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Yellow Pages - paper or web?

Last Updated July 31, 2007

Did you receive a giant tome of yellow paper on your doorstep recently? Did you take it into the house and place it next to your phone or immediately dump it into the blue bin?

For more and more people, a printed directory of all the phone numbers of businesses and residents of a city is a bit of a relic, like calling the operator and asking for "KEnwood 4-3857."

And for some, even dialing a friend's number is something you should have to do once, at most. They store their numbers in cellphone address books, to be speed-dialed or voice-dialed later.

On some newer smart phones, this sort of convenience isn't even limited to the address book.

At the first live demonstration of the iPhone at an Apple convention in January 2007, for example, CEO Steve Jobs used Google Maps to search for a nearby Starbucks, tapped on the phone number and jokingly ordered 4,000 lattes to go. There was no need to jot down the number and then key it in.

Google is also actively researching voice search over cellphones, the idea being that you could dial a number, say what you're looking for and be connected immediately.

Looking to the future, it isn't difficult to imagine a system, similar to the web's domain name system (DNS), in which phone numbers wouldn't even be normally visible to the users. You didn't have to look up the IP number 159.33.3.85 and type it in to get to this website, did you?

It's not surprising that technologically savvy folks, from bloggers to Microsoft co-chair Bill Gates, have predicted that the phone book is going the way of the magneto crank telephone and the party line.

"The Yellow Pages are going to be used less and less," said Gates in May 2007 at Microsoft's Strategic Account Summit. "Yellow Page usage among people, say, below 50, will drop to zero — near zero — over the next five years."

Not so, says Yellow Pages Group

Not surprisingly, the Yellow Pages Group doesn't see it that way.

"As an industry, we do not agree with Mr. Gates's statement," said Annie Marsolais, spokesperson for YPG, which publishes phone directories across Canada, with the exception of Saskatchewan.

"The expectation is that print usage will be stable over the next five years. We are very far from the tipping point," Marsolais said.

"We do anticipate a bit of a decline, but something generational, not something that's going to happen overnight," she said.

Marsolais said use of the Yellow Pages print directory has remained steady over the last 10 years, with "seven out of 10 Canadians using the directory on a monthly basis."

She said that proportion increases to 74 per cent when both printed and online Yellow Pages directories are included.

"Some might be surprised that even the younger people use the print directories," said Marsolais. "It's just that they use it less frequently."

Telephone related features

CBC Archives

Another argument against printing telephone directories is their use of natural resources. YPG prints 30 million copies of its directories every year.

But the company has cut back on the number of printed books it produces. Marsolais said that while her company prints a new white pages directory every year, distribution of that phone book occurs only every other year.

YPG continues to distribute the Yellow Pages every year because, "small businesses need to work on their advertising program every year because they have changes in their services," said Marsolais.

There is some anecdotal evidence that suggests cities' white pages are shrinking as people start to use cellphones exclusively, without installing a land line at all.

"There are more and more cellphones out there. People have to pay to be in the phone book when they have cellphones," said Marsolais.

This raises the question of how useful the white pages will be in the future as more and more people aren't listed because of the type of phone they use.

Marsolais said YPG has no plans to allow people to opt out of receiving the phone directories.

"The print book is here to stay because there are advantages to the format," she said.

It's easier to compare different companies offering the same service in the Yellow Pages format, said Marsolais.

She also pointed out that it's easier to open up a book and flip to "plumbers" if you have a leak in your basement than to turn on a computer, connect to the internet and do a search.

But as computers become more ubiquitous and portable in the form of smart phones, solving that same problem may soon be as easy as pulling out a cell and saying "Google, plumber Riverdale."

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