The Phone Book Returns

I have been doing tech work on microcomputers since 1981, and I was an early pre-Internet user in high school. I was thrilled with the very early omni-useful USENET; I was using Veronica to search Gopherspace, when it was much larger than the World Wide Web. Lycos and multiple others became my friends as they arose. Google was wonderful, I could find anything, or very close. But lately, there has been a change.

My sweet wife Lori and I needed a common, essential, but not everyday homeowner’s service. (I won’t say which one, because it doesn’t matter.) We live in Topeka, Kansas, USA, a small city of about 175,000 including environs, plenty services of all kinds, a very well-established and well-governed multicultural community in my opinion. For quite a few years now, I have successfully relied on Internet searches for findings of all general kinds, Google, and DuckDuckGo, and Bing my third. But for this essential service, none of the three came up with anything.

And Sweet Lori, independently, after her own very proficient and different web searches came up identical, found in our newly arrived and surprisingly big phone book:

that our needs were easy to meet, in no time flat she had what we needed. I was appalled. The phone book led me to the company’s web site. I did some pleasant looking and backchecking online at her request. But the chain was broken.

Immediately after, I did some quiet asking of certain experienced friends. They all reported similar experiences.

It turns out that our phone book today is very well done. Yellow and white pages as of auld, but text considerably more crisp and less smudgy than I remember, pages a tad more durable. I flipped through a number of pages, and found more companies I would have wanted to find in searches done over the last year. Companies I had not found on Angie’s (I have been a happy paid-up member for years!) and Yelp and multiple others, new and mature.

So finally we come full circle. There were quite a few years in which I found considerably more on the first pages of web-searches, than were in the phone book, on any search; I lost count of how many times I gently told friends that I had found their local unfindable using one free global web search or another. I don’t know if days like those will return, but things are very different right now. There are no true search-it-all systems anymore on the free Internet.

This is probably because when they existed, they were in fact not profitable, or at least, nowhere near as profitable as their IPOs promoted and as investors were at least willing to claim to believe. Once the power plays worked through, once “potential” profit had to be replaced with the real thing, the search engines were reengineered. They now deliver the content that the profit-takers need the searchers to see, in order for profit to be taken as directly as possible. Less and less can we do an easy and fast and free general web search to learn something new, to find a retailer we have never heard of, to find something entirely new to ourselves and everyone else we know well. More and more we are spoonfed what the machines think we might pay for, which when tracking exists, always includes what we have already just paid for; and then as we try to go deeper into searches, increasingly we are presented with total irrelevance. It costs these search engine companies a most carefully studied quantity of money to send us any page, so they don’t really have any motivation to do otherwise.

Maybe, because of this, it’s finally the right time for local web directories based in our own local communities, and quality topic-specific search systems put up by research and educational entities who are interested in seeing their areas of expertise furthered. I’ll think that municipalities who want their businesses to be found, will probably go this route in the moderately near future; this would also be a very good thing for any very living Chamber of Commerce. The research and educational systems have already started this. But for right now, for many needs, the phone book is sure nice to have around.