The open directory project is basically a categorized list of websites. All the sites on the list have been previously approved by editors who ensure that they’re properly categorized and meet certain guidelines. The editors are volunteers, and anyone is allowed to become an editor, although some categories are restricted. The directory has been in existence since the late 1990s, and it is used as a foundation of many major search engines.
Before the open directory project came into existence, there was already Yahoo!, which served a similar purpose. Many people were unsatisfied with the overall quality of Yahoo!’s directory, and the open directory project was developed primarily as an alternative. The creators hoped that with the manpower of an all-volunteer force of online editors, they could do a better job keeping up-to-date links and sorting through all the various sites on the web.
Sites like Yahoo! and the open directory project were especially important in the early days of the Internet. At that time, search engines were often less effective in the area of ranking websites. People would often have to wade through pages with mostly spam in order to find useful sites for many search terms. A site with human editors made it possible to filter out useless websites, and this made those services very beneficial.
Over time, search engines eventually developed better algorithms for ranking websites, but many of these search engines actually rely on the open directory project as a fundamental building block of their databases. In the early days of the Internet, most search engines were very reliant on the process of constantly "spidering" through links on the web to build a database of random sites. Over time, search engines started using sites like the open directory project to help put websites into a more useful order. Spidering is still part of the process, but other processes help keep things organized better.
Many people still submit sites to the open directory project, partly because of its importance to many major search engines. Sometimes approval of a site can be a lengthy process, because the editor manpower is somewhat limited. It is also very common for website owners to slow down the process even further by submitting their site under the wrong category. The categories themselves are generally quite extensive, and it’s relatively easy to pick the wrong category accidentally. When this happens, the editor will usually put the submission at the back of the queue for another category, which means it can potentially take more than twice as long to be approved.