A new enhancement from giant Canadian yellow pages publisher Yellow Pages Group caught my eye this week. It seemed to promise a live concierge service for users. You pose a question, such as "I'm looking for a good Chinese restaurant in Toronto," and you get a real-time response.

I surfed over for a look at the new feature, called "Yellow Pages Answers." Immediate disappointment. Here's still another publisher that simply grafted a social networking capability onto its database, with no apparent understanding of the fundamental dynamics of either social networking or yellow pages publishing.

First and foremost, social networking demands engagement, and that in turn usually means shared interests or some other compelling reason to participate and remain involved. Are there really people who find it cool, fun or interesting to be part of a community of yellow pages users? What shared interests do these millions of users who are doing quick information lookups have? Would you trust their recommendations?

Equally important, yellow pages is what I like to call a "point of purchase" medium. You only use the yellow pages when you want something, usually immediately. Submitting a question where you have to keep checking back for an answer, which might never come, is antithetical to the yellow pages raison d'être. The only people inclined to respond promptly are those with vested interests (owners of Chinese restaurants in Toronto, using my earlier example), or people with way, way too much time on their hands.

If Yellow Pages Group had launched a real concierge service that used it own staff to provide immediate answer, I'd be impressed. Certainly there would be lots of issues for an advertising-based medium to make recommendations, but at least there would be real user value. But encouraging your users to make vendor decisions based on recommendations from strangers comes with plenty of issues as well, not the least of which is how does this help my advertisers?

I hold up Yellow Pages Answers not to ridicule it but as an example that while social networking tools have their place and can be powerful and valuable, just because you can graft them onto your website doesn't always mean you should.

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