By helping motorists better navigate the streets, Yahoo Inc. hopes to drum up more traffic of its own.
The Internet giant is using the might of its vast online network and several innovative features in a bid to dethrone the king of Internet-based maps and driving directions, America Online Inc.'s MapQuest.
That will require overcoming stubborn brand loyalties among those who look for maps on the Web. Yahoo hopes to do it by overlaying information on its maps such as real-time traffic data -- a service it introduced last month -- and local business listings.
Perhaps more important, Yahoo also hopes to cash in on local advertising.
Websites that link local businesses to maps have an advantage over traditional media, such as newspapers and the Yellow Pages, when it comes to finding banks, restaurants and other services in a particular place. And users who create maps are telling Yahoo exactly where they’re going, which is attractive to marketers.
“It’s targeting, both by geography and by intent,” said Paul Levine, Yahoo’s general manager of local services. “Maps are a critical part of our local strategy.”
Maps and driving directions have become one of the most heavily used services on the Internet since MapQuest.com burst onto the scene in 1996. Acquired for about $1 billion in 2000 by America Online, now part of Time Warner Inc., MapQuest remains at the top of the heap. But it has plenty of competition: Microsoft Corp. offers an online mapping service, and Yahoo dumped MapQuest’s technology in favor of its own three years ago.
The basic services had changed little until the last few years, when the big online-mapping players began incorporating local business listings to help Web surfers find services near their destinations.
Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Yahoo changed the game in March when it introduced SmartView, a free feature that lets users look up addresses, then select categories of services to appear as yellow icons on the map. Clicking on them brings up more information about the business, including the address, phone number and a link to results of a Yahoo Search query on the name.
Someone planning a date can not only find driving directions to a movie theater but also see the closest parking lot, nearby restaurants (organized by cuisine) and florists, and even an ATM to pay for the meal -- all overlaid on the map.
“It changes static mapping into a dynamic new approach to local search,” said Greg Sterling, an analyst with Kelsey Group, a research and consulting firm. Although competitors may provide local business listings, only Yahoo marks them all on the map -- a feature that makes its service stand out, Sterling said.
In some ways, the fight Yahoo is picking with MapQuest is reminiscent of the search-engine wars in which Yahoo is also engaged.
Sterling and other analysts say they expect the other big players to match Yahoo’s features and counter with new technologies of their own, as they do in the fiercely competitive race to keep the loyalty of search-engine users. And as with MapQuest, Yahoo once licensed technology from its chief search rival, Google Inc., but replaced it with a homegrown search engine last year that has already swiped a sizable chunk of Google’s market share.
But when it comes to challenging the market leader in maps, Yahoo hasn’t had as much luck. MapQuest has widened its lead in recent months despite Yahoo’s enhancements.
While 15.6 million people visited Yahoo Maps in November, up 9% from a year earlier, MapQuest drew 33.1 million individual visitors, a 27% gain over the same period, according to market research firm ComScore Media Metrix.
Analysts and MapQuest executives point out that digital mapping is a service for which brand loyalty is especially pronounced. When it comes to familiarity, frequency of use and allegiance to one site, consumers surveyed by Kelsey Group and BizRate.com in August listed online maps first, ahead of search engines, phone directories and other online services.
Among those loyal to MapQuest is Ben Luketich, 23, an insurance underwriter from Arlington, Va. He uses Yahoo’s navigation service occasionally, when a movie theater website links to one of its maps. But he hasn’t tinkered with its new features. And when he’s looking up an address or driving directions on his own, he always goes straight to MapQuest.
“I’ve been using MapQuest forever, and I’m pretty familiar with it,” he said. “It’s quick and easy.”
And MapQuest is releasing new features of its own, including a $4 monthly service introduced last week that lets users send color maps and driving directions from their computers to their mobile phones.
“It’s probably true that Yahoo has added more features, but adding more features doesn’t always mean more customer adoption,” MapQuest General Manager Tommy McGloin said. “We’ve held the line despite some good competition.”
But Yahoo executives said many Web surfers use several online mapping services, pointing to statistics suggesting that surfers who do visit Yahoo Maps are using it more often.
In the six months after Yahoo released SmartView, people looked at an average of 39% more pages on the maps site, the company said, citing data from Nielsen/NetRatings.
The company also can count on an asset MapQuest doesn’t have: a well-known Web search service. People who enter an address into the search engine are steered to Yahoo Maps. (Google pulls up maps from both sites.)
“Yahoo cleverly realized that when people move online, they don’t want to just see the old Yellow Pages -- they want to do some extra things,” said Safa Rashtchy, an analyst with investment firm Piper Jaffray. “It’s a smart move.”
He and other analysts, however, warn that the wild card in the digital-mapping fight may be Google. The Mountain View, Calif., search company in October bought a start-up called Keyhole Corp. that uses aerial and satellite photos to let users zoom in on particular places. Combined with Google’s local directories, Keyhole could be the next generation of navigation services, analysts say.
Google executives haven’t said what plans they have, but a company press release announcing the acquisition said Keyhole allows users to “tap a rich database of roads, businesses and many other points of interest.”
“If I were Yahoo and MapQuest,” Rashtchy said, “I would be carefully watching everything Google does.”