I keep a close eye on the health of the local online directory market. It’s an important part of the local data ecosystem, and it’s central to the citation work done by us (at my company, BrightLocal) and by many thousands of local search marketers.
I’ve been monitoring the traffic fortunes of a number of directory sites since 2011, and the charts and analysis below are a follow-up to similar data I shared last year.
The data is taken from Quantcast, and the figure used is their U.S. “People per Month” data, which they describe as “[t]he estimated number of people assessing a property from online and mobile web in aggregate.”
Note: The figures provided by Quantcast are estimates and will differ from other tracking sources. The data is best used to view trends and to compare volumes and trends between sites. The data is for the U.S. — U.S. directories and U.S. users.
We studied 30 of the most prominent, well known, and high traffic U.S. directories including Yelp, Whitepages, YP, MapQuest and 26 others.
The overall picture remains one of long-term decline for the local online directory market as a whole, with the exceptions of a couple of directories bucking the downward trend. However, in the last two months, the aggregate traffic to directories appears to have bounced and is climbing again.
Most Sites In Decline But Yelp Remains Constant
Over the past 28 months, there has been a 35% decline in traffic to the top online directories. We’ve separated Yelp from the rest of the group because its traffic is so vast in comparison that combining it with the others skews the view of what’s happening in the industry at large.
In fact, we can see that Yelp’s visit numbers (approx. 80 million/month) are almost the same as the other 29 sites combined! This really shows the impact of Yelp’s investment in its service.
Yelp has grown and nurtured a loyal review-writing audience, which has allowed it to build the most comprehensive set of online reviews for local businesses. In turn, it has secured significant distribution deals with Yahoo and Apple Maps. This, along with establishing itself as a household name brand, has meant its user numbers have remained high and growing while those around it flounder.
Are Bigger Brand Directories Doing Any Better?
We know that Google likes brands and uses brand as a way of distinguishing reputable sites and businesses from others with similar content but less authority. Yelp certainly benefits from this.
Among the 30 directories we examined, there are some other well-known(ish) brands; we’ve dubbed these the “Big 12.” So, are they faring any better than the smaller, lesser known brands?
The following chart looks at % change in visits from May 2014 to May 2015.
So, it appears the answer is, “No, not really!”
In fact, the bigger directories have lost a greater percentage of their traffic (18%) than the smaller directories (13%). Over the same period, Yelp saw a 6% uplift in traffic.
So, Is The Future Bleak For Local Directories?
If we focus in on the first five months of 2015 (Jan-May), the story actually looks a little more rosy for the beleaguered directories. The chart below shows a fall from Jan-March, which is reversed in April and May.
If we split out the Big 12 directories from the smaller sites, then we can see that the Big 12 have benefited the most from this revival of fortunes, while the smaller sites have not.
Who Are The Big Winners & Losers?
If we look more closely at the Big 12 sites, we can see that over the last 12 months, there have been some clear winners and losers.
The Better Business Bureau website (BBB.org) has seen significant growth in visits, up 70% from May 2014 to 10m visits/month.
Yelp and Whitepages.com have also seen some growth, but only fractionally.
Why Is BBB.org Bucking The Trend?
Technically, BBB isn’t a directory like the others. It is a group of local organizations that champion trust in local businesses and offer accreditation for businesses — which helps consumers know if a business is trustworthy and decent versus low quality and to be avoided.
But the site does provide listings of businesses, publishes consumer reviews about businesses, and earns revenue from businesses who get accredited. It’s also a site than many search marketers like to build citations on, so we’ve included it in the data.
I believe there are two key things that set BBB.org apart from normal directories:
- Unique Review Content. The site is building a decent range of reviews, which provides unique content for Google to hook into.
- High Trust Factor. Google likes sites it can trust, and BBB is built to help consumers make better choices by disclosing the truth about a business. But it’s not just about Google. As more consumers become aware of BBB.org, they will start to rely on it more when purchasing from local businesses.
What Does The Next 12 Months Hold?
It’s hard to predict anything except for more decline; certainly, that appears to be the outlook for smaller directories. Even as I type, the effects of Google’s May “Doorway” algorithm update may be having an effect on these sites. The exact result/evidence of this is still unclear, and I point you in the direction of Andrew Shotland’s blog to read more about this.
This decline in fortunes will likely lead to closures or mergers of some sites as their business models no longer deliver enough revenue to make them worthwhile ventures for their owners.
For larger names in the industry, the game is shifting. They’re now becoming marketing service businesses building out a wide array of services to sell to local businesses — everything from website building to PPC to reputation management. Their directories offer them a source of leads to sell these services to — so they’ll maintain them, but they won’t be the core of the businesses anymore.
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