Confessions Of A Yellow Pages User

Photo From Flickr User ideowl, used under Creative CommonsHi. My name is Andrew Shotland and I am a print yellow pages user. I know, I am one of those cutting edge online guys who makes his living off the “yellow pages are dead” thing. But, then, a main water pipe to the house started to leak and flooded my lawn.

I ran to the computer and started to search – Ahhh Los Links!

My wife gave me the hairy eyeball. Did I mention it was Mothers Day? I dug out the book and called the plumber with the two-page four-color spread. Crisis averted.

Last week I was reading about the War on Yellow Pages and I realized that many of us online types have been at war with the book because we have a vested interest in the book dying. There are plenty of good reasons to be down on print Yellow Pages as a marketing vehicle and I won’t repeat them here.

But today, because the Yellow Pages saved my ass, and possibly my marriage, I thought I’d return the favor and sing their praises.

Some factoids:

  • 75% of YP advertisers are service businesses or installed product (think floor covering) businesses. The more service-heavy, the more valuable the directory.

  • Businesses that have large, infrequent sales (roofer, divorce attorney, windshield repair) are very likely to receive a big return compared to a donut shop. A roofing customer is out of the market for 20 years after a purchase. That’s a lead worth capturing.

  • When the customer’s location is the work site, local SEO is exceptionally difficult to optimize and a directory can assist in exposing a business to their desired service area. About 35% of YP advertisers are home-based businesses that need visibility. The print directory can act as one of their store fronts.

  • Categories that are dominated online by national brands and deep pocketed lead generation companies are also big beneficiaries of local directories. Examples are insurance (your local agent can’t outspend GEICO online), pharmacy, finance, real estate and educational institutions.

  • But print YP ads aren’t for everybody. Gas stations generally aren’t good YP advertisers because the decision to purchase is habitual, opportunistic, and more driven by price than research.

  • Another rule of thumb is research. The more a decision is researched, the better the ad return is.

Trust is also a major factor. If trust is necessary, (typically a requirement for a large purchase) the more valuable the ad. While advertising is not always a guarantee of trust, oftentimes online it’s harder to gauge trust when comparing a set of free listings or gamed review sites. A licensed, bonded, certified member of the local chamber of commerce with 30 years experience can look pretty similar online to a guy who knows a little SEO and will work for Gagaville credits.

Print directories are made for emergency services.  When my buddy Dick Larkin’s 2 pound new Maltese puppy got into the ant poison and was having convulsions, his wife did not research online for emergency vets. She looked at the book in her drawer, made a quick decision, and drove.

If a tree is about to fall through a house, the home owner won’t bother with a lead generation site that requires personal information and I doubt he’ll have a friend who’s the mayor of the local tree guy. And let’s never forget the Great Pleasanton Mothers Day Flood of 2011 (moment of silence please).

So how do you reach the local person who is actively making a buying decision regarding the products and services you sell? One way to reach that person is through skillful online development and optimization. Another way is through the directory that was delivered to their home (assuming they haven’t opted out). Both answers can be right.

Plumbers can get a much higher ROI via online marketing versus print if they know what they are doing. But print leads are still significant enough that they most likely can’t go without them. The fact is that for a number of big ticket businesses, an occasional customer pays for their YP ad.

If you talk to a print YP publisher off-the-record, they will inevitably show you a chart that shows a decline in usage, effectiveness and revenues related to the print directories along with a dramatic increase in the metrics for online directories and lead generation. Then, they’ll flip the chart to show you the margins for each where print dwarfs online.

Until those paths cross and the positions change (and it will), the print book will still be pushed by YP publishers. And until the leads dry up, print yellow pages will continue to be a piece of the puzzle for many local marketers.

Ok, back to my day job of hastening your demise helping you guys figure out this online thing.

Photo from Flickr user ideowl. Used under Creative Commons.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Local | Local Search Column


About The Author: is the proprietor of Local SEO Guide, a local search engine optimization consulting company specializing in yellow pages seo and local directory search—the blog is pretty fabulous too.

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  • Pieter Le Roux

    To be honest, I don’t think your plumbing problems are the core issue here if your wife decides to leave you because of it. A bit too petty I would think. Nice article though ;)

  • DZO

    Thanks for writing this article Andrew! I follow your blog and love the insight you have into local search.
    I used to work for a phone directory and saw a lot of the points you made in this article every day. I also saw far too many companies achieving no ROI on their ads in the phone book. Most companies struggle to achieve any results from the phone directories let alone have any means to track their results. I still recommend that some of my clients purchase yellow page ads (A plumber, in fact, just the other day), but I am seeing far better results helping them market their companies online.
    Granted, you have very valid points that directories do serve their purpose for some industries.

  • Michael Dorausch

    Just had conversation with a chiropractor yesterday that says he is ‘killing it’ with his local YP print ads. Why? Even though he dropped from full page color to half page b&w and print use has declined, his competitors dropped out completely, leaving him with the only category ad in the book.

    It’s a gamble for each industry player, like timing when to jump off of the Titanic.

  • Rick Vidallon

    YP is simply another good venue to advertise in if you are spreading your ad dollars around, though It is not the ‘end all, be all’ answer to getting loads of leads and customers.

    The main complaint I hear from ex-YP website clients is that they were getting charged $$ for every lead coming in via their YP website contact form whether they closed the deal or not.
    While this is probably not the case with direct inquiries from YP advertising, I thought it worth mentioning.

  • John Audette

    406 would like to challenge you to a duel….

    If we had a water leak here in the office we would pull out our Droid, say plumber Bend Oregon, see the listing Sunset Plumbing and then click on their number. In fact, Tom is talking to Sunset Plumbing right now – it took him about 8 seconds.

    We think you’re all wet.

  • Andrew Shotland

    And you would be basing your trust in Sunset Plumbing on what criteria?

    There are all sorts of ways to find a plumber or any other service pro including a mobile app. Just saying, in this instance the book did me right and as Mike D & Rick mentioned, it can do the service pro right as well. Now toss me a towel.

  • Stuart Draper

    Audette is right. Sure. Maybe he did make the call too fast. Plumbing Emergencies usually don’t give you a lot of time to dink around with reviews, but assuming he doesn’t panic, and has time, what would stop him from googling, “sunset plumbing bend oregon reviews?” And what makes a YP ad more trustworthy than a Google ad. I want a towel now too.

  • kfir Azran

    IMO, online local seo is more relevant for services and business which people face the need on the go while browsing from their mobile phones or ipads.
    i agree that the YP books still have some kind of added trust but on the other hand we cannot forget how many people already have a second nature to look for anything they need on Google.

    if I’m a small business , it would be more cost effective for me to invest in online marketing than invest in a fair size YP ad.

  • Matt

    I read a great article about SEO and the yellow pages and how companies are wasting their money still doing old world media for their Car Dealerships. With stats that say 9 out of 10 people start their car purchase online, you’d think dealers would be more on board. It was surprising how many said they don’t know who manages or how to manage their Google Places or other online business listing website accounts/info. Check it out:


  • Joanna McDonald

    I’m with @John — if for no other reason than I don’t even HAVE a phonebook. But that aside, it’s faster to Google than flip through a phone book, and there’s likely to be at least a few stars that give a quick indicator of who’s good and who isn’t. That’s more than the YP provides.

    Maybe there’s a case to be made for those big-ticket purchases, but wouldn’t/shouldn’t social, and specifically Facebook, be more important for those than YP? (Stick with me here…) Who doesn’t ask for personal recommendations from trusted sources when they’re spending big money on roofing?

    The first thing I did when I needed a plumber and an electrician for a home renovation was ask people. The next best things are reviews and a FB Page that’s filled with thank-yous from grateful customers.

    And @Stuart’s right…I don’t think print ads are any more trustworthy than online ones.

  • Chas Blackford

    Why have all your eggs in one basket? Multiple acquisition channels support broad market(ing) coverage (and branding) and can “insure” lead flow if your online efforts implode.

  • Cathy

    I had the same experience: I work from home all day long in front of a computer. When we had a freeze and my pump froze [we have a well] I went straight to the phone book! Found the biggest nastiest ad I could find that said they could be right there! With the phone book I could compare companies quickly and assess their ability to do the job. $15k later, I had water back and a happy family [not flushing is not cool]. I underestimated that is used. In fact it isn’t a sexy thing anymore but some lucky plumber is a bit richer today because I did.

  • MMM

    I found myself in a similar emergency situation. There was a pretty big ice storm here in New England in 2008. I had trees and big branches down all over my yard. My wife picked up the phone book and got a few quotes. One quote was higher priced, offering more services and of coarse there was a lower price offering fewer services. I then posted an ad in Craigslist with the requesting a greater amount of services at the lowest price previously offered. Then I sat back and collected the email responses. I got the most amount of work done at the best price. The business chosen was not a phone book advertiser.

  • John Audette

    @Chas said: “Why have all your eggs in one basket? Multiple acquisition channels support broad market(ing) coverage (and branding) and can “insure” lead flow if your online efforts implode.”

    It does make sense to have multiple marketing channels for local and small business. But customer acquisition can vary widely. See for example.

  • Charles

    Amen to YP Andrew. My basement flooded and i immediately went into panic mode and grabbed the book instead of my blackberry and laptop. Found 2 companies immediately and had them both come out.

  • Dave

    Andrew, two great points you brought up about the buying process and why YP is effective.

    “Gas stations generally aren’t good YP advertisers because the decision to purchase is habitual, opportunistic, and more driven by price than research.”

    YP is not the source of advertising for impulse buys like getting gas, or the closest McDonalds. I would imagine the larger the purchasing decision of the product or service, the larger need for a source like YP.

    Furthermore, “Another rule of thumb is research. The more a decision is researched, the better the ad return is.”

    The more time devoted a customer is in understanding the product or service, the more committed the customer will feel to it. Online advertising is disturbed by noise while YP is clean and to the point.

  • Ken

    @Joanna, John, and the other paper atheists:

    You don’t think a print Yellow Pages ad provides you any additional insights, but a website does?? That website could be a $10.95/month special done by some tech geek, making it very easy for a company (or person) to hide behind. A print ad is a commitment. If someone has spent the money for a half page print ad it tells me a lot about the viability of that company in a heading/category I probably don’t know much about. The same can’t be said for batch of pretty stock pictures on a website.

    Plus the print Yellow Pages is going to give me the true local, local selection of businesses I am looking for. I don’t want to start clicking through 1.8 million website links. I just want the local answer to my problem/need.

  • Yam Regev

    Good one, Andrew!

    couple of things:
    As a (past) heavy publisher on print YP from the Locksmith industry, i can tell this: It’s much more spammable from current days directories (, SupePages, Google Maps, etc..). The only directory that you can still spam the hell out is Yahoo Local.
    In our industry, MOST of the ads on the YP book are fake bizs, fake add dresses, etc..

    The first thing we did after shifting 90% of our received leads from YP book & 411 to On line platforms was- shutting down all the super expansive, 1 year contracts with YP book.

    The thing is that in these days, it’s easier to spam YP book than most of the on line platforms. They are just ‘hungry’ for money. Too hungry…

    I totally agree that YP book IS the best directory for Service Based Businesses (that don’t actually selling products & coming to service you at your location), As the book is being published exactly where your target audience is. And as you said, the on line exciting platforms are yet to tackle this issue perfectly. For instance, let’s say that I’m leaving in Berkeley, does it mean that a plumber that is located in Berkeley is actually ‘better’/ more relevant for me if he is located in Berkeley or in Oakland??- NO.

    Another good point that was discussed here is the ‘eggs & basket’ strategy. in the LSEO & SEO arenas you can not know what will happen tomorrow, you can be attacked by a Panda bear, GOOG can change their layout appearance & ranking factors (almost) instantly & your listing can be hijacked by LSEO terrorists.

    My personal conclusions:
    1. Yet, in order to survive- YP book need to reinvent themselves & to be much more cheap.
    2. YP book is better for advertisers than customers.

    Anyhow, as we know- sometimes you eat the bear & sometimes the bear eats you.. ;-)

    Yam Regev

  • Andrew Shotland


    It was worth writing the post just for your comments. +1

  • JackSale

    Wow.  So much disparity in beliefs…so little facts.  I sell internet and print yellow pages.  I sell websites and seo.  I have no interest in anyone that just assumes everyone buys products and services as they do.  If you are stating how you buy is the same for everyone and provide no data to support everyone is like you….you are damaging the very community you claim to serve.  Yes the market is fragmented as never before.  Yes it is much harder for a business owner to target thier market.  ROI on almost every type of advertising is harder to quainify.  Anything a business owner is doing that turns any kind of profit, in this economy, is valuable.  There is no more options to spend a dollar and make thousands.  They need 5 to 10 ads and stratigies, in several sources, targeted to thier most likely customers, where they spend a dollar and make 3 to 500 back. There are some really smart people doing these studies.  They gather and consider all sources of data, not just the ones that might make them more money.  Great article.


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