The last couple of years I have used one of my first columns of the year to wax on about the dying print Yellow Pages business. Two years ago, I wrote about how search as an industry was maturing in an article titled "Our Little Baby Has Grown Up." Reader feedback was largely in defense of the yellow pages and that, combined with the piles of unused books in my foyer got me to pinch a line from a reader and write last year's "The Planet of Right Here." The theme was that the printed yellow pages were a dying business, an annual eyesore, and a waste of trees. Now though I'm starting to question the viability of them all and have come to the conclusion that OYP (online yellow pages) are dying too.
This year while the printed books piled up again, I got thinking down the same tract, but I started to wonder if I had been wrong. Looking at research from comScore and Burke's first annual "Local Media Tracking Study." one can't ignore the sheer magnitude of the traditional printed book. According to the study, in 2009 the printed book took roughly twelve billion local queries to online and search's four billion. So for all the growth in local online activity, it is still peanuts compared to print. Then I looked at some eMarketer research that showed how much more trust consumers have with the yellow pages so you have to wonder then why this has not translated to online success. To answer this I went back to comScore and some 2010 qSearch data so I could drill into online local activity. I specifically wanted to know the differences in usage and volume between local search and OYPs because the 2009 research showed an uptick for OYPs, but I wasn't seeing any growth in 2010.
What I found was massive growth in local search usage versus a flat to a declining trend for OYPs. Unique searchers didn't see nearly the growth for local but OYPs again saw declining results. To better understand why OYPs saw a drop in searchers and searches, I needed additional data points. Older demos are the largest holdouts and users of printed yellow pages, but are also the fastest growing segment of new searchers. New searchers have a higher intensity (meaning searches per searcher) YOY, according to comScore, when compared to medium and heavy searchers. So the yellow pages core users have a taste for search and like it. Another factor that doesn't help the OYPs is that print local look-ups and ad revenue are down YOY. I have an unnamed source that says even in the best DMAs the number one books are seeing double-digit revenue declines and seeing their margins drop like a rock in a well. Some specialty books are seeing their operating margins decline slower, but only due to declining costs.
The problem for the yellow pages industry are varied, but mainly that Google and the other engines have more traffic and have greatly improved their local results plus smart publishers like Yelp are making niche local plays. These trends combined with mobile penetration and apps means that yellow pages are losing traction and relevance slowly in print and have lost the fight for online local search out right. What I'm reading into this is that the books are clinging to a crumbling business, accepting declining revenues, and utterly unable to monetize digital because they can't compete with the engines. And by engines I mean Google, because we all know Bing will just copy them anyway.
One cant help but feel that the yellow pages should have owned online and mobile local information. Why haven't they? I don't think it's for lack of wanting or smarts, but a factor of money and debt. Most of the companies are still in the print and OYP business because they have no choice - their debt, valuation, and multiples have them pinned. This leaves them with an inability to invest in traffic, improved functionality, and/or better local results. Meanwhile Google and the other engines already have the scale, mobile products, and a culture of continuous innovation. All they needed to win was the local directory data tied into their core search product and overlaid against map-based functionality.
So it would seem that yellow pages are dying a slow death and have no real options to win or get out. This means their only option is to hang on to what little they have left while the engines continue to create better local search products and reap the rewards.
Paula, is the printed yellow book still your go-to source for a local plumber? It certainly isn't mine and I don't seem to be alone.