I recently had the opportunity to interview two senior level executives from Mapquest to find out what the longtime provider of online mapping services is up to. Despite perceptions, MapQuest is actually a more popular mapping destination than Google or Yahoo’s map sites, and the company continues to innovate and push out new features and services, with a renewed level of energy in recent months. What follows is my Q&A with Mark Law, Vice President of Product Development and Christian Dwyer, Senior Vice President & General Manager, MapQuest, Inc.
Can you share the highlights of your future road map?
Mark: During the last 6 months, Mapquest has come out of hibernation and is now firing on more cylinders and delivering more products. There were two things going on prior to that time period that explain our low profile. There was considerable effort working on our new back-end technology. It is based on completely new platform technologies that was consuming a fair bit our effort. There was also a bit of miscalculation in that we didn’t do much that was visible to the user. In hindsight we should have been more visible but we knew we needed to get our house in order to do what we wanted to do. This is exemplified by the deliveries in the last 4 months. Every 2 weeks for the last four months we have delivered new functionality and features. We have 46 million users that have been with us for many years. Looking at customer support emails many were happy with what they saw… despite what market pundits noted. More often users complain about changes. We needed to be conscious of not changing too much too quickly. We are attempting to migrate users in an orderly fashion to the new interface so that the people who depend on Mapquest are not abandoned. We need to be sure user base will accept changes in our new product.
Happily the things that we released, like Local.Mapquest.com (which is somewhat radical for our user base) and other the new things, are being accepted by our users… we are trending 3 million uniques a month on our new local product. Our audience is embracing these changes. For the future we are obviously doing more development in the local space and search space of “where is it, how to get there and what’s nearby” across dot-com and mobile and moving toward personalization of that experience. Currently, in “where is it and how to get there?” we are the leaders in the space. We are investing quite heavily in dot-com in the “what’s nearby” component. In the last four months we also emerged in the mobile space. We have now released the new Mapquest 4 Mobile. It is available on 4 handsets and now have released on 5 new products. It emphasizes “what’s near by”.
I noticed that your recently introduced iPhone product has a very clean and minimalist interface compared to your dot-com site.
Christian: We are the only mapping site monetizing our audience. For our competitors monetization is not a key element. For us, it has been since the early days of being acquired [by AOL in 2000]. In the past, this monetization was very coarse-grained and not very targeted. We are focusing our energies on bringing relevant advertising to users. They may not need as much advertising going forward with smart optimization. We run a healthy a business with advertising, licensing and subscription revenues. In mobile, for example, we offer turn by turn as a subscription service.
Mark: When you see all the ad placements and you look at the click-thrus, the users are finding those sponsored search listings valuable. Because we are profitable, we only have sponsored links that users want and use. In monetizing the site, the ads have been carefully targeted and people are actively clicking on those results and finding them valuable. Monetization has been a dirty word but monetization goes hand-in-hand with our user experience.
You have been a market leader in directions for many years. Hitwise data show a rapid rise of Google as a competitor. Many have already declared the battle as lost by Mapquest. How would you respond?
Mark: We see Google Maps in many ways as an endpoint of a search query and because of that, their growth is inherent to their business. The people that come to MapQuest are here for the explicit purpose of finding “where is it, how do I get there and what’s nearby.” Google Maps may be gaining ground in terms of unique visitors but our user engagement and value proposition is very different than Google Maps. Visitors to MapQuest are far more engaged as we are actually a destination website. Consumers actively look and search for MapQuest. In fact, MapQuest is the 8th most searched term, according to Hitwise. Google Maps is 57th. MapQuest also has a deeper level of user engagement as demonstrated by 113% more pages viewed per visitor per month than Google Maps and visitors spending 78% more minutes (13.8 compared to 7.8 minutes) on MapQuest versus Google Maps. One of MapQuest’s key values is the trust and confidence our users have in us to provide reliable accurate directions and an engaging and easy-to-use experience.
Google competes and builds technology in an amazing number of markets. Even in just the local/mobile space, they offer SMS, mobile maps, Google Earth, MapMaker, MyMaps and so on. How do you decide where to compete and put your resources?
Mark: MapQuest is in the middle of a transformation from a mapping utility to being a location-centric local user experience and destination. In fulfilling our mission of “where is it, how do I get there, and what’s nearby,” we continue to invest in our web sites, API’s and mobile products and services that extend and deepen these experiences. In recognition and in support of our consumers being on-the-go we continue to invest in deepening the connection and integration of MapQuest online with the mobile MapQuest products. Whether it’s via our wireless website, our free MapQuest4Mobile application or MapQuest Navigator (our voice-guided navigation application), we realize that mobile is a key part of future growth. In addition we offer the “send to” options of send to cell, car and GPS devices which extends the overall MapQuest experience to the device of choice for the consumer. Our goal is to deliver a more location-oriented solution that provides information before users start, along their way and at the end of your journey.
Christian: We are concerned about competing over the long haul with Google because of their ability to create new behaviors. We know that we have to evolve business to become a destination by adding more depth and value. One of the key habitualizing effects is that now that users can get maps from mobile phones and start using that, they are going to tend to go back to that same product on the web. Mapquest is trying to create loyal user habituation through a personalized profile down through the cellphone. The heart and soul of Mapquest is the experience in the routing. We can never loose sight of that core capacity. If we can maintain brand trust in the user, we feel that we have a respectable position. Mapquest maintains its pure play position. From that perspective we have strengths to capitalize on the long term. We need to cater to users in a way that creates an extension of the experience into other devices. For example, we have a relationship with OnStar that creates value via Mapquest.com sending data to OnStar.
Mark: We are not thinking that we will loose all of our users to Google tomorrow. We are not going to turn Mapquest into search.com. It is interesting how the maps space has evolved we think that our biggest competitor is Yahoo given what they have evolved into. Yahoo is much closer to Mapquest in terms of page consumption versus the shallower user visits in Google.
Where and how do you see the deeper, more granular hyper-local information developing? Hasn’t the low hanging fruit of that information (movie times, used cars etc) already been plucked?
Mark: Local is more than business listings. With the proliferation of niche local sites there is no single place that gives you the value of the experience of those sites. Thus was born Mapquest Local to enable people that once they have defined where they want to go they can see the other information they are interested in. Basically Mapquest Local is the Sunday news plus some unique internet content… and [we] let the users customize it to their own needs. Twelve months ago we couldn’t have done Mapquest Local. Now we are able to bring in third party and AOL content and enable users to take advantage of all content. Like via Yelp… why not enable users to get access to the verticals? No one vertical expresses the total experience. Mapquest has no editorial control; we link to content and allow the downstream property to present what they want to present and send the traffic down to that site. We are the 11th largest site on the internet, the largest local front door to the internet. We want to make all local content to be accessible via Mapquest via feeds. We will not limit by geography or partner but will allow everybody to come and play. We have done an open developer call for local content feeds that are topical. We will facilitate connections to feeds and expose them to our many users. There is no quid pro quo. And we provide feedback to feed providers as to how popular it is. They will ciliate content to Mapquest and send traffic back. Yelp was first to call and within 2 weeks they were live.
Please provide some background and history for Mapquest.
Mark: MapQuest was originally founded in the 1960s by R.R. Donnelley & Sons in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, as a cartographic services division responsible for creating free road maps given to gas station customers. By the 1970s, MapQuest became a leading supplier of custom maps to reference, travel, textbook and directory publishers. Donnelley began making maps with computers in the mid-1980s. Much of that code was adapted for use on the internet to create the MapQuest web service in 1996. In February 1996, MapQuest launched the first consumer-focused interactive mapping site on the Web, MapQuest.com. MapQuest was acquired in 2000 by America Online, Inc. Company headquarters are in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and Denver, Colorado. With an innovative business model and first-of-its-kind web site, MapQuest.com captured the attention of the internet consumer and the business market. Today, the culmination of a 40-year evolution of mapping and technology has made MapQuest a leading consumer web site and business application for getting people where they need to go.
I have seen you mentioned in several places offering actual customer service with a human face. What role do you see customer service playing in your local offerings?
Mark: At MapQuest we have always had a human customer support team for both our enterprise and consumer products. We believe that the ability of our users to connect and communicate directly with MapQuest and know that their comments, suggestions and concerns are taken seriously is a key differentiator for us in the marketplace. Our customer service also goes beyond answering submissions to our help forms. We’re out there as part of the internet community, engaging and talking to people, listening and responding. The customer service role for local specifically is focused in two parts. First we are helping to coordinate those who wish to participate in our MapQuest Local product by providing direct feedback and direction on how best to organize and provide their content to MapQuest and the MapQuest users. The second focus is to mange the feedback coming from users, much like viewers calling tip lines for news affiliates. People local to an area are the ones capable of providing the most accurate and up-to-date information. They know where they live better than we ever will and we both need to work together to make sure that the people going to where they live next to have the best information and experience possible. From our users we gather incredibly useful feedback regarding both usability and also the underlying content which we are able to pass on to the underlying providers, thereby improving their service too.
How do you rank businesses in local listings?
Mark: Business rankings on local depend on the metrics and criteria of the content providers. For City’s Best, users vote on their favorite locations in various categories. For a partner like Yelp, ratings are based on user recommendations and the number of votes.
What is your view of Mapspam?
Mark: There will always be people trying to game a system. As user generated content becomes more widely available and useful, finding ways to verify the accuracy and assign reliable reputation metrics will be an evolving process. The challenge for MapQuest is that 44 million people depend on us to be the most accurate and reliable service in the marketplace, so as we add more kinds of content, we’re looking at tools to manage the accuracy and reliability of it. Look at it this way, if username “jb12345″ told you to take a “short cut” along your route, how much faith would you have in it? What if a friend recommended it? What about MapQuest? We’re looking at responsible ways to use the wisdom of the local crowds to improve information users get on MapQuest. Using metrics like the recommendations of locals, people in online social circles, and feedback of a user’s previous recommendations are some of the ways to gauge the reliability of the data.
Speaking of user generated content, what is your position on that?
Mark: User generated content can take many forms, from feedback on the accuracy of an address to new content on a location such as ratings and reviews, photos, etc. Empowering users to help more directly to improve, supply and experience location relevant content on MapQuest is a goal for us. Users have been actively helping us with data corrections for some time, but we’d like to see it be more direct and visible. We will be expanding the role of the user in generating and providing content in the near future. Our challenge however continues to be how exactly we will ensure the quality and reliability of the information. Again a core MapQuest tenet is accuracy and reliability and since our users depend on MapQuest we have an obligation to ensure that all content is dependable.
How are you getting your basic business listings?
Mark: We source basic business listings from third party providers who make it their business to verify the data and provide frequent updates. We then augment that data with some of our own information.
Where do you see local search going over the next 6 months in terms of technology and market share? Over the next 2 years?
Mark: Local will continue to be a fast growing segment. As browsers and mobile services continue to improve, so will people wanting to know “what’s around me” on demand. Our goal is to use technology to blend a socialized, personalized, and localized experience. Experientially speaking, local has so far been rather generic, identifying users within broad spaces of geographic boundaries. I would expect to see this becoming more and more granular, focused to the “hyperlocal” level, while simultaneously re-aggregating into non-standard delineations—for example, neighborhoods instead of zip codes, which can overlap, and are defined on a social level by those who live there.
Mike Blumenthal is a student of life, political economy and local search. He writes the blog Understanding Google Maps and Yahoo Local Search and is a partner in a small web design company in upstate NY.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.