People have been speculating about it for weeks and now it’s live: MapQuest Vibe. With the launch of the new neighborhood-discovery site MapQuest is striking out in a promising direction. It’s not a new social network, as some speculated, but it incorporates social input into a larger algorithmic-based framework that generates a score for nearly every neighborhood in the US, as well as local places.
MQ Vibe is launching with 50,000 neighborhoods to start.
The idea is certainly compelling: to rank various neighborhoods and local businesses as a way to help residents and tourists (and maybe house/apartment hunters) quickly understand what’s good and what’s interesting about places. Conceptually I like what MapQuest is doing although the first “iteration” isn’t necessarily going to win a lot of converts from Google Maps.
Ever since Google dethroned MapQuest as the top mapping site more than a year ago AOL has been searching for ways to renew its venerable property — which still has a stronger mapping brand than Google Maps — and regain lost momentum. Among other things MapQuest embraced an “open” strategy, launched a Local Business Listings Center and introduced transit and walking directions.
MQ Vibe is generally intuitive and offers an easy to use UI that allows people to zoom in or zoom out on a grid of neighborhoods. It’s designed for browsing rather than searching, though search will become available. The general idea is to more efficiently get to “best of” and “best places” but also to facilitate a kind of serendipitous discovery that largely doesn’t happen on Google Maps.
I like the visual nature of the site, including the images associated with each of the neighborhoods. But there are things that MapQuest can do to tighten and clean up the UI. It feels very much like a work in progress. For example, the map and related listings are entirely obscured below the fold if you’re viewing the site on a laptop. In addition AOL has reserved a perhaps too-generous skyscraper area on the right for advertising. But these are all things that can be tweaked and refined.
The concept is valid and I’m hopeful that MapQuest can create a really useful site that delivers on the promise of “local discovery,” a project that has generally shifted to mobile apps (e.g., Foursquare, Bizzy, Alfred, Where, etc.).
Numerous online sites in the past tried, and almost without exception failed, to make good on the “hyper-local” effort that MapQuest is pursuing. For example, EveryBlock was an attempt to compile data and information at the neighborhood level but there was no business model until the site sold to MSNBC. Since then it has become a community and local discovery tool similar to what MapQuest is attempting with MQ Vibe. (There are numerous other examples of good hyper-local concepts that have essentially failed in execution.)
MQ Vibe users can mouse over neighborhoods or individual business pushpins to get more information about a place, including its ranking. The site also solicits feedback from users and will incorporate that as part of its ranking algorithm. Of course Facebook is used here, right now to generate exposure for MQ Vibe (and because it’s becoming the de facto “identity management” platform online). However over time MQ Vibe can and will do more with social data.
In the major advantages column, MapQuest doesn’t have to worry as much about how to generate traffic for MQ Vibe or about developing a business model. The company will use MapQuest.com to drive traffic to MQ Vibe. MapQuest also expects neighborhood-related queries on Google to generate direct traffic as well. MapQuest will also leverage Patch as a content source and potentially integrate MQ Vibe into Patch sites in the future. There are many interesting possibilities.
Over time AOL intends to potentially evolve MapQuest.com into a more dynamic site that may look more like MQVibe. But that’s still to be determined.
As you might expect there will also be mobile app versions of MQ Vibe. And the apps may prove more immediately useful and be adopted more rapidly than the site itself.
With MQ Vibe, MapQuest is on to something very interesting with a great deal of potential. However to make it work the company will need to keep developing and refining the site. It will need to be experimental, creative and keep investing until it builds something that is at once really useful and utilitarian (as MapQuest is today) but also more fun and interesting to use than its parent.