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BERKELEY HEIGHTS, N.J. ( TheStreet) -- Decades before "local search" was a term associated with Google ( GOOG) and Yahoo ( YHOO), the Yellow Pages have been a go-to source of advertising for small businesses and information for local customers. These days, more of the plastic-wrapped print publications tend to lie dormant on front porches while computer screens flicker inside. The Yellow Pages industry realizes this and is working to associate the brand with small-business Web searches. "Ten years ago, the market for local search was defined by the printed Yellow Pages, and that's not true today," says Neg Norton, president of the Yellow Pages Association, the trade group that represents Yellow Pages publishers, an industry worth more than $31 billion worldwide and $14 billion in the U.S.
There are still some 200 companies that print Yellow Pages directories, Norton says. The several iterations of the Yellow Pages in the U.S. include the R.H. Donnelley ( RHD) Dex, the AT&T ( T) Real Pages and the Superpages from Verizon ( VZ) spinoff Idearc, which stopped trading on the New York Stock Exchange last winter and filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the spring. This year, 39% of customers looking for business phone numbers used the Yellow Pages, down from 46% in 2005, according to data from Wiese Research Associates. "I don't think any of our companies have their head in the sand," Norton says. "We're seeing more than an erosion in printed Yellow Pages." To that end, the Yellow Pages Association is steering members toward the tools of the day: mobile devices, social networking and location-based Internet searches. (In addition to its printed directory business, AT&T also owns Yellowpages.com. Dex and Superpages also have an online presence.)
For instance, AT&T Interactive and Yahoo have a deal in which Yahoo's Yahoo Local division uses advertiser content from Yellowpages.com, and AT&T's ad salesforce sells Yahoo display space to local businesses. Yellow Pages Association member companies also are working on various ways to marry other companies' mapping applications with Yellow Pages directory information. Hopping all over the social networking trend, Superpages now has a page on Twitter, which lets users receive addresses and phone numbers via Tweets, a helpful tool if you don't mind that everyone else on Twitter can see the information you've requested. YellowPages.com is readying a local social-search tool as well. "In effect, we're becoming more like an agency, in that we're selling some of our own products, but we're selling with partners," Norton says, adding that many small businesses don't have the marketing savvy to determine the best course of online advertising. In order for small businesses to gauge whether advertising in the Yellow Pages is still worth it, many small businesses take advantage of a feature that lets them publish a URL or phone number that appears only in the Yellow Pages or on a Yellow Pages Web site. If a customer dials the number (or visits the URL), the call (or Web address) is automatically forwarded to the company's actual business number (or Web site), but the company can tell that the call is coming from a Yellow Pages search. -- Reported by Carmen Nobel in Boston.