Internet Yellow Pages Are Dead

We often hear print Yellow Pages will soon be dead. Rather than discuss whether a postmortem is appropriate, let’s extend our condolences to the print Yellow Pages’ younger sibling, the Internet Yellow Pages (IYPs).

IYPs are a throwback to a directional media that meant simply finding a business and phone number when in need.

Most IYPs are flat, static, and stale. They’re remnants of the old in the new, innovative game of local search.

But, wait. Print Yellow Pages is a $15 billion industry, you say. IYPs are a more portable, updated version of a proven, extremely profitable model that’s been around for a hundred years. After all, consumers utilize IYPs when they’re in need and deep within a buying cycle.

It’s long been reported IYP users are statistically more likely buyers, compared with local search users who tend to include more researchers among their number. For example, 75 percent of consumers who use Verizon’s SuperPages contact a listing business; 45 percent of users buy.

Why Are IYPs Dead?

They aren’t really. It’s their current online form that faces a foreseeable demise.

Even at they’re most basic, new local search applications provide a user experience superior to IYPs’. At their most advanced, they render IYPs to the status of Internet search on training wheels.

There’s a new, savvier local-Internet consumer emerging. Even late into the buying cycle, consumers are becoming aware that local search can do more for them than traditional print Yellow Pages or IYPs ever could.

So why don’t the IYPs simply reinvent themselves as new local search providers?

They’re trying to, and it’s like watching an elephant tap dance. Their goal is obvious: to provide a richer, more qualitative experience for local search users.

Internet users have been conditioned to utilize IYPs as a safe, familiar alternative to print Yellow Pages. This has been fueled by the power and reach of the IYPs’ parent brands, including SBC, Verizon, Bell South, and Dex.

To survive as a destination, IYPs must display more than flat business listings and advertisers in their result sets. They must better discern user intent. They require rich business descriptions, product and service summaries, maps, coupons, payment types, user reviews, and ratings.

Currently, most IYPs use highly structured categories with simple business contact information provided by traditional direct marketing data providers. This condensed business data fails to fuel pure local search, which requires rich business content to feed unstructured user queries.

What Are IYPs Doing About This?

They’re taking a strategic, comprehensive approach to aggregating business content to grow their destination value and the utility of their search appliances. They’re pooling resources and consolidating. They’re attempting to develop new qualitative local search products.

They’re selling more Google and Yahoo

Forget about the IYPs as a destination. Traditional Yellow Pages’ comparative advantage on the Internet isn’t aggregated business data or efficient search applications. The Yellow Pages dominate something far more elusive in the local search marketplace: small business sales. Yellow Pages reps understand what’s required to sell and maintain relationships with small businesses.

Conversely, search engines live in the idealistic advertising world of self-provisioning.

Or do they? Maybe Google and Yahoo are playing their hand against the Yellow Pages.

Often you hear Google and Yahoo make friendly and appeasing public overtures regarding the role of IYPs in the marketplace. Meanwhile, Yellow Page sales reps keep selling Google and Yahoo inventory to small businesses.

A recent ClickZ News article quotes Eric Chandler, VP of E-Commerce Marketing, as saying, “Our biggest challenge is these people are giving us more money than we can spend in our network. We’ve secured $65 million in budgets, but we’re not able to spend that in our own network. There’s a lot more money in that existing pool of advertisers. If we could spend all of what they gave us, they would increase their budgets even more.”

Chandler’s statement validates for SuperPages’ decision to formally rep Google search inventory.

While IYP products become increasingly cannibalized, IYP engineers are hard at work. They’re attempting to build out pure local search applications that can compete in the coming years with such new local search providers as Google and Yahoo

Maybe someone should tell them their success has little to do with their ability to grow their user base and develop destination value. Building nimble search applications to compete with Google and Yahoo is no small undertaking for these elephants.

Historically, the medium for delivery in the offline world, the print book, was a level playing field. Success on the Internet as a destination property requires continuous innovation.

But, the IYP business model is ubiquitous on the Web. Anyone can license and display business data and add a sprinkling of advertisers. The major IYPs may have strong brands, but brand in and of itself only provides so much staying power.

The IYPs’ lineage is a natural barrier to their evolution. IYPs as a destination will die. To survive and flourish in today’s interactive environment, Yellow Pages must narrow their focus and concentrate on their historical strength: sales.

Meet Justin at Search Engine Strategies August 8-11 in San Jose, CA.

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