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Murray, Utah. 84117

The Devolution of the Phone Book


As the year draws to a close, many people feel a natural tendency to look back to reflect on the past. In that sense, I want to take a look at what was previously the central hub of local marketing – the phone book. It was the fundamental tool that fueled both commerce and social interaction for decades. Let’s take a brief look at the history of the phone book for some context.

The first phone book, or “telephone directory,” was issued February 21, 1878 in New Haven CT, a city of about 150,000 inhabitants at the time. It was printed on a single piece of cardboard, and it contained the telephone listings of 50 people and businesses that had telephonic communication abilities. A mere 43 years after its modest inception, print phone book circulation surpassed a million copies in Manhattan alone, and that number spiked by six times just 5 years after that. During the course of the following century, the phone book developed into a vital resource for businesses and the communities they served.

Then a change occurred with the advent of the internet and the coming of the digital age, altering the landscape of local business marketing forever.

As everything moves from print to digital, the printed version of the phone book just becomes less and less relevant, often left outdoors to sit in the rain while people rely more and more on the web and mobile to find information. We’ve all seen rain-soaked phone books abandoned on door steps in our own neighborhoods. Instead of using the phone book to find businesses, people simply search for them online instead.

This massive transition from searching in the phonebook to searching online leads many small businesses to assume that once they get a website running and they are golden. Sadly, many business owners learn the hard way that just setting up a website isn’t enough to sustain their business. They struggle to know how to proceed when the printed phone book is no longer sufficient and simply publishing a website isn’t good enough either.

The key element they forget in all of this is the power of local search. What do we mean by local search? Well, internet search engines don’t treat all searches the same. They know where a search is coming from, and they attempt to direct the results to a business nearby. The problem comes when a small business, without knowing any better, tries to rank on national terms instead of local terms. As a result, they compete with tens of thousands of businesses for attention online instead of a few local businesses in their neighborhood.

The good news is that small business can succeed online as well as any other major brand. As business owners, we need to understand the importance of local search and we need to put in the effort required to build our reputations online. Otherwise, we run the risk of going straight from the doorstep to the trashcan.