Are We About to Witness an Evolution in Online Mapping?

Over the years, various online services have dramatically impacted the travel industry, simplifying far more than just the booking process.  The ease of online travel agency sites and the proliferation of travel deal sites have helped ameliorate the hassles associated with researching and booking travel online.  But online mapping websites have historically been the tool of choice for travel details, such as researching the location of a restaurant or attraction, or merely getting from the airport to your hotel; as a result, these sites get millions of viewers.  While there are numerous players in the online mapping space, only two really appear to matter – Mapquest and Google Maps – and Mapquest is poised for new success.

As mobile solutions become increasingly popular and in-vehicle navigation systems become more common, online websites have struggled to remain relevant and the entire online map/atlas industry has seen a steady decline over the past two years.  The recent upward trend, driven by an increase in mapquest.com and maps.google.com UVs, is somewhat typical of late spring/early summer seasonality.  However, the growth accelerated recently, around the time AOL purchased the Huffington Post and appointed Arianna Huffington to oversee all of AOL’s editorial content, including Mapquest.  At Mapquest’s headquarters in Denver, she noted she wants Mapquest to be “so relevant that people couldn’t imagine going anywhere else online to plan a journey, find things to do, share details with online friends during a trip or blog about it afterward.”  Arianna also spoke at the May 2011 Compete Digital CMO Summit, at which she noted a mission to put the “quest” back in MapQuest.  This conviction was reiterated by AOL in a recent internal realignment, enhancing focus on mobile and local.

A resource such as Mapquest has the potential to emerge as the preeminent online mapping tool.  Over the past 12 months, Mapquest has had slightly more unique visitors than Google Maps.  This was driven by MapQuest gains, but even more by a severe decline in Google Maps visitation.  (The Google Map decline coincides with the rampant adoption of Android smartphones preconfigured with a Google Maps; fodder for another blog).

Mapquest has made significant modifications to its site over the past few years, redesigning the logo, simplifying search, introducing personalized mapping solutions and building a framework allowing users to upload photos and tap into online social networking communities.  These changes, while not driving huge increases in unique visitors, have at a minimum helped Mapquest narrow the gap with Google Maps with regard to loyalty metrics (visits/person and average stay).

Based on this data, one might infer Mapquest garners a more loyal or engaged user base than Google Maps – a user base perhaps more likely to engage with Mapquest services as they begin to permeate relevant sites within the AOL content network.

Only time will tell if Mapquest can maintain its recent UV gains and reverse the downward trend in its average stay results, or whether Google will beat them to the punch.  But one thing is almost certain: mapping tools will become increasingly germane in our daily consumption of online content and we’ll hopefully all find traveling, even life in general, to be easier, more enjoyable and infinitely more sharable as a result.

In the meantime, businesses dedicated to online mapping solutions might consider:

- To what extent have macro-economic conditions, including fluctuating gas prices, affected visitation to online mapping sites?

- How has the integration of mapping APIs into websites (hotels, online travel agencies, restaurants, review sites, etc) impacted how people interact with online mapping services?

- How will Google’s expansion into the travel space (such as through leveraging its ITA acquisition) in general drive spillover visitation to Google Maps?

About Ryan Williams:
Ryan Williams is the Director of Travel at Compete. At Compete, Ryan is responsible for interpreting online consumer behavior data and delivering custom competitive insight and recommendations to top brands across the travel industry. Prior to joining Compete, Ryan spent 14 years with major online retail and travel brands such as Expedia and Amazon. Connect with Ryan on LinkedIn at http://www.linkedin.com/in/ryanewilliams.