AOL Expands Yellow Pages Distribution Via IM Bot

America Online is making its AOL Yellow Pages listings accessible through its instant messenger application, an effort which will add value for the service’s advertisers, mostly small local businesses.

With the Thursday launch of the yellow pages bot, users need only add the screen name “AOLYellowPages” to their Buddy Lists to interact with the yellow pages listings via the instant messaging chat window. First-time users set their location by giving their zip code, and results are returned in order of proximity — except if there are advertisers in the category, in which case their listings are returned first, as “featured listings”. Users of the online service’s instant messaging application number between 195 million, which is the company’s figure, and 80 million, as estimated by the Radicati Group, a research firm.

“It…reaches out to the audience that may not be used to using the traditional yellow pages,” said Brendan Benzing, executive director of AOL Yellow Pages, referring to instant messaging’s popularity among young people. “This is an opportunity to introuce them to the yellow pages.”

The move is part of an effort by AOL to better leverage its yellow pages content, which is supplied by infoUSA and delivered through technology from Switchboard. In addition to distributing the AOL Yellow Pages via its instant messaging application, the company is working to increase the listings’ reach across the AOL network of properties. They appear on AOL.com, Netscape.com, MapQuest, CompuServe, and DigitalCity.com, and they’ve been integrated within AOL Search.

Additionally, the company has added an AOL Yellow Pages search box on the Netscape home page directly below the main search field, in an effort to give the feature more prominence.

“We continue to work to enhance the AOL Yellow Pages to make it as easy, convenient and comprehensive as possible,” said Dariusz Paczuski, vice president of product marketing at AOL. “Being able to find all relevant information about a business with just one easy search is what sets us apart and with the addition of our new yellow pages bot offering, we’re really making a difference for shoppers and advertisers in local markets nationwide.”

Although yellow pages-style advertising has long been a staple of the online world, it has failed to take off in any meaningful way — with pricing, accountability, and distribution problems cited by many industry-watchers as the culprit. Now, the success of its cousin, paid search, is leading some to try to better tap the potential of online yellow pages.

Improvements in these areas are what led the Kelsey Group research firm to forecast that Internet yellow pages revenue would increase to $480 million this year, from $388 million in 2002. Kelsey Report program director Charles Laughlin, who follows the Internet yellow pages (IYP) industry, says he expects the online yellow pages business and the paid search businesses to begin to come together.

“IYPs need to start learning from search. We’re seeing some evidence that some of them are, anyway,” said Laughlin. “One of the issues of usage of IYP is that it’s not always there when you have a need. Integrating into things like instant messaging might move it more toward having yellow pages at the tip of your fingers.”

The creation of the yellow pages instant messaging bot also takes listings into the wireless world, via AOL’s distribution agreements with major carriers like Verizon Wireless, AT&T, and T-Mobile. Yellow pages listings retrieved via wireless text messaging have seen a measure of success in Europe, where text messaging is more popular, according to Laughlin.

In a similar announcement today, Verizon’s yellow pages business, SuperPages.com, said it would distribute its full complement of listings via the Verizon Wireless “Get It Now” application download service.

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