Telephone operators BellSouth Corp. and AT&T Inc. unveiled their improved online directory, Yellowpages.com LLC, on Thursday, going head-to-head against Internet heavyweights Google Inc. and Yahoo Inc.
BellSouth and SBC Communications Inc., now part of AT&T, joined together last year to buy Yellowpages.com and combine their own telephone directory services for an online service.
Phone companies have long been the key providers of local business information directories that are traditionally printed on yellow paper.
"This is a significant milestone for us -- and the industry -- as we remain dedicated to providing the most logical source for advertisers and consumers who are increasingly searching the Internet for local information, said Charles Stubbs, president and CEO of Yellowpages.com, in a statement.
But the once sleepy market is emerging as a key battleground as major Internet firms see local search as a way to move beyond traditional Web search by helping people find details of businesses such as nearby restaurants and shops.
One analyst said he believed that Yellowpages.com may have an edge over Web rivals in local search because they already have up-to-date databases with local information and a long-standing presence in local markets.
"I think you're going to see a neck-and-neck battle between Yellowpages.com and the search engines, but the search engines are going to be trying to catch up," said David Goddard, an analyst at publishing research firm Simba Information.
"Google and Yahoo are not anywhere near having the kind of database that a yellow pages publisher already has," he added, also noting that Yellowpages.com is an easy Web address for consumers to remember.
Yellowpages.com said the revamped site has new, more powerful search capabilities. For example, consumers can search by key word, business name or business type and refine their results by expanding or narrowing their searches.
For now, Yellowpages.com expects to compete with Yahoo and Google. But Goddard said it makes sense for the two camps to work together eventually.
"One way or another, what you have here is one company that has the traffic, the other that has the database. Different agreements are going to happen over the years," he said.
SBC Communications is also expected to replace the "SBC" trading symbol with AT&T's "T" symbol as the stock market opens on Thursday.