Yellow Pages Still Thinking Backwards: Sues for the Right to Distribute in Seattle

Everyone here knows how much I hate the Yellow Pages. Not the company, per se; believe it or not, they have a growing and reasonably sophisticated online service which is very much what you’d expect from a modern directory service. Still, if you’re like most people these days, you almost never use a physical phone book for anything other than a door stop.

Seattle recently passed a law allowing consumers to “opt out” of receiving phone books at their doorstep. No sooner was it passed than a group of Yellow Pages publishers filed a lawsuit arguing that the distribution of phone books is protected under the first amendment.

The Wall Street Journal points out that the Yellow Pages companies may have a point, in a sort of abstract way, notwithstanding citizen’s rights to live free from junk mail, litter, and the cost and hassle of disposing of unwanted phone books. If Yellow Pages loses, the resulting “patchwork” of local ordinances regarding distribution will indeed be a nightmare for them to deal with. Smells like high potential for a long, wasteful legal battle.

At the end of the day, however, this should not have to come to a lawsuit. Dumping useless tomes on people’s doorsteps is a wasteful, invasive act regardless of whether you have the right to do it. It’s expensive, rude, and an offense to Yellow Pages advertisers who are footing the bill for a shotgun approach to reaching customers who could be much more targeted if Yellow Pages took the time to figure out who actually wants a print copy.

In their defense, the Yellow Pages Association has created a website (not yet fully functional) called “” which, come 2011, will supposedly streamline the opt out process without the need for municipal legislation. Unfortunately, the current state of the site makes “patchwork” seem optimistic: try it yourself here. and I find it very unlikely that it’ll work for multi unit apartment buildings like mine where the bulk of yellow pages delivered this year sat in the foyer for weeks.

Here’s my 2 cents worth of advice:

1) Yellow Pages companies should cancel all deliveries for 2011. Instead, they should mail an attractive letter to consumers, and call them up as well. It should announce the fabulous, value filled online resource for everything imaginable. Yellow Pages should brag about how up to date they are and what a thrill you’ll get by going online right now to look up deals and services in your area. People might even start using it instead of Yelp! It could be hip!

2) Yellow Pages should include in the mailing a nice little form offering the print edition to people absolutely free! They could increase conversions by offering a free coupon book if you opt in! A basic demographic survey could be included so Yellow Pages knows exactly who’s at what address.

3) Yellow Pages massively cuts printing and distribution costs and DOUBLES, hell, QUADRUPLES advertising rates because for once advertisers are getting to people who have willingly opted in, and whose demographics are now much better understood.

Rocket Science baby. Everyone Wins.

Nick Aster is a new media architect and the founder of has grown to become one of the web's leading sources of news and ideas on how business can be used to make the world a better place.

Prior to TriplePundit Nick worked for Mother Jones magazine, successfully re-launching the magazine's online presence. He worked for, managing the technical side of the publication for 3 years and has also been an active consultant for individuals and companies entering the world of micro-publishing. He earned his stripes working for Gawker Media and Moreover Technologies in the early days of blogging.

Nick holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio School of Management and graduated with a BA in History from Washington University in St. Louis.

9 responses

  1. but where else will I get my bbq kindling? Oh – all that junk mail I still receive even though I officially “opted out.”

    The phone book will soon go the way of the land line. Yellow Pages would do well to partner with a cell carrier to include a great functioning mobile app (with ads, of course). That’s all we really need. Trees? Saved. Frustrations? Saved. Hallelujah!

  2. The phone book i found stuffed in my mailbox this week went right into the recycling can. Never even made it into the house. What a waste of money and a slap in the face to the planet. Love, love, love this post.

  3. Although I do not use the yellow pages, and haven’t for years (or decades for that fact) I do have qualms with mandated an opt out service. By the same token, I do have qualms with a yellow page book plopped on my own private property.

  4. You’re not fully informing your readers about the lawsuit. It’s not just about the opt out option, its about the fact of the city of Seattle charging an arm and a leg to let the the publishers distribute to those that didn’t opt out. And as much as you believe that nobody uses the yellow pages anymore, it’s simply not true. Has usage gone down? Yes, but not nearly to the point that you are suggesting. If somebody came out with a new product today that was used as much as the yellow pages curretly are, they’d be praised as business geniuses.

    As far as the apps go that one of the comments mentions, most yellow page companies have apps that include all of the local search information that you need. I believe Yellow Book’s is in one of the top 10 downloaded on android.

    Bottom line, opt out is fine, but these cities like Seattle shouldn’t be allowed to charge the publishers tons of dough to distribute to those households that still want the book.

    1. Thanks for clarification – I didn’t get that info from the Seattle Times or WSJ either, so good to know – YP should make more mention of that fact.

      However, my point still stands that this should never have needed to go to court or provoke any ordinance. Business geniuses have already solved the problem – it’s called Yelp (and the many Yelp clones). The only reason those clones are not everywhere is just a matter of technological adoption. I think that if YP companies had been more proactive about seeing the inevitable and begun the process of identifying folks who didn’t want the phone books years ago, the cost and hassle and bad PR of these kinds of legal battles could have been avoided.

  5. Don’t miss the big picture, let someone mess with your Free Speech rights and tomorrow you’ll wonder why you have no freedoms, it always starts subtle and looks good…until it’s something YOU don’t agree with…The YP is still a $12 BILLION industry that supports a lot of LOCAL service business. I personally think city buses should be taxed and gotten rid of because I haven’nt ridden one in over 10 years, my friends don’t ride them and my family members don’t ride them, but common sense tells me that if every major city including LIBERAL Seattle thinks it’s worth spending millions on then I guess they are being used……$12 billion…..welcome to America press one for English!

    1. Huh? Whether or not dumping phone books on people’s front doors is a matter of “free speech” is subject to debate. But, yes, freedom of speech does give you the right to be a jerk. Is that what you’re talking about?

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