A Student's Guide to Subject Directories

Students increasingly turn to the Internet to help them with their coursework. Subject directories can be especially useful, whether you are in search of a movie review or a biography of Galileo. However, subject directories - like many online tools - can sometimes blur the distinction between information and advertisements.

Subject directories are collections of links to web sites, categorized into different subject areas. Human volunteers or employees can perform this task, or it might be automated by way of computer programs. Subject directories may be made by anyone, but there are two main types of directories.

Academic or professional subject directories are created and maintained by experts, for other experts. In contrast, commercial subject directories are geared towards the general public and are meant to generate revenue. Such directories make a profit by attracting as many visitors as possible so that they can sell advertising on their sites. Advertisements can be obvious or more subtle, ranging from a banner at the top of the page to paid listings within the subject directory itself.

Paid listings in commercial subject directories create an obvious problem. While it's understandable that the site's creators are in business and need to generate income somehow, the general public isn't aware of such practices. Thus, many people assume that the information contained in all subject directories is selected for quality and relevance.

On the contrary, commercial directories rarely screen link submissions for quality, and questionable links may be included if their owners are willing to pay for placement. Although the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has standards that subject directories must follow for disclosing paid listings, not all sites are up to snuff. You will find the same conflict with many search engines, which also sell advertising space in the form of paid listings.

Subject directories are most useful in the early stages of the research process, when you're trying to come up with a general topic idea, or if you need to narrow a broad idea down a bit. Using what Reva Basch (in