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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 this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.


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