Is “Yellow Pages” Becoming An Obsolete Concept?

The term “Yellow Pages” has been a literal description of a business directory product and the name for the industry which has produced it for over a hundred years. Rapid evolution of internet media seems to be revoking the conceptual connection between printed pages which are yellow and sources for finding local businesses. So, is the “Yellow Pages” name itself becoming obsolete?

Auckland Yellow Pages 2004

As a product transfers from one medium or evolutionary stage to another, it’s normal to try to adapt its legacy nomenclature to fit the new version—all that promotional good will built upon the old product name in the past can be leveraged to promote the new version of the product.

In some cases the product name will continue to be used into the future. However in other cases, the marketplace’s devotion to the legacy name begins to disconnect, and eventually the legacy name becomes obsolete.

I think there’s reason to believe this has been happening with the Yellow Pages.

I already suggested this a few years ago, and back then I was met with quite a bit of criticism and denial from some in the YP industry. I based that suggestion on observing that searches for “yellow pages” as shown by Google Trends was decreasing over time. That eroding trend is still continuing today:

Searches for Yellow Pages over time

There are now various other indications that “Yellow Pages” is falling in public consciousness. Declines in use of the print YP product is one indicator.

Financial performance of some of the top YP companies has suffered over the past couple of years. This doesn’t necessarily have a direct correlation, since advertiser revenue doesn’t automatically sync with brand-name recognition. Oversized debt load and economic recession could also explain poor performance.

But ad dollars will follow audience numbers, and some of the top YP companies are themselves predicting ongoing losses of revenue over time from their print side. Supermedia’s recently-published 2009 financial results not only outlined a number of reasons for revenue decline, but also listed “…declining use of print yellow pages directories…” as one ongoing risk.

And Joe Walsh, YellowBook’s CEO, was asked in this recent Fox Business News interview if there would still be a physical YP book in five years, and he answered: “Yes, not in every market, though. I think that some of coastal markets may be migrating away from print in that period of time.”BIA/Kelsey also predicts a decline in spending on traditional media, including print YP, and a continuing migration of ad dollars to digital media.

Another prime indicator comes from the recent Local Media Tracking Study conducted by Burke on behalf of the Yellow Pages Association (YPA). The telling part can be found in the partial spreadsheet of demographic results from that study, which may be seen in Greg Sterling’s post. In it, one can see that younger age groups, 18-34, are using print Yellow Pages and internet Yellow Pages considerably less than search engines for finding local businesses.

It doesn’t require a stretch to conclude that younger demographics have gravitated away from the Yellow Pages. Twenty years ago, there wasn’t an internet option and directory books ruled, but now the books are being abandoned by younger people. Unless those younger demographics are brought back to print, overall usage logically must drop as the older generation passes on.

So, users are searching less each year for “yellow pages” online. Top YP companies have experienced some ad revenue loss and are predicting reduced use of their print products. And younger demographics are looking to YP less for local info. I think this combo of indicators supports the theory that “yellow pages” may be dimming in public consciousness.

Now, if you’re a YP company, what do you do with this? You’ve been dependent upon marketing yourself to consumers and advertisers under a common brand which is rapidly eroding.

Some companies recognized this trend long ago and tried to distance themselves to some degree from the “Yellow Pages” moniker as they developed their online products. They either felt that “Yellow Pages” was too limiting, or that it was inadequate/imprecise for describing themselves online. DexKnows and Superpages fall in this category.

Yelp‘s name was obviously derived in part from “Yellow Pages”, but they have managed to establish an identity independently of the legacy industry, while still having the connotation of “Yellow Pages”—giving them the best of both worlds. They’re not dependent upon brand name recognition of YP for their success and growth.

YellowPages.com, YellowBook, and YellowPages.ca have all got a big problem at this point. The promotional value of their brand names are all very closely tied to the fate of “Yellow Pages.” These companies, and others in the industry have a few choices in how they handle this: (1) do nothing and watch brand equity erode, (2) build consumer loyalty by developing an online product that competes well with search engines, or (3) step up ad campaigns and promotional activities to build brand recognition again.

AT&T is aggressively investing in their YellowPages.com asset, but is it enough to reinforce the erosion accompanying their brand?

YellowPages logo

Just this past week, the Yellow Pages Group in Canada announced rebranding with a new logo composed of the walking fingers on an asymmetric, blobby disc. They explained that the new logo removes the book in order to signal that the product is now multi-platform. In my opinion the reasoning for the change is good, but it far misses the mark since not only is the book icon obsolete in consumer minds but the “yellow pages” name itself references print product, too.

Perhaps Yellow Pages Group in Canada can afford to be in denial about the trend, since they haven’t experienced the same print erosion seen in America. However, Google Trends shows that the search volume has begun to slide there as it has been doing in the US.

There’s still a lot of disagreement within the YP industry as to the causes behind the market behavior shifts, and what should be done to address them. At the recent meeting of the Association of Directory Publishers as reported on the BIA/Kelsey blog, Jim Hail of Hagadone Directories apparently suggested that the industry should more aggressively defend print in the media, perhaps launching a promotional campaign. At the same meeting, Joe Walsh opined that it was likely too late for such a campaign, and “…the sense of print Yellow Pages as a passé medium has been fully baked into the public consciousness…” and “…we may not be able to reverse it.”

For a while now, industry executives have expressed the sentiment that some influential reporters and analysts have somehow artificially convinced consumers not to use print Yellow Pages and businesses not to advertise in them. This isn’t accurate, and it naively ignores the real forces that threaten the Yellow Pages brand name and the industry itself with obsolescence.

In my opinion, Joe Walsh is right that it’s likely too late to shore up the “Yellow Pages” brand—but not because the public has been made to think YP is irrelevant. Rather, the public is simply forgetting what Yellow Pages are, and are using other sources instead. I think that the brand awareness has eroded so much that it would be a waste of effort to attempt to rebuild it now. It would be like attempting to reestablish “Victrola” as a widely-known product name, despite the fact that consumers are using stereos and iPods.

I think YP companies would be better off moving away from the legacy name, and focusing more upon evolving to be more competitive with their online products. Expending effort to shore up the name tends to concentrate effort at the wrong end of the equation, and keeping that label seems to place subconscious limits on the innovative thinking of individuals within those companies.

In the “Business 1.0″ world, the Yellow Pages label was so deeply established that it could bring companies an instantaneous degree of success. In the “Business 2.0″ world, the name isn’t as relevant nor as compelling to consumers as is the combination of content and utility. Companies ignoring the trends will risk making themselves be perceived as dated.

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

Related Topics: Channel: Local | Local Search Column

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About The Author: is President of Argent Media, and serves on advisory boards for Universal Business Listing and FindLaw. Follow him @si1very on Twitter.

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  • http://www.soydanbay.com soydanbay

    Yellow Pages Canada recently changed its logo and business strategy. I reviewed their new brand. If you are interested you can click the link below.

    http://soydanbay.com/2010/03/29/the-new-logo-of-yellow-pages/

  • bwgsmn

    While referencing the Burke research, I find it interesting that you didn’t mention any of their other findings:

    Nearly two-thirds (65%) of consumers surveyed say they referenced print or Internet Yellow Pages when looking for local business information in the previous month. Search engines were the second-most popular resource among consumers seeking local business information (58%), followed by flyers/coupons (38%), newspapers (33%), and magazines (14%), the study found.

    More than two-thirds of consumers (67%) say print or Internet Yellow Pages are the sources they trust most for finding local business information, compared with 33% who cite search engines.

    Regarding accuracy of local business information, print and Internet Yellow Pages again fared better (68%) than search engines (32%).

    On a separate note, with the growth of IYP’s, why would people search for the term “yellow pages?” Someone searching for local info may already know where they are going…yp.com, dexknows.com, etc. Familiarity with online local search sites continues to grow as well. That’s why you may be noticing a downward trend of that search term. With that in mind, it’s easy to see that it doesn’t have anything to do with irrelevance of the product.

  • http://www.planetc1.com/ chiropractic

    Nice to see this all put together in an organized fashion. Calls from YP reps hit a hi in our office mid 2007 and have dropped off to nearly zero in 2010. That’s been replaced by sales calls from yelp and others providing online directory services.

    There are many brands still using “yellow” and/or “pages” in their domains and I imagine the value on these properties will continue to slide.

  • bwgsmn

    Using this method to determine significance of any given product or service is illogical. Just because the amount of people searching for the word, “yellow pages,” is declining, doesn’t mean that the yellow pages are losing steam. It’s an unreasonable argument because of these two reasons:

    1. The reason the search term, “yellow pages,” is declining is because of the rise in popularity of IYP’s. If more people directly access dexknows.com and yp.com, then less people will go to a search engine and type in the search term “yellow pages.”
    2. If you enter the search term, “search engines,” into Google Trends, you discover the same phenomenon. I would never argue the significance of Yahoo, Bing, or even Google based on this information.

    For an unbiased view of yellow page usage, I encourage you to review the rest of the information included in Burke’s new study. You will find that nearly two thirds of consumers reference print of internet yellow pages when looking for a local business. In addition, 67% say print and IYP are the sources they trust the most and are the most accurate. This information will make business owners sit up and think about how much they will invest in SEM and SEO.

  • http://www.bluefountainmedia.com rmatzner

    Yellow Pages don’t really offer any advantages over online directories like Yelp or niche industry sites. I surmise the only people who need/use YP are those who have limited access to computers and the internet (due to lack of equipment, money, training, experience).

    SEMPO and Econsultancy have a study coming out soon that reveals how advertisers are pulling lots of money out of YP and moving it to SEO. Here’s a post on that aspect of the study: http://www.bluefountainmedia.com/blog/seo-killing-print-advertising/

  • http://www.sweetspotmarketing.com kevinpike

    I’ve been thinking Yellow Pages is dead for some time now. Happy to see someone tppl the time to spell it out Chris. Up until last year I kept a YellowPages book around, but after never using it combined with the flood of just getting to many, I just now throw them all away.

    On the marketing side, several of my clients have made me privy to some of YP’s sales tactics recently. I was somewhat surprised to see that YellowPages isn’t even trying to sell “Yellowpages” anymore. They lead with online ads & PPC.

    I think YP screwed up ~2 years ago when they “got smart” and started to put in tracking numbers to monitor ROI. The problem was they put tracking on something that cost a lot of money and didn’t yield as good as PPC.

    When most of my clients saw their YP report compared to PPC they shit a brick because they knew what the return could of been had they invested in PPC or some other form of search engine marketing.

    From the change in their business model, I think it’s safe to say YP got the message. Your right to think they should abandon the brand because the association for many companies is now negative. I personally don’t see how they could gain the trust to win this audience back.

    I see YP as similar to newspapers ads now. They both used to do a good job selling print, but they were slow to change. Unless they went out an hired some experts they didn’t really be come experts. No one can be a traditional media buyer one day, and flip a switch to online. It takes months if not years of experiance be good at it.

  • http://www.sweetspotmarketing.com kevinpike

    I’ve been thinking Yellow Pages is dead for some time now. Happy to see someone tppl the time to spell it out Chris. Up until last year I kept a YellowPages book around, but after never using it combined with the flood of just getting to many, I just now throw them all away.

    On the marketing side, several of my clients have made me privy to some of YP’s sales tactics recently. I was somewhat surprised to see that YellowPages isn’t even trying to sell “Yellowpages” anymore. They lead with online ads & PPC.

    I think YP screwed up ~2 years ago when they “got smart” and started to put in tracking numbers to monitor ROI. The problem was they put tracking on something that cost a lot of money and didn’t yield as good as PPC.

    When most of my clients saw their YP report compared to PPC they shit a brick because they knew what the return could of been had they invested in PPC or some other form of search engine marketing.

    From the change in their business model, I think it’s safe to say YP got the message. Your right to think they should abandon the brand because the association for many companies is now negative. I personally don’t see how they could gain the trust to win this audience back.

    I see YP as similar to newspapers ads now. They both used to do a good job selling print, but they were slow to change. Unless they went out an hired some experts they didn’t really be come experts. No one can be a traditional media buyer one day, and flip a switch to online. It takes months if not years of experience be good at it.

    To me the verdict is still out on Yelp. They got into the game after the pendulum had already swung to online advertising, so they could better position themselves.

    I still start a search engine first. If Yelp or YP ranks great, but I don’t actively seek them out.

  • bwgsmn

    I encourage you to trend the keyword, “search engines,” as well. Based on your rationale, it appears that they are becoming obsolete too.

    ….or maybe people already have a specific site they go to directly…i.e. Dexknows.com, YP.com, etc. Wouldn’t that also decrease the number of keyword searches for, “yellow pages?”

  • http://silvery.com Chris Silver Smith

    bwgsmn, my intent wasn’t to mention every single item in the Burke study – it was to examine which metrics most likely speak to a trend in the “yellow pages” brand name’s recognition.

    You’re welcome to offer a competing theory on the dichotomy between consumers considering YP/IYP more authoritative while usage of print YP degrades. For my part, the telling piece of data shows that the 18-34 demographic is going to Search Engines and Social Media to discover businesses more than to YP/IYP. On the face of it, that illustrates the problem I was identifying in this article.

    Unless something massive is done to reverse that trend indication, the “yellow pages” concept will disappear pretty rapidly.

    I had indeed considered the point you raise — that people might not search for “yellow pages” if they already have a high level of brand recognition with particular IYPs and might be going directly to them instead of searching for them. However, there are strong indications that the rate of dedicated, brand-loyal consumers are not increasing at a sufficient rate to balance out the decreasing rate of visitors arriving from search engine referrals. Hitwise has reported that search engines represent at least 25% of upstream sources for IYPs’ traffic, and we know that even for highly known brands with easy-to-find websites, users often resort to typing the brandnames into the search engines to navigate to those sites. Yet, we do not see growth in those areas, nor do we see all that stable of trendlines either:

    http://www.google.com/trends?q=superpages%2Cdexknows%2Cdex+knows%2Cyellow+book%2Cyellowbook&ctab=0&geo=all&date=all&sort=0

    Since there is a direct correllation between brandname recognition and searches for the brandname, use of that as one of the supportive pieces of information in this article isn’t at all illogical.

    I really wish that consumers prioritized trustworthiness of data above other considerations, but there’s a lot of indication that they may actually prefer convenience and ease of accessing data above data quality. Consumers are less able to assess relative quality of directory sites in many cases, and appear to be too forgiving of errors — so trustworthiness isn’t their primary consideration. Usability experts have pointed out that users are often irritated by advertising, and this is one area where Google Maps has exercised unfair advantage — Google Maps does not have to be profitable, while IYPs do, so they have to keep experiementing with ads-versus-relevancy balancing while Google Maps continues to focus obsessively on making for a nice user-experience.

    Finally, you suggest my rationale was based solely upon the Google Trends graph, and you suggest comparing searches for “search engines” with “yellow pages”. First, you can see that searches for “search engines” appears to be levelling off, while searches for “yellow pages” shows a sharp degradation that doesn’t look like it’s stopping. So, one would not arrive at the same supposition comparing those trend lines.

    But, searches for “search engines” actually would more closely fit your theory of specific company’s products having such high degrees of brand recognition and loyalty that the searches for the generic term could arguably have fallen off as consumers go directly to their sites instead of searching to find them. Google is the example that leaps to mind — for quite a number of years their market share has grown, and has only seen some levelling off in recent history.

    You can’t say that about the IYPs collectively, though.

    This article doesn’t come from a bias on my part, but an effort to neutrally interpret business/consumer trends and relay those observations back. I happen to like IYPs, and would like for them to see what I think is happening in the marketplace so that they can adapt and be successful.

    Like I said above, it’s currently not a very fair playing field. Google has control of a large amount of marketshare, and Google’s decisions are impacting the YP companies’ ability to continue to compete. Google Maps doesn’t have to be profitable, since it’s underwritten by Google’s primary ad revenue elsewhere. But, IYPs and other directories have to compete with GMaps, trying to place ads and other products on pages — ads which often disaffect consumers to some degree.

    I’d ask you not to attack the messenger, but serious consider not just the Google Trends data I cited, but also the other telling indicators. Financial statements from major YP companies are stating that decreasing usage of print is an ongoing risk, and YP company execs are stating that they are foreseeing insufficient usage to continue publishing print directories in some markets. Those sources are not biased against the industry!

  • http://silvery.com Chris Silver Smith

    Followup: A week after this article published, AT&T’s Yellowpages.com rebranded itself as YP.com – distancing itself from the traditional brand name. I think this was a very positive move on their part. For my more detailed analysis, read:

    http://www.nodalbits.com/bits/att-yellowpages-rebranding-to-yp/

  • http://www.facebook.com/johnson.moving Johnson Moving

    The quality of service in YellowPages.canada – is going down. They don’t listen to their customers. I and Downsizing my ads with them. The party id Over Yellow Pages ! Au revoir ! 

 

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