Blood On The Yellow Pages

Competition heats up to put the directories on the Web

Kris Hagerman, 31, wants to revolutionize the $10 billion yellow-pages market. On Feb. 26, his company, Big Book Inc., will launch a service on the World Wide Web listing addresses, phone numbers, and business descriptions for 11 million U.S. businesses. It will also let viewers assign quality ratings to merchants as a guide for fellow shoppers, find stores within a specified radius of any location, and scan in-depth cultural guides to major cities.

Sounds revolutionary, right? But just to survive, Big Book will have to hit the ground running. A major battle is breaking out in the nascent online yellow-pages market. U S West Inc. has just launched a Web-based directory of businesses in the Boulder (Colo.) area, the first of a series it plans for 14 states. In March, Nynex Corp. will add new technology to its Web-based national yellow pages and start a major sales push. In April, GTE Corp. plans the official launch of its national SuperPages directory, also on the Web.

The stakes could be huge. These directories may be the future gateways to all kinds of electronic commerce services. And they could serve as the on-ramp into cyberspace for the country's 9 million small businesses. "We want to wire small-business America to the Web," says Deverix A. Horn, director of new media programs at GTE Directories Corp. "It's a massive opportunity."

The cost to merchants will vary widely. Big Book will let merchants list several pages of text about themselves at no charge. For revenues, it will sell space to national advertisers. GTE plans to charge listers $300 to create a simple Web display within its directory, plus $50 a month for "hosting" the data in GTE's computers. Nynex will also charge merchants to list, but those who pay premiums will get top billing when a Web surfer calls up a list of, say, pizzerias in Pasadena.

LOGOMANIA. The new directories will also compete on supplemental services. GTE will let consumers send E-mail--and perhaps faxes--to merchants in a particular business category--asking, for example: "Do you have the Acme ray gun in stock?" Meanwhile, all the yellow-page providers are scrambling to get their logos prominently displayed at the Web's most popular sites, such as Web directories and Netscape Communications Corp.'s home page.

Electronic yellow pages will never help a child reach the dinner table from a grownup's chair. But if Big Book and others have their way, many adult consumers could soon be letting their mouse, not their fingers, do the walking.

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