Is GPS a Google Maps and MapQuest Killer?

Despite carrying along my GPS navigation unit and an iPhone, with its featured Google Maps widget, I did not feel fully comfortable embarking on my drive until I also had my Mapquest directions printout laid out next to me. While I imagine many people may find it overkill to have both a GPS and printed directions, I wondered whether I was the only GPS owner still relying on online maps.

GPS units have become more and more popular recently thanks to falling prices and added features like music players and real-time traffic reports. USA Today quotes that The Consumer Electronics Association estimated that sales remain on track to surpass 2008′s 15.1 million units, despite the struggling economy. With summer traveling season coming to an end, I was curious as to the impact the growing popularity of GPS units has on online web mapping services like Google Maps and MapQuest.

Using Compete data, I tracked people who purchased a GPS in June and examined their online behavior from the month before their purchase to two months following their purchase. The chart below shows activity at the two largest online web mapping services, Google Maps and MapQuest, before, the month of, and after purchasing a GPS system at major retailers or OEM sites online.

Percentage of GPS Purchasers who used MapQuest.com or Maps.Google.com Before, During, and After Month of Purchase
(Compete data based on following sites: Amazon, Buy, NewEgg, TigerDirect, TheNerds, BestBuy, Costco, Walmart, J&R, Staples OfficeMax, OfficeDepot, CompUSA, TomTom)

What does this data tell us about GPS purchasers use of online map services?

  • Not surprisingly, GPS purchasers visited Google Maps more frequently than MapQuest both before and after the purchase; this matches overall traffic trends seen at these sites (Google Maps had 24% more Unique Visitors in August ’09).
  • Interestingly, while the number of people using an online mapping service dropped in the months following purchase (down 22%), a majority of consumers tracked still visited online mapping sites (58% of GPS purchasers tracked visited a mapping site the month following purchase).

One might think that owning a GPS would eliminate the need for other mapping services, but this is not the case. One potential explanation is that people use online maps as a backup in case the GPS does not work properly, perhaps in case of poor reception. Personally, I have experienced countless times where my GPS lost signal driving past skyscrapers. Perhaps a more likely reason is people like to use online maps as a reference before getting into their car to find out how far and what the general directions are for the trip.

Google Maps, MapQuest, and other online mapping services probably don’t need to worry about being made entirely obsolete by the GPS unit. However, as GPS usage becomes more and more mainstream, it might behoove online mapping services to try to improve and integrate their systems with GPS manufacturers so they have a greater reach — in the car and on the computer.