Local Search: Competing All Over the Map

Google Maps, launched with AJAX functionality, draggable maps, and satellite imagery in late 2005, started an “arms race” in development of new features and functionality. The mapping features dev war has continued for the last 24 months, one of a handful of firestorms still raging in local search and online media.

Competitors — such as AskCity, Yahoo Maps and Microsoft’s Live Maps — have raised the bar with real-time traffic reports, multipoint routing, social features, geotagged video and images, personalization, and most recently, 3-D mapping.

MIA: MapQuest

In this flurry of product launches and press releases, the company that put online mapping, well, on the map, has been relatively quiet. Where’s MapQuest been? In terms of features: Map World 1.0. Conventional wisdom would say that’s been a competitive disadvantage. Paradoxically, MapQuest has maintained commanding market share lead while sitting on the sidelines of this feature war. Can 50 million people be wrong?

This changed recently when the company quietly released MapQuest Beta, the site that has many of the evolutionary features that Google Maps introduced in its launch two years ago, including draggable maps, satellite imagery, and one search box.

MapQuest Beta: Can 50 Million Unique Users Be Wrong?

What took so long? MapQuest has been very sensitive not to change its high-traffic generating, big brand name recognition formula. The MapQuest user base valued a comfort level with a brand, a domain, and a particular interface.

“We have 50 million monthly unique users, many of whom have been with us for over a decade, so you can imagine we don’t take a site redesign very lightly,” said Andrea Pearson, VP and GM of MapQuest.com.

MapQuest has long held that basic utility and functionality are valued more by consumers than bells and whistles. They may not be off-course. Users surveyed by the Kelsey Group in The Kelsey Group User View survey released in March, rated quality of information as the highest attribute of local search sources.

The MapQuest beta site arrived when the company could no longer hold out. A combination of user demand for the new features standard in online mapping — and the need to have a platform to evolve monetization strategies — brought the company out of the mapping 1.0 world.

“The decision to make the change came down to our users asking for a more control over the experience, such as the ability to alter routes to avoid highways or tolls,” Pearson said. “The old user interface, as loved as it was for the last decade, didn’t hold up as a framework for these kinds of rich features.”

Personalization and Future Monetization

The new platform will also allow users to enter locations and contacts that can be saved and personalized. This starts to bring the company down a path where it can more acutely target different forms of advertising.

“The monetization on the site today may be completely different a year from now if we realize traditional display ads and sponsored links are not the most efficient ways to monetize map related content,” said MapQuest SVP and GM Jim Greiner. “Maybe there is yet-to-be-discovered and higher yielding monetization within the map, so we’re exploring those options now.”

In this way there’s the possibility MapQuest, like many other local search sites including Citysearch, could increasingly move towards transactional or CPA (define) revenue streams that involve coupons, reservations, or appointment scheduling.

“A lot of the models of ad networks from AOL to Google are going to be moving towards CPA anyway,” Greiner said. “That right now is outside of the core competency of MapQuest but it could be adjunct or complementary to it.”

If the future of local search and mapping is CPA, then what mapping features will help local search engines generate and aggregate leads for advertisers? That’s the question we’ll answer next week in a special two-part feature on local search mapping wars. The feature dev arms race is escalating.

Up next: the competitor that burst out of the gates in 3-D: EveryScape beta and an exclusive chat with EveryScape CEO Jim Schoonmaker.

Note: Everyscape’s Jim Shoonmaker will be on an online mapping panel on day two of SES Chicago.

Join us for SES Chicago from December 3-6 and training classes on December 7.

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