Publishers, hold onto your hats and grab your digital cameras: it's looking like the next big battleground in the directory world is going to be visual.

All of a sudden, photos of businesses and buildings are red hot and getting lots of attention. Several months ago, infoUSA announced it had dusted off its mothballed project to photograph every business in America, and would be adding photos to several of its products, including its beefed-up business credit reports. CoStar, producer of a national commercial real estate databases, has a fleet of trucks running around the country snapping shots of every office building. Now,'s new search engine, A9, is generating big buzz with a yellow pages directory with photos of businesses. And, rising above them all is GlobeXplorer (a 2004 InfoCommerce Model of Excellence), which offers aerial photos of America and which are being integrated into several business database products.

Why pictures? Let's face it: directory and databases are very useful, but very useful is not always the same as very interesting. Adding photos makes a database more interesting. In some applications, a picture may well be worth a thousand words. In fields such as real estate, it's hard to conceive of a product without photos. Even in a credit report product, a photo of the business might provide valuable added insight.

But do photos add much to a yellow pages product? I took a quick spin through the A9 yellow pages to try to answer that question. When you do hit a photo of a business (and A9 only has coverage in selected areas right now), it's impressive. A9 offers you a series of snapshots around the business, so you can get a view of the whole street. In a great case of unintended product placement, more than a few of these photos seemed to be of UPS trucks parked at the curb and obscuring the storefront, but overall the project achieves one of A9's stated objectives, which is coolness.

The big question of course is "why?" Is the user better off for having access to these photos? A9 suggests photos help users more quickly get to stores by providing a visual cue in addition to the address. That's certainly valid (although the cost/benefit ratio seems a bit high), but there is a bigger issue. In many cases I would be staring at a well-composed photos of a business with no clue what it did beyond the general yellow pages category in which it was classified. Therein lies the rub: A9 is layering these neat and glitzy photos on top of a very weak dataset. Photos may distract users from the lack of information about the listed companies, but they don’t substitute for basic data.

A search for restaurants in downtown Philadelphia brought me lots of listings, all sporting name, address, phone and photos. Yet the photos, while novel and interesting, still don't tell me about cuisine, menu, hours, credit cards accepted, or any of the more mundane facts that are frankly more useful. When it comes to directories, photos without a strong underlying data record will never offer more than part of the picture.