How to build a great directory website

by Andy Pearson in February 16th, 2021
Directory website

Running an online directory is a powerful tool to promote your membership organisation. If you can drive traffic and business to your members they will remain loyal and recommend your organisation to their peers. In some cases, getting listed in the directory is the member’s primary reason for joining. 

This post explores everything that it takes to build a top-class directory website that will power the growth of your membership organisation. 

How to display a directory list

There are well established best practices for laying out a good online directory. Some member directory software will look after this for you but otherwise, you’ll need to pay careful attention to the following key areas.

Responsive layout

Users will access the directory from a wide range of devices and your layout should adapt well to all device sizes. In particular, it is likely that much of your traffic to the directory will be from mobile devices where users will have little patience for glitchy or slow interfaces. Ensure that all directory entries can be browsed easily from mobile devices and that all information from each entry is easy to read.

Responsive directory design

Sensible filters

Users will normally have some criteria in mind as they search your directory and the filters you provide should capitalise on these criteria. This is where user research can be very helpful. Keyword research or audience surveys can help you determine the kind of filters that will be most useful to your users. Directory members may have some ideas about this too but this is not always the case so always prioritise end-user feedback. 

The best filters will meaningfully reduce the number of entries in view so avoid categories that apply to most directory entries. Ideally, users can apply two or three filters and reduce the list to less than ten highly relevant directory entries. 

Directory filters

Teasers

Directory users will move between two distinct modes. While browsing they will apply filters and scan the interface for relevant directory entries. Once they see something of interest they will then delve deeper. It is for this reason that you should ideally have two views for each directory entry: a short introductory view (or ‘teaser’) that includes only the headline information likely to be relevant when a user is browsing multiple entries and then a full view that adds more detail relevant to the user once they have narrowed their search. 

Consider the ease with which users can click between the teaser and full view. For example, you may be able to improve the user experience of the online directory by loading the full profile in a modal window rather than forcing a page load. This can help preserve any filters that were applied to the main list making it easier to continue browsing.

Directory teaasers

Populating and updating directory entries

When building a directory website success will depend to a large degree on the quality of the information it holds and how user friendly it is to explore. For this reason, it’s important to think carefully about what information to include and have a plan to ensure it is kept up-to-date. 

What information to include in your directory

As with so many areas of life, ‘less is more’! As we mentioned above, it pays to consider the two view modes that the user will need. When they are browsing a large number of entries the best thing to do is surface a small amount of information that differentiates the entries from one another. Once a shortlist has been created more in-depth information should be displayed. 

Examples of top-level information to display:

  • Areas of expertise
  • Years in business
  • Region served
  • Examples of in-depth info to display
  • Website URL
  • Biography or description

When to create multiple directories

As you do your research on appropriate filters it will sometimes become clear that it’s best to have two or more separate directories. Here is some guidance on when this is likely to be appropriate: 

  • Each directory has a clearly distinct target audience.
  • You wish to limit access to some but not all directory entries.
  • Most entries will exist in only one of the multiple directories.

How to keep your directories up-to-date

One of the biggest challenges, when you run a directory, is keeping the information up to date. There is a range of approaches that can help keep information fresh while minimising the manual work that this can often entail. 

Allow members to control their own directory entry

The ideal situation is always to allow members to control their own directory entry. This can be done simply by providing a form for them to submit corrections but ideally, the directory software you use will allow you to give them direct access to tweak and update their directory entry. 

If your directory is working as it should then it will be seen as a valuable source of leads for your members and they are likely to be reasonably proactive about keeping it up to date as long as you make this process quick and easy for them. 

Link directory entries to a valid membership subscription

One thing that can really damage the quality of an online directory is poorly managed entries or entries that relate to businesses or individuals that are no longer trading. The single best way to mitigate this issue is to make all of your directory entries conditional on maintaining a paid membership subscription. This will ensure that organisations drop off automatically if they close. 

Link directory entries with your organisation’s CRM

Running multiple databases with similar content is a recipe for confusion and admin headaches. If possible it is always best to establish a clear link between your main membership CRM and your website directory. Otherwise, there is a high risk that changes will only be reflected in one of the two locations and over time this can lead to confusion and lots of wasted time. 

Provide a route for end-users to flag issues

Your end-users are also a valuable resource for keeping things up to date. Not all users will be generous enough to tell you if they see issues but if you make it clear how to report issues or make suggestions then end-users of your directory website will occasionally get in touch if they spot broken links or other data inaccuracies.

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