Can the Yellow Pages Beat Google?

After reading that headline, you’ll be forgiven if you think that I’ve finally gone off the deep end (and I am not a particularly strong swimmer). But the venerable old Yellow Pages does have some distinct advantages over Google that have not been exploited, which I’ve shared with several regional Yellow Pages companies over the years. To my knowledge, these pearls of wisdom I’ve provided have been ignored, and the Yellow Pages businesses seem to be in a kind of decline shared by products like denture cleaner, whose customers just seem to keep dying off. (The nerve of them!) So, what advantages could the Yellow Pages possibly have over Google?

Clearly the advantage is not that fat yellow book that they throw on your driveway every year. A lot of people are getting upset that they have to recycle it when they get it, decrying the waste of paper. No, fewer and fewer people let their fingers do the walking each year, preferring to let their finger do the clicking instead. And when they click, they are clicking on search engines rather than on the Online Yellow Pages that our heroes set up to catch the Internet wave.

And this isn’t a new trend. Between about 2005 and 2008, I was asked by three different former monopoly phone companies that burning question, “How can we beat Google?” One of them was a regional U.S. phone operator (a Baby Bell), one was in Scandinavia, and I honestly can’t remember where the last one was. (The fun thing about aging is that you meet new people every day, regardless of how well they know you.)

Anyway, I had an answer for them that they were apparently not expecting—take advantage of your Yellow Pages operation. Instead of thinking of the Yellow Pages as this albatross of a printed directory that sucks a bit more profit out of your operation each year, start thinking of the relationships you have with every small business in the area. Most of them have no other marketing expense each year than placing an ad with you. They trust you to be their de facto marketing agency.

There’s no reason for you to avoid selling them a lot of different marketing services, ranging from prefab Web sites to SEO to just about any Internet marketing service you can think of. You have a sales force that calls on them anyway and they are certainly wondering what to do about this whole Internet thing. It’s a perfect opportunity.

And, even better, Google can’t do it. Google is left with trying to attract these millions of small businesses with no channel to them. Most of these businesses feel utterly unprepared to go online and Google’s self-service model that is so appreciated and successful with the savvy tech crowd is completely wrong for the busy small business owner whose only marketing decision last year was “quarter page or half page?”

And each of those companies that I confidently pitched this idea to told me the exact same thing: “That’s impossible for us. We’re selling that business to concentrate on higher growth areas.” I thought to myself, “You have fun with that.”

All this history was brought to mind when I saw the announcement yesterday that Gord Hotchkiss’ company, Enquiro, was acquired (that’s hard to say) by the biggest Canadian Yellow Pages provider. Gord’s a really smart guy and I’m excited for him, but I am even more excited about the possibility that someone is giving my idea a spin. (See, no matter how many other people thought of it, I am still going to call it my idea.)

Gord’s part of a new brand called Meditative that sounds like it is trying to be the Interactive agency for small businesses that formerly had no marketing outlet besides that venerable yellow book. So, here is wishing Gord and Meditative all the best. I for one will be very interested in watching this play out.

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