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Am I an SEO Dog? More On Toasting of Internet Yellow Pages

Donna Bogatin apparently disagreed with my article at SEL entitled “Google Trends: Yellow Pages Will Be Toast in Four Years [1]“, posting a bit of a lurid headline herself: “Yellow Pages Trash Talking: The SEO Dog in the Google Local Fight [2]“.

I didn’t really think that my article was quite “trash talk [3]“, and I’m assuming from the article content that the “SEO Dog” referred to was perhaps myself, or perhaps the “dog” is my article conclusions, fighting for the ostensibly narrow viewpoint of all SEOs. Aside from the somewhat scathing disembowelment attempted, I thought it’d be informative for me to address some of the logic-faulty conclusions that were drawn.

(I confess, I’m actually pretty flattered to’ve received the treatment of the Bogatin rapier-pen, since I’m now in the august company of others who’ve also enjoyed it, including Jeremy Zawodny [4], Michael Arrington [5], Eric Schmidt [6], and others. Actually, I’d guess that my association with Danny Sullivan and Chris Sherman probably are more responsible for attracting Bogatin’s attention than any online presence I might have. While I might disagree with Bogatin on some conclusions she makes at times, she’s always had an eye for expressing or questioning what others might want to know, and I’ve frequently read her stuff.)

First in the headline of my article: yes, it’s a bit on the sensationalist or dramatic end of the spectrum. While my editors helped improve the title to make it more attention-grabbing (I’ve specifically asked them to do that, because they’re better at it than I), I think it pretty accurately conveyed the article content and I was satisfied with it. Yet, even if it was a bit dramatic, the article contents qualified it and put it in context, and headlines are supposed to get attention while accurately communicating what the article is about. The one downside of trying to keep the headline short and to the point was that a few folx misunderstood and thought I was referring to print yellow pages while the article was intended to be only about viability of traditional online yellow pages sites.

Donna attempts to dissect my motives in writing the article, suggesting that I intend to influence businesses to ditch purchasing yellow pages advertising in favor of using my firm, Netconcepts, to rank well in the search engines. If she had read my article on my blog just yesterday on SEO through Yellow Pages [7], she would’ve seen that I heartily recommend using yellow pages to drive traffic to local businesses. Further, my article was qualified — I didn’t predict outright extinction of local information companies, just that the way user behavior is changing would impact sites set up on traditional IYP format, reducing traffic to them over time until they’re nonviable in the “classic” YP format.

I don’t tout “free” natural search traffic over paid traffic. I’ve said a few times in various articles that I think a holistic approach of both paid and natural is likely best for most businesses. In fact, just in the past month I highlighted this in a post entitled “Should you buy search ads for your brand keywords? [8]

I did expect the article to potentially generate some level of controversy, because I was fully aware of how I was relating disparate pieces of information to come to a controversial conclusion. In fact, I acknowledged how loosely I was connecting dots in the article itself. But Bogatin’s criticism was based more on trying to interpret my motives and Search Engine Land’s motives as being suspect rather than posing any alternate theories as to what the declining numbers of searches for “yellow pages” might mean. She did criticize the basis of Google Trends data itself a bit, but only by quoting their legal disclaimer about accuracy of data.

I was rather hoping someone would focus more on the whole premise of whether a trend in Google searches for “yellow pages” should be taken as a trend in usage of IYPs. That’s the shaky piece of my article. The main supporting evidence I provided for that premise was a Hitwise blurb [9] from the Spring which says “Over the past year, the market share of US visits to the top 5 yellow pages sites has declined by 7%, while visits to the next-generation local search sites have increased…”

So, the trendline in Google seems be showing the same decline as actual usage of IYP sites, according to Hitwise analytics. Also, various reports show that Google has the bulk of search traffic, and, usage patterns in Google searches sometimes reflect overall societal trends to some degree.

As for being “Google-centric” and “Google-serving”, I’m on the record as criticizing Google a number of times, and I also have written glowingly of some of their stuff at other times. Search Engine Land overall does, too. We write on Google frequently, but that’s because there’s high traffic and high interest in Google. In fact, if writing about something “Google-Centric” is an indicator of a bias in favor of Google, Bogatin is far more of a shill than I am.

Are we trying to promote the SMX Local & Mobile Conference [10] in the next week? Certainly, but that alone didn’t cause me to write the article. We have weekly articles on local-oriented internet marketing, and this was just another one of those. IYP is a big piece of online local business, so it’s natural to address them from time to time.

I saw this very interesting trend in “yellow pages” searches, and the trend is undeniably downward. I’ve also observed user behavior patterns over time, and the improvements at all the top search engines, particularly Google, have seemed to encourage users to believe they can get just what they want from a single search box. As Google and the others push more of their own listing data into the search results pages, there’s maybe less reason for a user to go over to various speciality sites to search and find the same info. These were the primary drivers for my addressing this subject.

This article had been on my “ideas list” for a few months, and I only just got to it. Strictly coincidental timing, believe it or not. The guys at Search Engine Land had nothing to do with the subject matter I chose and didn’t have a clue what I was writing about until Sunday night. So, leave them out of it — there’s no big conspiracy involved. Our special weeks covering Local and Mobile in lead-up to the conference ended last Friday.

My work with Netconcepts as an SEO and software product manager do mean that I have a desire to promote our services, but neither my company nor I desire to provide any recommendations that would be inaccurate nor damaging to businesses. I think it would be irresponsible to recommend blanket-ditching of IYP and YP advertising in favor of natural search optimization. When I write articles, I aim for being accurate, logical, and objective.

I think it’s great to question and debate ideas based on their merits or evidence, rather than attempting to try to ignore possibly valid points by short-circuiting the discussion to construing motives not in evidence. That’s the disappointing part of Bogatin’s critique.

At Netconcepts, we’ve actually been recommending placement in yellow pages directories as a part of some of our clients’ search optimization programs. So, no big hidden motive to steal money from IYPs. The majority of our clients don’t even have local outlets.

Sebastien Provencher also took exception to the article’s title, refering to it [11] as “Traditional Media Bashing…” and “alarmist”. I think he’s right to some degree on those points — the title is undeniably dramatic.

But, I think he also underscores some of my reasoning by saying “…consumers search patterns are evolving and they are using these specific keywords less often. They might in fact be doing more precise local searches (plumbers new york, restaurants chicago, etc.) instead of generic ones…”. This is exactly what I’m talking about. Users are doing that, and they’re doing it in search engines. Some of those users then click through to yellow pages, but they’re not going directly to yellow pages as much as they used to be, and I think the Google Trend line is indicating this.

The title is dramatic, but so is the trend line:

Yellow Pages Usage Declining
(click to enlarge)

If you project it out like I did, it smashes against the zero line within just a few years. I can indeed see a few other ways to interpret that trendline outside of my admittedly opinionated conclusion. What are some of the alternate interpretations that you see for it?

methan 10 [12]