Mapquest arguably “owns” the mapping brand online. It has been the dominant mapping site for years by a wide margin. But that dominance may now be slipping under pressure from Google. Hitwise reports that “traffic to Mapquest has remained flat year on year and is down 20% in the past 6 months. Google Maps traffic is up 135% year on year and is up 7% in the past 6 months.”
According to Hitwise, after Mapquest, Google is the number two mapping site, followed by Yahoo and then Microsoft’s Live Local.
Hitwise’s Heather Hopkins argues that the traffic trend is based almost exclusively on Google referring search traffic to its own Maps product:
Google sends more of its own traffic to Google Maps than to Mapquest, a change that occurred last March. This can’t really be attributed to an increase in consumers looking for Google Maps. We can measure this through Internet searches. Searches for “google maps” have increased but the term “mapquest” receives nearly 10x the search volume.
The change is that Google is sending more traffic to Google Maps for high volume generic terms and for variations on the Mapquest brand name. Google sent more traffic to Google Maps for searches for “maps” this year compared with the same week last year. The same is true for “driving directions,” “map,” and “directions,” as well as variations on the Mapquest brand name, including “mapquest driving directions” and “map quest.”
Actually, the change probably occurred almost exactly a year ago, when Google stopped linking to both Mapquest and Yahoo Maps. Google issued the following official statement at the time: “Google is always working to improve search. The redesign of maps onebox better simplifies the Google user experience when looking for business and address information. Users will now be able to obtain directions and store their default location.”
While that’s certainly true as a practical matter, a number of people at the time raised the persistent question of Google’s neutrality vis-à-vis its own properties and third parties such as Yahoo Maps and Mapquest. The question of Google’s obligations to third parties and to “neutrality” goes to the heart of the debate over Google’s power and rising centrality in the online experience for many users. Indeed, yesterday Hitwise also reported that Google had reached a new market-share watermark of 66 percent of US searches for December, 2007.
When Google can offer a better user experience by more directly integrating its own products, should it refrain from doing so because of potentially negative impacts on third party competitors? This is a much larger and more complicated debate that I will refrain from pursuing at the moment. However, I wanted to raise the issue because it’s behind the mapping traffic discussion.
Yet the rise in Google Maps traffic may not simply be a function of the removal of links to competitors’ sites. As Barry pointed out in a post showing that Google Maps was a chief beneficiary of Universal Search, “Google Maps saw a 20% increase in traffic because prior to Universal search, Google only displayed map results for a very limited set of queries. Now, Google Maps results are far more common and take up to three of the seven web search results.”
Google Maps clearly benefits from the increased exposure and deeper integration into the Google search experience. But Google has also invested very heavily in Maps and has built a compelling product. Mapquest has argued for years that what users want out of online mapping is reliable maps and directions, and that they’re much less interested in some of the advanced mapping features that Google and Microsoft offer. I believe, however, that users are coming to expect more from online mapping as the products become richer and more broadly functional, and as users themselves become more sophisticated. Microsoft and Google have been in something of an arms race to transform mapping into a platform for the display and visualization of information of all types.
Hitwise says that “Mapquest” as a search query “receives nearly 10x the search volume” of Google Maps. Some might see this as evidence that Google is promoting its own property at the expense of the market leader. But the reality is much less black and white.
Google Maps is gaining from Google search referrals, and this may be the single greatest explanation for the traffic numbers cited by Hitwise. But Google has also integrated that product smartly into search results for an improved overall user experience. The company might still have seen the same or similar traffic growth had it opted to show OneBox/Universal Search results but maintain text links to Yahoo Maps and Mapquest at the top of the page, as it had done previously. We’ll never know. As I suggested above, however, I believe that Google Maps has also gained from considerable investment and product innovation, as well as the popular exposure those things have brought.
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Related Topics: AOL: MapQuest | Channel: SEO | Google: Business Issues | Google: Critics | Google: Maps & Local | Google: OneBox, Plus Box & Direct Answers | Google: Universal Search | Microsoft: Bing Maps & Local | Stats: Size | Yahoo: Maps & Local