d add more listings.  Hire an editor (or do it yourself) and add as many great resources as you can to each category.  Your users will appreciate it, and it provides great spider food.

19.  Any interesting developments for BOTW coming in the near future that you can reveal?
We are pretty focused on rolling out our verticals.  We launched our first, the Enterprise Software Vertical a few months ago.  After we finish a redesign and a couple of technology tweaks, we’ll bring it out of beta and begin our marketing push.  By the end of the first quarter, we should have our second vertical offering, and we’ll probably launch a couple more this year as well.  We see a huge opportunity in the vertical, lead generation space, and we are going to do everything we can to position ourselves properly to capitalize on it.  It should be an interesting year.

It certainly will be an interesting year.  Here are some additional interviews with the chaps of BOTW: