When is a directory not a directory? When that directory is a "vertical niche destination whose aim is to connect buyers and sellers, and who not only lists sellers, but provides metrics and content solutions to those listed". What the heck am I talking about? I'm talking about providing value. I'm talking about going beyond what most SEOs see as a "directory" and providing real value both to users and to those listed. I'm talking about how what I once called "a crusty, old directory" turned itself into one of the highest-value sites on the Internet, by providing more than just listings.

Want an example? Thomasnet.com. Go ahead...look at the screenshot below. Looks like your average directory, doesn't it? Ok, maybe not average, but still...just a directory, right? Wrong.

ThomasNet

Despite the fact that its niche is decidedly un-sexy (industrial manufacturing - gears and the like), this site is truly a vertical destination. It is a place that people who are in need of these items choose to go. Users will find what they need here when they won't find it at Google. Need to see an actual CAD drawing of a gear? Ok, Thomasnet can show that to you. There is a wealth of information in this directory, much of which I admit I don't understand. But I don't have to. Engineers looking for one of these gizmos do understand all of the information provided, and that's what matters.

I had a nice long conversation last week with Brendan O'Connell, the Technology Director of Web Initiatives for ThomasNet and Linda Rigano, the Director of Strategic Alliances. Brendan manages both an internal and external team of developers for the website along with Thomas' search engine optimization and marketing strategies and partnerships, and has been involved in SEO initiatives for ThomasNet since its conception.

I wanted to know why ThomasNet was so popular and what made it different. It quickly became apparent that the relationship between the folks at ThomasNet and the users made all the difference. ThomasNet works with the companies that are listed so that they can connect with the buyers who are looking for those companies. Not only are the listings optimized so that they provide the ultimate value to the end user (the buyers), but ThomasNet even helps businesses provide more value on their own sites. By providing metrics and content solutions to the companies listed in ThomasNet, and providing detailed data about the companies to the buyers, the entire web of needs are met.

I then told Brendan that I thought it would be interesting if we could find a way to share our experiences. He, as a search optimization leader for a large company, likely has a different set of skills and experiences than I have. And while the day to day details probably differ quite a lot, in the end, there doesn't seem to be that large a gap between what we do. Here are some tips, straight from Brendan.

Ranking is really a small part of the process. Regardless of how you play the SEO game, in the end, it’s all about your content and how you make it easier for buyers to do business with you.

So, based on this premise, I give you my "rules for small business." I hope you like them!

Brendan's Rules For Small Businesses:

Worry less about SEO and more about quality traffic.
Once you get that quality traffic...
Worry about how you are going to convert those visitors into customers.
Here's an easy way to do it with ThomasNet's VSET Concept:

VSET is a concept ThomasNet developed based on thousands of interviews with buyers and engineers. It helps businesses understand how buyers navigate through their websites, regardless of the type of business. It's all about evaluating your websites from Your buyer's perspective.

1. VERIFY:
Can buyers instantly Verify that they are on a site that has the information they want?

2. SEARCH:
Can buyers quickly Search for the exact products, services and specifications they need?

3. EVALUATE:
Can buyers easily Evaluate the information presented so they can make a decision?

4. TAKE ACTION:
Can buyers Take action at every step of the way – i.e. call, e-mail, send an RFQ or order?

We encourage every business to go through this process with an objective third party and discover the essential changes they can make to their website. Any changes made will always come back to the content and the actual delivery and use of that content.

It was a fascinating conversation and I plan to keep in touch with Brendan and Linda because there are so many things that can be shared and discussed. Of course, I'll share the best of the best of those conversations with you as they happen.