Posted by: patenttranslator | March 15, 2015

Is It a Good Idea to Advertise in the Telephone Book in the Age of Internet and Smartphones?


It is that time of the year when new telephone books hit the driveways in front of the porches in my neighborhood. Because some people don’t seem to bother to pick them up quickly enough, when it rains they sometime slide down the driveway into the rectangular openings created in the curb for rain water and the phone books may, much to my dismay and no doubt that of the ducks and geese too, end up floating in a pond behind our house.

Here in the Norfolk-Virginia Beach-Chesapeake area of Eastern Virginia, with about 800,000 inhabitants in the southern part, about a million and a half including the surrounding areas, the size of Yellow Pages, which are in a separate book here, has been shrinking every year. At this point they have about a third of the thickness they used to have 14 years ago when we moved here.

In the age of Internet and smartphones, the pool of customers who still need and use printed Yellow Pages is shrinking every year. I gave my own children their first cell phone when they were about 12, and now that they are in their mid twenties, they probably have only a vague idea what the term “Yellow Pages” originally meant, unless we are talking about listings on Internet accessible from their smart phones (I thank God that I don’t have to pay for their phones anymore)!

I always pick up my own copy of Yellow Pages, which is free to subscribers with a fixed phone line, as soon as I see it there on the driveway and the first thing I do is look for my local competition under Translators & Interpreters, located between Transit Lines and Transmission. (Transit Lines, whatever that means, has only 1 listing, while Transmissions has 3.5 pages, if I include 2 full-page advertisements).

There were only three listings for Translators & Interpreters in my Yellow Pages last year and the year before, and I see only three modest (and thus least expensive) listings in the phone book there also this year, the same ones as the last year and the year before. Two of them are translation agencies in Virginia Beach, one of them is a translator, also in Virginia Beach. Judging by his name, he could be German, and judging by the fact that he does not seem to even have a website, he could be an older guy who may be retired or semi-retired at this point and who may be using translation mostly to supplement his other income.

But these are just my assumptions, and they could be wrong.

Somebody from one of these two agencies, I forgot which one, sent me an e-mail last year. They had a job for me, which I would have gladly taken, but the problem was, they needed the translation next day and when I called them from my cell phone I was anxiously awaiting a towing service in downtown Washington DC because I somehow got a flat tire. So I never got to know the agency, and they never got to know me either. Two ships passing in the night as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow put it. The image is so powerful that I feel compelled to take the liberty of including the relevant passage in my silly blog post today:

“Ships that pass in the night and speak each other in passing;
Only a signal shown and a distant voice in the darkness;
So on the ocean of life we pass and speak one another,
Only a look and a voice; then darkness again and a silence.”

I remember that when I lived in San Francisco in the eighties and early nineties, there were many pages of advertisements from translation agencies in my local Yellow Pages every year, including a small listing for my services. It was worth the money then, but it is probably not worth it now as I wrote in this post already five years ago.

It makes much more sense for translators to have a website that can be easily found by Google and other search engines. It is cheaper than a listing in Yellow Pages, and the range of potential customers includes not only people who live in your local area, but potentially the entire planet.

I thought it would be interesting to take a look at the types of businesses that still put a lot of money into advertising in printed Yellow Pages in 2015 in my area.

The traditional types of businesses which, unlike translators, have to rely on a base of local customers, still account for the majority of businesses listed and heavily advertising in local Yellow Pages.

These businesses include:

1. Lawyers
2. Dentists
3. Restaurants
4. Plumbers
5. Movers
6. Funeral services
7. Storage facilities

1. Lawyers’ services in particular are advertised more than any other service in my local Yellow Pages. They are listed under several categories:

53 pages under “Attorneys”, 33 pages under “Lawyers”, and 2 pages under “Counselors” for a total of 88 pages.

2. Dentists finished at the second place, although it was a distant second, with 18 pages.

3. Physicians can be found on 16 pages in my local Yellow Pages.

4. Restaurants are listed on 11 pages, but because there are only a few advertisements on these pages, a lot of restaurants are covered.

The problem that sales managers who try to sell listings in Yellow Pages to local businesses have these days is that as more and more businesses put more and more money and effort into other types of advertising, especially marketing on the Internet, is that if Yellow Pages stop listing businesses that are no longer willing to pay for it, the listings in the phone book will be perceived as incomplete by local inhabitants who know about these business and don’t understand why they can’t find them in their Yellow Pages.

I was wondering whether my business would simply disappear completely from my local phone book when I finally stopped paying for a listing, despite the ominous warnings about the consequences of such a foolish act from the sales rep.

But the listing did not disappear, although I no longer pay for it. Instead, it was only put in the wrong category – and whether it was done on purpose, or simply through ignorance, I will never know. is now listed under Patent Agents in my local Yellow Pages, between Patches, which lists only one business called ARTISTIC IMPRESSION (I have no idea what exactly it is that they do), and Patent Attorneys – which comprises only one listing of only one firm in Virginia Beach.

So because I am still listed there, and this time in the wrong category, every month I get to talk to several people who have a great idea about something that they would like to have patented – if it does not cost too much. They think that I am patent agent because the Yellow Pages told them so.

I don’t really mind too much, I just explain to them that all we do at PatentTranslators (I always use pluralis majestatis, although I do most of the work myself) is translate patents from foreign languages, rather than translating ideas and designs into applications that can be filed with the US Patent and Trademark Office.

If they ask me for a recommendation for the kind of service that they are looking for, and about a quarter of them do that, I give them the website of a patent agent in Southern California who, as a customer of mine, agreed to talk to budding inventors who are looking for a patent agent.

I seem to remember that when I was still paying for a small paid listing in the Yellow Pages, it was about 80 dollars a month, or about a thousand dollars a year. After about 7 years I pulled my listing because it never even paid for itself.

It was not a good investment for my type of business, namely translation specializing in patents and technical articles and documentation, because there are no local customers for this type of translation from foreign languages where I live.

Your experience may be similar or different, depending on what it is that you translate and where you live, but I feel that I did the right thing by pulling the plug on Yellow Pages years ago.


  1. This post made me laugh somewhat bitterly because getting our number in the local Yellow Pages here in South Florida was One.Single.Most.Stupid.Idea this extremely introverted, telephone-hating translator ever got. It happened during a very hot summer many years ago, and it was one of those “blond moments” I like to attribute to melting brain. Aside from wasting money, the consequences were catastrophic. Sales calls day and night, sometimes in languages we cannot comprehend. Weird (and I mean super-weird) calls day and night. Occasional unexpected visitors, like two very sad unregistered aliens from Ecuador clutching some sort of birth certificates in their hands (OK, the listing was a bit vague, but still. How did they track our address? Mind boggles.). Calls from jail, after 2 a.m. It has been 14 years, and it still sometimes happens. Unless you work locally, have your office separated from your home and love talking on the phone to deranged strangers, please don’t do it 🙂


  2. Sounds funny and really scary at the same time.

    The worst thing that happened to me based on my listing in Yellow Pages was when a cop called me one day because he found an old Russian lady wandering the streets of Virginia Beach who did not speak any English. When he found out that I did speak Russian, he put her on the phone and I explained to the cop that this lady was visiting her daughter in VB and somehow got lost when she ventured out of her daughter’s place.

    Unfortunately, the Russian lady did not know her daughter’s address, and she did not even remember her married name. I am describing this in one of the posts linked above.

    Needless to say, the cop never mentioned anything about payment when I gave all this information to him in English. Like so many people, he simply assumed that translators work for free.

    This episode hastened my decision to pull the plug on the ad in my local Yellow Pages.


  3. Yellow Pages? No, thanks.

    Nowadays all a translator needs is a website and an email on it. Unlike lawyers, who arrogantly display their names and education, translators should be humble and self-effacing 🙂


  4. “Unlike lawyers, who arrogantly display their names and education, translators should be humble and self-effacing :)”

    You mean like you?


  5. It is about the status symbol! Once you make it into the yellow pages, you are in the big time, like the fancy lawyers. Nothing else matters.


    • Anyway, the www internet is just a passing fad and who really needs a web site?


  6. Anyway, the www internet is just a passing fad and who really needs a web site?

    Translators and hookers.


  7. The three oldest professions. 3.translation 2. interpretation 1. Hookers.


  8. But Shakespeare never said “First, we kill all translators”, did he?

    At least we have that much going for us.


  9. “At least we have that much going for us.”

    You don’t expect Shakespeare to solve translators’ problems, do you? I myself think it’s up to us, translators, to do the job. Why hasn’t that happened so far? Because there are NO translators or, at least, not enough to oppose the agents’ army.


  10. Dear Steve,

    Nice post 🙂
    From late nineties to beginning of 2000’s, I happened to work for Egypt Yellow pages, as a full-time translator/proofreader; Back then, Print was going on fine and sales where booming (coz for some companies, it is good to be there, not coz of potential clients or revenue expectations; and thanks to some hell of sales people who were working for the company), but then one day, our Managing director, who was a brainy Canadian maverick figured out that it is a matter of time for the paper directory, so he gradually focused his attention to CD’s, maps, tourist area specific directories, restaurant directories, medical directories..Etc, later on he shifted the paradigm shift from print to online banners, listings, affiliation..Etc, and that’s what the sales hounds were after since then.

    Directories are good and handy in offices in front of the receptionist and serves a good reference for names of government authorities for instance!, but for the rest of the world, it is WWW.

    There are companies who are still there only because their competition is featuring there, so they don’t want to be left out, they need to rub shoulders with the players!

    Hence, Directories have not died out completely. Their time has not come as yet.


  11. Well put, M.N.


  12. […] It is that time of the year when new telephone books hit the driveways in front of the porches in my neighborhood. Because some people don’t seem to bother to pick them up quickly enough, wh…  […]


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  14. I live on the small French island of Reunion, and maybe it’s because it’s an island but Yellow pages is quite effective here. When I first started out as a full-time translator I remembered that when I worked in an office I always turned to Yellow Pages (first the paper version, then in later years the online version) whenever I needed some business service and didn’t know where to look, and I (correctly) assumed my future clients would too. There are 16 translators listed here (for an island population of about 850 000), none of whom are translation agencies, and three of us pay extra to be on top of the list. It costs me about $500 per year and easily pays for itself. I don’t get crank calls either!


  15. Thanks for your comment, Catharine.

    I remember where you live since you commented once on my post a few years ago. And thanks for tweeting my silly posts!

    As they say in real estate, it’s all about location, location, location.

    If I move to Reunion, I will put an ad in the Yellow Pages and try to take as much French translation business away from you as possible!


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