"Yellow Pages is a phenomenally profitable industry," said John Kelsey, president of consultancy Kelsey Group. Print Yellow Pages last year recorded more than $11 billion in revenue, with average profits for publishers exceeding 40%, Mr. Kelsey said.
Now, dozens of online competitors, ranging from electronic versions of traditional Yellow Pages to aggressive startup companies, are vying for a piece of that pie-or, better yet, to make an even bigger pie.
DISPLAY ADS, HOME PAGES
But like so many other players on the Web, online Yellow Pages are still grappling with how best to generate real revenue.
Will it be display ads, as in print Yellow Pages? What about creating home pages for businesses? Or might online Yellow Pages simply be a loss-leader for other services, such as Internet access?
Kelsey predicts online Yellow Pages will be only a $400 million business by 2000, leaving many pundits predicting a shakeout.
"There is clearly going to be a shakeout in this marketplace over the next 18 to 36 months," said John Joseph, president of Ketchum Directory Advertising, Chicago. "Internet Yellow Pages is a marathon, not a sprint."
All the online directories are counting on at least some income from ad banners. But most see limited revenue potential from them.
"If you sell a regular banner ad [at a] general rate of $20 CPM . . . [and] are doing 3 million [page views a month], that's 60 grand. You're going run a business on that?" asked John Briggs, senior producer of Yahoo! Yellow Pages.
Since launching Yahoo!'s service last June, Mr. Briggs has worried less about revenue than about building traffic. The site now delivers "more than 20 million" page views a month, he said.
"I'm focusing on [reaching] 100 million page views. Then there's some money in it," he said.
Most other Yellow Pages sell custom Web pages to businesses.
BigBook gives away simple "fact-sheet" sites free to any business that fills out a form. So far, more than 30,000 have taken advantage of the offer, all of whom are upsell leads.
For more customized designs, leading national directories including BigBook, SuperPages, BigYellow and WorldPages charge $25 per month or more.
Even at those prices, Yellow Pages will need to convince thousands of businesses to buy Web sites before reaching profitability.
Nynex, which has been working online since the late '80s, has more than 10,000 advertisers on
BigYellow, said BigYellow President William Wise. Custom Web sites cost an average of under $50 per month.
GTE Corp. believes in offering its SuperPages directory as just one of a suite of related services, including Net access.
"If you give them a Web presence and you don't give them an e-mail address, it's like giving them a Yellow Pages listing and no phone number," said Pat Marshall, VP of GTE Information Services.
Another class of companies competing in the fray are so-called "private labels," which provide Yellow Pages database and search-engine services for other Web sites to present under their own brand names. Vicinity, for example, provides the actual Yellow Pages service for Yahoo! Yellow Pages.
The Holy Grail for online Yellow Pages may be thoroughly integrated electronic commerce, where a user's search starts with the online directory and ends in an online transaction.
BigYellow, for example, said it's shifting its business model from being a directory to a shopping service. It sells premier positioning to paying retailers.
Ultimately, finding the perfect revenue strategy may be less important at this stage than sheer stamina. In a marathon, the winners aren't always the fastest, but those with the best strategy.