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The Yellow Pages Association released new usage data showing that U.S. print directory usage was stable in 2007 at 13.4 billion print lookups, while online directory references climbed 15 percent, from 3.3 billion searches in 2006 to 3.8 billion in 2007. Combined, U.S. Yellow Pages usage was therefore 17.2 billion searches in 2007, a 3 percent increase.

Last year the YPA reported a 7.6 percent decline in print lookups, the second biggest drop since usage has been measured. The methodology used to measure usage is such that a big one-year swing may not be as significant as the trend over time.

One ongoing question is whether there is a floor for PYP usage, based on the limits of Internet penetration and the advantages of PYP, at least in certain categories. The pattern over time has generally been periods of stability followed by periods of decline. So rather than a single floor, there may be a series of floors as the mix of users and media choices evolves over time.

Ultimately, the declines in usage experienced over the years are dependent on a few factors, some of which are within the control of publishers, while others are not. Publishers cannot control the emergence of new technologies that supplant the print product (though many have embraced them), nor can they alter the demographic mix of users, or changes in retail patterns. Publishers can affect the outcome by investing in their products, promoting them, maximizing their usability and content, and improving distribution.

The fact that online is growing gives publishers a good story to tell, assuming advertisers, investors, the media and other audiences are receptive to the multi-channel argument. We suspect many of these constituencies will continue to evaluate the health of Yellow Pages based on the health of the print product, which makes it all the more critical for publishers to invest in and promote their core product. All that while competing effectively online against a growing array of very smart and nimble competitors. No one can say Yellow Pages CEOs won’t have to work for their money, but their task is achievable.

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