June 26, 2005

Improbably, one of the best free and public resources on local search comes from the oft-neglected founders of the sector: the Yellow Pages.

LocalSearchGuide.org includes articles from industry experts, profiles on Internet Yellow Pages (IYP) sites and search engines, vertical directories, and other resources. This content-rich site, regularly updated, is sponsored and run by the Yellow Pages Association (YPA). Since when did the YPA get so savvy about local search?

There are many ways to answer that question, and Stephanie Hobbs, YPA vice president of marketing communications, offered a candid response in a phone interview.

Yellow Pages companies established the first IYPs in the mid-90s. Yet it was only well after the second coming of search engines that local search became hot again. "I'm not sure we came late to the party, but we were a little more apprehensive about joining the party," says Hobbs.

There is a secret that few people like to share regarding local search: It's very hard to do profitably. Thus, the spotlight shifts back to the Yellow Pages publishers. "When it comes to local content, you cannot find anything more robust than the Yellow Pages," says Hobbs. "We have the sales force and we have the relationships."

"People don't expect that from us," she points out.

It was the YPA's public relations firm, Young & Associates, which first brought up the idea of establishing a local search resource, and Y&A is credited as the editor of the Local Search Guide. Y&A saw the opportunity, the YPA - with a bit of convincing - bought into it, and this IYP resource emerged. (It reminds me of the lyrics from the old Allan Sherman song "Harvey and Sheila": "She shopped at A&P. He bought a used MG. They sat and watched TV on their RCA...")

One of the goals the YPA has with the Local Search Guide is to show how to price, sell, and prove value on the local front. Bringing local advertisers online is far harder than attracting consumers, who often are motivated to seek out local resources online.

"People don't look at IYP sites because they're bored," says Hobbs. "They're usually driven by life events - a new baby, graduation, a first house, and some not so happy life events as well. Driving consumers is not the issue."

There's a dance that takes place between what consumers want, what publishers think is most valuable to provide, and what matters to advertisers. For instance, consumers may have mixed perspectives on whether they need user ratings, but most would probably want to see hours, directions, and which credit cards are accepted. Publishers may want to roll out pay-per-call and build basic Web sites for advertisers, but the advertisers might not know how to manage those channels.

Hobbs says pay-per-call "seems like the next direction" for Yellow Pages sites. "Each of our publishers is looking at this," she notes. However, every new development is daunting in its own way. "Is [the next big thing] pay per call? Great. What comes after pay per call is the next question."

And all the while, the search engines and Yellow Pages publishers are figuring out how to cohabitate.

In Friday's MediaPost OnlineMediaDaily, an article by Shankar Gupta on SuperPages.com's redesign summed up the push and pull between the Yellow Pages publishers and search engines in a single quote from Robyn Rose, SuperPages.com's director of product and channel marketing. "We are in many ways taking the aspects that we admire in search engines and adding them into our site from a user perspective, in the same way that search engines are adding things from IYPs [Internet Yellow Pages] that they like," Rose says. In other words, it's symbiosis that benefits all.

Hobbs comments, "This is the beginning of what's about to happen... This arena changes daily. You see the announcements from our publishers almost daily, and there are only five big publishers out there."

Normally I like to close with something uplifting and pithy, but Hobbs was so good at distilling these big issues down to what matters that you should hear her take, from the YPA, on what's really fueling the interest in local search:

"They still know there's a lot of money sitting on the table, and at the end of the day, this is about marketing; it's about making money."

by David Berkowitz
Courtesy of http://www.mediapost.com

David Berkowitz is director of marketing at icrossing, a search engine marketing agency. He can be reached at david.berkowitz@icrossing.com.

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