Print Yellow Pages: What’s the Real Story?

John Kelsey makes the point that the “real story” of Kelsey Group’s forecast is that print yellow pages are growing (if only slightly). This got me thinking about some persistent themes and larger issues surrounding print yellow pages vs. the Internet. There seem to be two camps in this debate, with print yellow pages as a kind of proxy for traditional advertising media more generally.

The Detractors: “Nobody Uses Print Anymore”

Many employees of Internet companies are waiting for the death of the yellow pages to be formally announced. Neither they nor anyone they know seriously consults the print directory (though online is different) anymore. They’re stunned when survey data seem to reveal that people “out there” still use the print yellow pages.

The Boosters: “Yellow Pages Will Live Forever”

The other group, smaller though equally zealous in its viewpoint, consists of die-hard boosters. These folks believe that the print yellow pages will continue to enjoy the success it has had historically and be relatively unscathed by the Internet. They point to “flat” or “stable” usage and massive revenues as indicators of the health of the product and secretly hope that history will prove the detractors wrong.

As with all extreme positions, neither is entirely accurate. But there is truth in both camps’ positions.

You’re Both Wrong — and Right

Those who believe that print yellow pages (or other traditional media more generally) are going to whither and die are wrong. Print yellow pages will go on albeit in diminished form over time. They will be used by many people, sometimes as primary resource, but increasingly as a backup or secondary resource. Print yellow pages’ “monopoly” over local business lookups is broken.

The Boosters (as I call them) are also incorrect. I live in the little bubble of the San Francisco Bay Area and interact with people like me all over the US. I now have two cell phones. So I recognize that I’m not representative necessarily of the larger population out there. But there is absolutely no one that I know that uses the print yellow pages today as much as might have been the case even two years ago.

My wife was the production manager of the creative services department at Pacific Bell Directory (now part of AT&T). And she worked there for about 10 years. We used to have contests over who could find information faster: me online or her in the print yellow pages.

When the new Valley Yellow Pages (the independent publisher in our market) was delivered to our door SHE RECYCLED IT. Her, not me. In addition a friend (who writes for a print newspaper) made an unsolicited remark to me about the same delivery to his house: “We told them to keep it, we didn’t want it.”

Anecdotal stories like this are happening all over the place and I hear them frequently. It’s simply untrue to assert that all is well in print yellow pages land. But it’s also incorrect to call the medium dead.

Traditional and Internet media will coexist and, in many cases, be complementary. There are lots of audiences that the Internet still doesn’t effectively reach. Google’s Eric Schmidt likes to recite them, in particular the “drive-time” audience that listens to radio during the morning and afternoon commutes. Google recognizes fundamentally that traditional media have value, which is why they’re trying to build out print, radio and video/TV offerings in addition to core paid search.

Print yellow pages will go on, make lots of money — much more than their Internet counterpart — and be used by many. But use will be increasingly segmented (i.e., age, income, education) and probably in conjunction with online. Moreover, the advent of online ratings/reviews and local social networks provide so much more information than can a print directory (unless they start reverse publishing) that consumers will increasingly turn to these online sources for information they used to seek exclusively from the print directory.

The local search products that are available to people today are still evolving; and we’re in a kind of transition period where many online resources aren’t fully trusted or considered comprehensive. The print yellow pages is familiar and generally trusted. But the combination of a new generation of users — the NY Times’ Brad Stone characterized it to me today as “digital natives” vs. “digital immigrants” — the improvement of online (and mobile) offerings and the integration of trusted communities and recommendations in local will eventually shift the balance of usage to the Internet.

But, paradoxically, as consumer usage continues to migrate online the bulk of the revenues will remain offline for some time.


13 Responses to “Print Yellow Pages: What’s the Real Story?”

  1. Understanding Google Maps & Yahoo Local Search » Greg Sterling: Print Yellow Pages: What’s the Real Story? Says:

    […] Sterling’s recent post: Print Yellow Pages: What’s the Real Story? is one of the best summaries of the issues and realities of the print Yellow Pages and their […]

  2. J Says:

    Firstly, the argument, as made by either side, presumes a constant rate of change or worse, all things remaining the same. (As if in digital the last great frontier has been crossed. Where was Google 10 years ago? Search? Local? Social? Video? Mobile?) Secondly, the argument–again–presumes a virtual and continuing disconnect between YP print usage and revenue. It is a fact that print YP usage is declining at a rate not yet reflected by either print YP revenue or margins. Thirdly, there is a presumption that SMEs will remain ever susceptible to the dedicated print YP sales forces’ questionable claims to retention, use, ROI, fear of loss etc. In fact, there may come a tipping point at which SMEs rebel against a systemic sense, on the part of their YP sales rep, of both complacency and disrespect and abandon print YP–incumbent and independent–en mass. Fourthly, one shouldn’t underestimate the “Gore” effect, where there is a consumer backlash against pillaging our forests to produce a product that has limited value and that few people use. Many more but limited by time and space.

  3. Hun Yellow » Print Yellow Pages: What’s the Real Story? Says:

    […] post by Greg Sterling and a wordpress plugin by […]

  4. juliemarg Says:

    I think the internet takes more market share from TV and Radio then it does from the internet. The primary market targeted by the print yellow pages is home owners. Because of their age, the number of homeowners who are print yellow page users dominates those who are exclusively internet users.

  5. Martin Snytsheuvel Says:

    QUOTE “We used to have contests over who could find information faster: me online or her in the print yellow pages.”

    You know its funny but I read articles like this and continuously everyone appears to miss the point.

    What the typical Internet visitor really desires is the ability to search online like one searches offline. Our beta platform is addressing exactly that need presently. .COM and .MOBI

    Until a digital Yellow Page directory can give the consumer the information they desire in the same manner as the HARD COPY yellow pages there will be a huge opportunity for even the smallest of yellow page publishers (Like Us) to compete in this huge market. The yellow page market as reported by John Kelsey to be almost $40 billion by 2011.

    This description does not mean a replication of a Hard Copy directory on the web. This wont work, been there done that years ago. It is the Internet user friendly environment for a yellow page directory system that is the holy grail of the yellow page industry online. There have been excellent attempts to date by some companies but not one company has captured the true essence of OFFLINE yellow page search for the online user.

    The compounded difficulty has been as well where the Internet it self has major changes as far as access and search technology, Video Access capabilities, SEO and SEM has finally appeared to level out with a useable system among many other smaller elements including VOIP, wireless access and now MOBI.

    You will soon see a break through in the online digital directory access realm and I for one feel it is long over due.

  6. Gary Kelloff Says:

    Our company has advertised in the DEX yellow pages here in Portland, OR for years. Over time, performance of the yellow pages has dropped steadily to the point where our exensive DEX ad is now outperformed by Google (unsponsored) searches, by Angie’s List referrals and by a similar ad in a locally printed yellow page directory that is targeted to a specific demographic audience (est. about 3-7% of the population).

    So this year we have reduced the size of our DEX ad over and against the strenuous objections of the rep. The resultant lower price was not very much of a savings, but like we told him, “By ignoring the steady drop in performance by keeping your rates so high, you are acceleraating our rate of defection and we imagine the same is the case with other small businesses.”

    Another trend that is not discussed much is that of a profusion of alternative directories with much lower rates and supposedly similar coverage. While it is not a stellar performer, we would still choose DEX over the other ones (Verizon, Transamerica, etc.) because it is familiar in this area and is distributed (so far as we know) as promised.

  7. How Widespread Is This? « Screenwerk Says:

    […] Widespread Is This? The following is a recent, verbatim comment on an earlier post I did regarding the outlook for print yellow pages: Our company has advertised in […]

  8. Hunt Hosting Blog » Are the Yellow Pages dead? Says:

    […] Link to Greg Sterling’s post. | Send to a Friend You can also bookmark this on or check the cosmos […]

  9. Nariman Says:

    in Russia there is no way to YP will die. it is big media holding. – and have some little concurents, smth like or

  10. Tony G Says:

    I think the time has come for the small to medium sized business community to take full responsibility for their advertising. For 10 years I have listened to business owners whine about the cost of advertising or the “feelng” of non-response from a YP ad. The internet has brought about transparency. Which means you get to see exactly what is going on in relation to a successful search to your business. You can find out what key words were used, pages navigated, etc. I challenge all the business owners out there to track all your advertising the way the internet is tracked. I also challenge all business owners to pay attention to all media like they pay attention to the internet. More business owners that I talk to on a daily basis have a website that is little more than a glorified business card. They know they want to be online but do not know how or why. In fact, most business owners I deal with wear so many hats during the day that they give little time to consider anything about their YP advertising investment. Even the customers who spend $20k or more think about this nedia once a year? I would want to know on a daily basis how my investment is working. We’ve had that technology for years through tracking phone numbers. That is, a different phone number used in each media to count calls into a business from each media. Of course, if your goal is to brand your name the tracking phone number does you no good. If it is calls you want, make sure you are getting them by tracking whatever media you are trying to get calls from. Finally, if you do your research you will find that the death of yellow pages is an opinion. If you look for facts you will find the 2007 yellow pages print searches stabilizing at 13 billion searches. When you throw in the Internet YP, the searches jump to 17.2 billion in 2007. Will the yellow pages evolve? You betcha! Will they die? All current facts say no.

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