When I wrote that earlier article, I was aware that connecting a major shift in overall consumer behavior to a graphed trendline of searches in Google was a little loose in terms of causality.
There are many reasons why people search for a particular phrase, and many reasons why cumulative searches for the phrase can rise or fall.
So, when I saw the clearly-declining trend line for YP searches back then, it was concerning to me, and it seemed highly likely that the cause probably was that Google Maps (and other local search engines ) were having an impact on both print and online YP usage. So, did this demonstrate that yellow pages were being used less, and, did the yellow pages indeed become “toast” four years later? In the above graph, which was derived from yearly figures provided variously by the Local Search Association (previously named the Yellow Pages Association), one can see that print usage figures have generally been dropping since 2002.
Yellow pages companies enjoyed a tremendous profitability over most of their one-hundred-year-plus history. While the above graph only goes up to 2007, it can be seen that revenues began softening at around the year 2000. In many markets, the decline in revenues can also be seen reflected in the size of local yellow pages books. The effect of declining revenues on the top YP companies over the last four years has been massive. While there were other big factors that impacted each of these companies in addition to reduced print profits, I would argue that factors such as the recession simply accelerated their rates of decline which would have happened anyway due to consumers migrating away from their printed product.
Most recently, AT&T signaled in January that they were looking to offload their directory division, and they are now in talks to sell a stake in the YP unit to the Cerberus Capital Management LP private equity firm. While Chapter 11 reorganizations are not the same as a complete extinction of these companies, one could have expected them to emerge as much more agile competitors after reducing debt obligations.
The more complex piece to analyze of the YP industry involves their online divisions: while their print divisions are experiencing longterm shrinkage, their online arms have grown in usage and revenues in some cases.
The YP industry challenge all along has been that they needed to grow their digital products to replace their legacy print YP books — and profits on the Internet side are considerably lower than the print ads. Newspapers, another similar traditional media industry, have faced virtually the same challenge and that industry’s revenue shows a similar trend graph over time. The answer to this question isn’t purely black-and-white, although industry proponents and opponents frequently characterize it as a simplistic yes-or-no answer. People sometimes present the YP advertising to me as an either-or deal: would I be better off dropping my print ad budget and putting it all into online? Independent directory companies have been profitable, even as some of the larger, better-known YP companies have faltered.
Even as print usage shrinks, advertising in the books can still be a profitable enterprise for businesses which sell high-ticket products and services. Carefully check your local business category in your local phone book — while my generalization is that large metro areas might be a bad ad buy for most, if all of your competitors have bailed out of a book you could scoop up all the remaining referrals left.
Be sure to measure results!  Since this industry is changing so rapidly, it is really necessary to monitor and assess how good the ROI is if you are advertising in print yellow pages. Even if you’ve decided that the print ads in your book are no longer delivering, advertising in an online YP site could be worthwhile. There continues to be usage of some of the books by some consumers in some areas, and if you carefully asses you can figure out if it’s still worth advertising in your local directory.
Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.


Chris Smith is President of Argent Media, and serves on advisory boards for Universal Business Listing and FindLaw.
SMX Advanced, the only conference designed for experienced search marketers, returns to Seattle June 22-23. MarTech: The Marketing Tech Conference is for marketers responsible for selecting marketing technologies and developing marketing technologists. About four years later, we can now look back and see whether this turned out to be a valid prediction, and also reflect on what value YP may still have for advertisers. Google Trends also showed expectable seasonal spikes for various industries, and rises and declines in cumulative interest in topics (which is the basis for Google Zeitgeist which is also often cited as a pulse indicator for rises and drops in popularity). Other estimates I’ve seen of print YP revenue also indicate it flattened out and declined from 2007 to 2011.
Idearc, the company spun off when Verizon divested itself of its yellow pages division, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2009, along with R.H.
Imagine that they basically needed to replace each lost print customer with about twenty online customers, and you get an idea of the magnitude of their problem. To flourish, they need to develop their digital sides to replace their legacy products, while simultaneously evolving to compete with Google and other technological challengers.
Some of these companies have very healthy (and even growing) Internet traffic, and some have successfully leveraged partnership deals which help distribute their business listings out to consumers.
While there are larger populations in bigger cities, it seems probable that a larger percentage of the population there uses the Internet to find businesses compared to smaller towns. The books there contain fewer overall competitors, there are fewer competing phone books published, and ad prices are often lower. Specialty directories are a variety of independent directory which are targeted to particular demographic groups, such as Spanish-speaking consumers, Christian or Jewish customers, Vegetarians and individuals seeking to shop from businesses dedicated to the ethical treatment of animals, and consumers wanting to support ecologically sustainable businesses. Older consumers continue to use print directories at a much higher rate than younger consumers, so if your business caters to older generations you need to still consider advertising in print. Phone books are still commonly included in most hotel rooms, so if your business is located in a city like Las Vegas or Miami you should consider paying to have an ad in the book. So, even in large metro areas, restaurants might still benefit well from advertising in print. For instance, an attorney who obtains a single, multimillion-dollar lawsuit from a $40,000 ad could consider it money well-spent. Some data indicates that the advertisers sticking with print advertising are enjoying pretty good call rates for this reason. When you design your ads, try to build in ways to account for each of the business referrals you receive from them. They may be able to survive their diminishing print arms and develop sufficient niches to compete as viable longterm companies. While there are some positive signs starting to emerge, the industry-wide adjustment still hasn’t completely played out. So, the question really is whether there’s sufficient value for the advertising to make you enough money versus the cost.
Also, there are typically more businesses listed in big city phone books, so your company could be hidden in a crowd of competitors. But, the main deal is that smalltown consumers seem to continue using the books at a higher rate than in larger cities.


The indie publishers have likely performed better because they had to be more agile, functioning with lower operating expense, and incurring less debt.
Special interest groups of consumers seem to have a higher level of dedication towards businesses supporting their communities, so those types of books appear to be much more viable than the traditional YP books. Businesses catering to lower-income customers should reasonably expect more referrals from offline information sources. Likewise, a contractor or luxury auto dealer might receive sufficient business from a high-priced YP ad to rationalize advertising in the book a lot longer than other types of businesses.
Use a tracking phone number (be careful to try to keep the tracking number off the Internet, though, or it could impair your online search ranking ability). So, assess if your YP company’s site has enough exposure (find out what partnerships they have, and all the places where your ad could appear if you advertise with them), and if it looks good consider advertising on it. I’ve suggested for a long while that they could stand to have one or more mergers which would allow them to reduce expenses more through synergies while combining marketshare.
The ROI is harder to predict in every case, but we can somewhat generalize what the promotional value will be, based upon your particular type of business, the market area you’re located in, and the specific YP book in question. I advise putting advertising budget towards as many promotional channels as is feasible, as long as the channel does better than merely pay for itself.
Large metro areas typically have a handful of yellow pages books published by competing publishers, too, and you can’t predict which ones will be kept and used by your potential customers (some people throw away all old books in favor of whatever newest book appears on their porch, while others only keep one preferred brand). So, if your business is located in a small town, in general you should consider still advertising in the yellow pages.
Here in Dallas where I live, the Desi Yellow Pages and the Korean Yellow Pages appear to be very robust directories with highly engaged consumer groups. So, figure out your average customer demographic when deciding where to place your advertising dollars.
Attorney and restaurant ads are some obvious exceptions to this rule — those industries may perform better with larger ads. Avoid packages which bundle Internet YP with print YP, since the bundled package may be designed to fluff up the perceived value of a declining print product. This is iffy, though, and you have to carefully assess the indie book’s distribution numbers compared to the incumbent. So, if your business qualifies for inclusion in a specialty directory, you should seriously consider paying up to be in it. If you advertise in a book and you realize the referrals have declined too much for you to be profitable, then it’s time to pull your ads. Also, using multiple promo channels is healthier for a business than focusing everything in one — multiple lead generators make you less dependent on any one option. So, I believe that major metro area phonebooks are likely less valuable to advertisers in most cases. In smaller towns I’d be dubious as to the worth of advertising in an independent publisher yellow pages book at all.



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