Search vs. The Yellow Pages: Battle Practicality

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.

8 comments about "Search vs. The Yellow Pages: Battle Practicality ".
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  1. Bruce Goldman from Bright Orange Advertisibng, February 4, 2011 at 5:17 p.m.

    One factor militating against printed Yellow Pages is their inflexibility, especially regarding advertisers. You can only get in the book once a year, you have to commit months in advance, and once your listing or ad it there, that's it. With OYP, you can list, change, or delete at will, with almost immediate effect, and that's a big plus for both advertisersand searchers who want current information.

  2. Lisa W from N/A, February 4, 2011 at 5:33 p.m.

    Another big problem with the Yellow Pages is that the publishers insist on your investment being as much or higher YOY or you lose your discount structure. This is just not fathomable when their performance drops year over year. YP is definitely dying - the trick now is how to optimize your investment.

  3. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, February 4, 2011 at 6:05 p.m.

    1. Thank you so much for remembering. For the most part, yes, other than trying to get recommendations. The main reason is the format which is so much easier to use on the printed page, it gives you more information about what the advertiser does and where they service.

    2. The treatment of the print YP advertisers are horrid. The costs and complications of multiples only make it more painful for the advertiser to cough up more and more money.

    3. This can help explain number 2. I know full well, the YP salesforce and management is a quick revolving door. There management system works like it's 1979. Too many people do not know how to enter a sale or copy. They still do ad make up when needed and it still needed for the little guy.

    4. The errors in OYP are pretty bad, too, which is inexcusable. Advertisers do not have an email address or website and even the phone numbers can be wrong. Due to profit, there are companies missing with no listing.

    5. You might as well include the White pages on line that gums things up. Personal experience: Wrong phone number and says I am related to people who I do not know. I've had collection calls for them. WP will not change anything without my email address. Right, like I would give it to them to muck that up too and spam sell it. Print was more reliable and I could be found. If one had their number in print wrong, they could correct it so when 411 was called, the corrected number was given.

    So if anyone wonders an ounce why OYP falls behind search, it's not hard to understand.

  4. S Gano from HIE Holdings Inc, February 4, 2011 at 7:45 p.m.

    Your research is probably spot on, but what your story fails to include is that the major YP companies are selling search -- not just to their own OYP, but Google, Yahoo, etc. So no, they're not trying to simply compete with the engines, they're using the engines to make up for revenue loss in print. Most small and medium-sized business owners don't have a marketing person or are very verse in SEM, but they do trust their local YP to manage campaigns for them.

  5. Juliette Cowall from Godwin Plumbing & Hardware, February 7, 2011 at 9:21 a.m.

    As a buyer of media for, of all things, a local plumber, I've been decreasing our dependence on print YPs for some time. As I start the annual cycle of area books, one major frustration with OYPs is that they cling to their print "categories" (such as Plumbers-Drain & Waste Line Cleaning) rather than using search terms that real users would type in. Selling search terms, a la "real" search engines, rather than page placement is much more user-friendly. I dislike following our competitors, but sometimes one has to - which is my only justification for using OYPs. I will be the first to admit my lack of SEO skills, so I'm a long way from learning what the onsite algorithms of the OYPs really are.

  6. Edward Lehwald from Arundel Federal Savings Bank, February 7, 2011 at 9:38 a.m.

    My guess is that strategically the Yellow Pages, print and online, have made the classic mistake of thinking that they're in the "yellow pages" business instead of the "search business." The reason that Google is whacking them is that Google knows it's in the search business.

  7. Rob Griffin from Almighty, February 7, 2011 at 2:35 p.m.

    Juliette and Edward, thanks for the replies. Great to hear from local businesses. Y'all are likely the ones that feel the most pain from all of this.

  8. Jaan Janes from Yieldbot, February 7, 2011 at 6:58 p.m.

    I'd say start with the consumer experience...when you use the print Yellow Pages you generally get a very directed experience with listings for local merchants and ads from those willing to pay for more space. Clean, simple and easy to use.

    Check out most online YP sites - they are an absolute blur of organic results, paid listings, logos, banners and more - including the ever-present 800 number aggregator businesses that are generally not close enough to the consumer to consider - consumer has no idea on how to vet these businesses and probably tries this once and then goes on to some other resource.

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