The Next Big Thing in Search: A Directory of Web Sites

February 12, 2024

green-dino_thumb_thumb_thumbThis essay is the work of a dumb dinobaby. No smart software required.

In the early 1990s, an entrepreneur with whom I had worked in the 1980s convinced me to work on a directory of Web sites. Yahoo was popular at the time, but my colleague had a better idea. The good news is that our idea worked and the online  service we built became part of the CMGI empire. Our service was absorbed by one of the leading finding services at the time. Remember Lycos? My partner and I do. Now the Web directory is back decades after those original Yahooligans and our team provided a useful way to locate a Web site.

Search Chatbots? Pah, This Startup’s Trying on Yahoo’s Old Outfit of Web Directories” presents information about the utility of a directory of Web sites and captures some interesting observations about the findability service El Toco.


The innovator driving the directory concept is Thomas Chopping, a “UK based economist.” He made several observations in a recent article published by the British outfit The Register; for example:

“During the decades since it launched, we’ve been watching Google steadily trying to make search more predictive, by adding things like autocomplete and eventually instant answers,” Chopping told The Register. “This has the byproduct of increasing the amount of time users spend on their site, at the expense of visiting the underlying sources of the data.”

The founder of El Toco also notes:

It’s impossible to browse with conversational-style search tools, which are entirely focused on answering questions. “Right now, this is playing into the hands of Meta and TikTok, because it takes so much effort to find good quality websites via search engines that people stopped bothering.

El Taco wants to facilitate browsing, and the model is a directory listing. The user can browse and click. The system displays a Web site for the user to scan, read, or bookmark.

Another El Taco principle is:

“We don’t need the user’s personal data to work out which results to show, because the user can express this on their own. We don’t need AI to turn the search into a conversation, because this can be done with a few clicks of the user interface

The economist-turned-entrepreneur points out:

“Charging users for Web search is a model which clearly doesn’t work, thanks to Neeva for demonstrating that, so we allow adverts but if the users care they can go into a menu and simply switch them off.”

Will El Taco gain traction? My team and I have been involved in information retrieval for decades. From indexing information about nuclear facilities to providing some advice to an AI search start up a few months ago. I have learned that predicting what will become the next big thing in findability is quite difficult.

A number of interesting Web search solutions are available. Some are niche-focused like Biznar. Others are next-generation “phinding” services like Others are metasearch solutions like iSeek. Some are less crazy Google-style systems like Swisscows. And there are more coming every day.

Why? Let me share several observations or “learnings” from a half century of working in the information retrieval sector:

  1. People have different information needs and a one-size-fits-all search system is fraught with problems. One person wants to search for “pizza near me”. Another wants information about Dark Web secure chat services.
  2. Almost everyone considers themselves a good or great online searcher. Nothing could be further from the truth. Just ask the OSINT professionals at any intelligence conference.
  3. Search companies with some success often give in to budgeting for a minimally viable system, selling traffic or user data, and to dark patterns in pursuit of greater revenue.
  4. Finding information requires effort. Convenience, however, is the key feature of most finding systems. Microfilm is not convenient; therefore, it sucks. Looking at research data takes time and expertise; therefore, old-fashioned work sucks. Library work involving books is not for everyone; therefore, library research sucks. Only a tiny percentage of online users want to exert significant effort finding, validating, and making sense of information. Most people prefer to doom scroll or watch dance videos on a mobile device.

Net net: El Taco is worth a close look. I hope that editorial policies, human curation, and frequent updating become the new normal. I am just going to remain open minded. Information is an extremely potent tool. If I tell you human teeth can explode, do you ask for a citation? Do you dismiss the idea because of your lack of knowledge? Do you begin to investigate of high voltage on the body of a person who works around a 133 kV transmission line? Do you dismiss my statement because I am obviously making up a fact because everyone knows that electricity is 115 to 125 volts?

Unfortunately only subject matter experts operating within an editorial policy and given adequate time can figure out if a scientific paper contains valid data or made-up stuff like that allegedly crafted by the former presidents of Harvard and Stanford University and probably faculty at the university closest to your home.

Our 1992 service had a simple premise. We selected Web sites which contained valid and useful information. We did not list porn sites, stolen software repositories, and similar potentially illegally or harmful purveyors of information. We provided the sites our editors selected with an image file that was our version of the old Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.

Point(Top 5% of the Internet.)

The idea was that in the early days of the Internet and Web sites, a parent or teacher could use our service without too much worry about setting off a porn storm or a parent storm. It worked, we sold, and we made some money.

Will the formula work today? Sure, but excellence and selectivity have been key attributes for decades. Give El Taco a look.

Stephen E Arnold, February 12, 2024


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