Yell Hammers Yellowikis

Just back from a week’s vacation, and in the process of catching up, saw a couple of items online regarding Yell’s (U.K.) recent legal action against Yellowikis, which bills itself as an online Yellow Pages directory built on a wiki platform. Here is one item we found that discusses the action. The essential claim is that Yellowikis is somehow "passing itself off" as being associated with Yell.

The tone in this piece and others I’ve seen got me thinking about media coverage of the Yellow Pages industry in general. And frankly, a lot of it stinks.

Much of the coverage on this story embraces the "killing a gnat with a hammer" angle, suggesting Yell is being challenged by a digital David to its analog Goliath. Yellowikis isn't exactly Google, so the "bully" angle is easy to understand. It's pretty easy to take Yellowikis' side here. The fledgling directory is soliciting legal defense funds on its Web site, if that tells you anything.

Still, what gets to me is how so much of the analysis I've seen on this story, and on so many others related to the directory business, lacks perspective or even a sound basis in fact.

For one thing, Yell is not as far behind in its online product development as the coverage implies. The suggestion that Yell is a purely paper relic trying to crush a virtuous upstart Internet player is a good example of the boilerplate analysis we tend to see about this business.

Also, Yell’s zealous guardianship of its brand appears insufficiently appreciated in much of what I have read. Yell claims U.K. rights to the brand "Yellow Pages," and as it faces a growing list of competitors in its home market (its largest operations are actually now in the U.S.), this is a clear competitive advantage for Yell. The recent filings from the U.K. competition commission revealed that U.K. regulators briefly considered making "Yellow Pages" a generic brand as a means of fostering competition. The idea was not pursued, but its mere consideration must have unnerved Yell brass.

Yellowikis has not proved itself an immediate threat to Yell’s business model. Over time, who knows? We are certainly not sanguine about the prospects of the print product as a category. The industry has suffered wounds, many of them self-inflicted. The future is hardly certain.

What I see a lot of in coverage of this industry, particularly in online media and in much of the blogosphere, is best described as the "me and my five best friends don’t use print Yellow Pages, therefore no one does" school of analysis. A colleague once described this kind of lazy and narcissistic substitute for legwork as "me-search." A pretty fitting term I think.

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