The latest beta of MapQuest shows how far behind MapQuest is in the functionality race with Google and Yahoo! There are two big improvements in this release:
- MapQuest finally supports a single search box for entering addresses. The current version of the site requires you to break an address in to four components: address, city, state and zip. For those manually entering data, it’s a slight inconvenience. But for users who copy and paste addresses from emails and Web sites, it’s enough of a hassle to warrant using another product.
- The number of ad links has been dramatically reduced compared to the version at MapQuest.com, from 26 to 15 by my count.
This beta has done nothing to address a number of innovations that have come to mapping services over the last several years:
- Basic user interface. One thing I love about both Google and Yahoo! maps is that they intelligently size to your screen. If you have a big screen, they take advantage of it and present more map data. If you shrink your window, the map shrinks so you don’t have to scroll. Both also have inset maps to help you orient yourself. With Google, you can use the scroll wheel on your mouse to zoom in and out. The maps themselves are still ugly compared with Google’s and Yahoo’s.
- Venue information. Despite having access to AOL’s terrific CityGuide data, MapQuest ignores user ratings and reviews. (I suspect that this is because AOL has all but killed CityGuide.) Google has long crawled other Web sites for ratings and reviews and added its own review feature in June.
- Changing routes. Google allows you to drag a route line to change the routing, for example if you want to take the more scenic route.
- Public transit. Google and Yahoo! show subway stations on maps. On Google, you can search for businesses using subway stations as a reference point. For example, “restaurants near foggy bottom metro“. Google also offers the ability to get directions using public transit.
- Street View. It’s not in all cities and some find it a little creepy, but it can be valuable to get the feel for a neighborhood.
- Embeddability. Google allows you to embed their maps on your own Web site.
- Traffic. Both Google and Yahoo! offer live traffic. Google even offers estimates of traffic delays during rush hours.
The biggest problem with MapQuest is that it’s still stuck in a Web 1.0 world. (AJAX to support map panning notwithstanding.) MapQuest is too dependent on InfoUSA to provide the point of interest data that is searched.
Google and, to a much lesser extent, Yahoo! have made an effort to incorporate data from the wider Web into the listings. Google provides extensive tools to create and share your own maps and the data from these maps can be used to improve the overall quality of Google’s data.
MapQuest has also done little to get its maps and data used by other sites. Although MapQuest offers an API, when was the last time you heard of a MapQuest mashup? Google’s APIs are the defacto standard for startups looking to incorporate maps into their sites.
TechCrunch reports that some of these features will be coming to MapQuest over the next few months.
MapQuest’s biggest asset remains its brand. When we did focus groups and usability testing, one of the things we’d ask was where people would go to look for specific types of information. Among the various things we asked — movies? weather? news? research paper? — the answer was almost invariably “Google.” The only question that got a different answer was “where would you go for maps and directions?” People stuck by MapQuest.
That advantage is going diminish as the core maps and directions business moves from the desktop to navigation systems and mobile devices.
Disclosure: I worked at AOL (MapQuest’s parent company) and launched AOL’s Local Search product in 2005.