How Yellow Pages Group found its way forward with big data

What happens on the company’s network may become far more important to its future than what gets printed and bound

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If you’ve ever had a hard time visualizing the concept of “big data,” just think about the massive phone books Yellow Pages Group has been dropping at your door.

With a highly organized listing of business categories, names, addresses, telephone numbers and in some cases detailed advertisements, the Yellow Pages is the kind of information resource that in many ways predated the Internet. Over the past few years, however, the company has realized that what may be far more important for its future lies not with what runs over a printing press but what runs through across its network.

Speaking at the recent Big Data Innovation Summit in Toronto, YPG’s IT director, Advertiser & Consumer Analytics Richard Langlois, explained how corralling unstructured information can bring more value to the firm’s ad clients as well as consumers.

“Some people say we’re obsolete, we’re dead,” he said, noting the rise of Google and local search services like Yelp which have encroached on its core audience. “The difference now is that we’re like a startup, but with a brand-name that is known by anyone. I feel the urgency of converting to digital.”

Some of Yellow Pages Group’s big data initiatives are already paying off. Langlois pointed to the 6.5 million downloads in Canada of its mobile app and the 7.3 million monthly online users that take advantage of its services. Beyond that, however, Langlois and his rapidly-growing team are working on two major big data projects that are critical to the company’s business plan.

YP Analytics, for instance, is a dashboard that can be used by its ad customers to illustrate the performance of its products. The data customers gain access to includes details about visitors, visits, page views and interactions on the YP network, while also tying into activities back at a merchant’s own Web site or even its Facebook fan page.

Langlois said Yellow Pages Group recently insourced the YP Analytics application from a provider based in California to Ontario, which allowed the team to optimize the processing time so that information can now be delivered 32 times faster than before.

Perhaps even more critically, YPG has been developing an internal analytics tool to assess the behaviour of customers across its digital properties so it can optimize and enhance the overall experience.

“If you don’t find your gas station, if you don’t find whatever it is you’re looking for, it’s not going to work,” he said. “Content accuracy and relevance are our cornerstones.”

If YPG is successful, it may emerge as one of the best case studies of an organization that faced so-called digital disruption head-on and won.

At its core, the company’s key asset remains the same — its ability to take unstructured data about business contacts, location and services and package it into a form that’s accessible and free. What’s different is that analytics tools running over its network provide far greater ability to understand how people use its products and continuously improve them. There wasn’t a lot to be learned from watching someone flip through the printed Yellow Pages, but the way consumers scroll through listings on their smartphone or even via the desktop becomes a new product: insights for its advertisers.

There’s a lesson here for all kinds of Canadian companies who will need to invest in the network infrastructure, applications and talent that can reposition them to respond to changes in customer behaviour. In Langlois’ case, what started as a team with less than two hands has evolved into a complex team of DBAs, solution architects and data scientists. Despite the work done to date, he said he feels like he’s just getting started.

“Now that I can walk, I want to run,” he said. As he speeds up the momentum on these projects, there will be untold numbers of companies across the country who will benefit. If you’re not sure who they are, just look in the Yellow Pages.


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