New Local Portal on the Scene: A Conversation With MapQuest

MapQuest today launched MapQuest Local, the biggest departure yet from its longstanding model as a place to primarily get driving directions. The company has been careful not to tinker with this model given its commanding market share lead in the online mapping space.

But as we’ve followed MapQuest over the past few years, it’s slowly begun to evolve its model to the product standards that have come to be expected in the online world. This was pushed forward by the recent appointment of VP of Product Development Mark Law, who came over from Yahoo.

The newest version of the product, still in beta, will extend the feature set far beyond driving directions to also include customizable information feeds on a variety of local content areas. These include gas prices, movies, city guides, events and news (powered by Topix).

A new tab on the MapQuest home page will lead users to this local portal where content is served based on their location. This will be determined by their stated mapping queries, predefined home or work locations, and possibly in the future (my speculation) more automated ways such as location aware browsers or tie-ins with mobile devices (see what VP of Product Development Mark Law has done).

“What we did with a map on the home page is get locations that users are feeding us. It can be set as a home or work location or it will automatically set as the last place you searched for,” says Law. “That’s why we’re extending this local piece. There could be relevant content to serve based on what you want to do when you get there.”

But at its core, users can customize the front page and decide the types of content sources in which they’re most interested. This makes it much like My Yahoo or NetVibes. And like NetVibes, MapQuest has come around to the open standards and widgetization that is driving lots of online product development and user expectations. In other words, it will open up to third parties to build widgets, which users can cherry-pick for their front pages.

One question is whether AOL/MapQuest users are the types of power users who appreciate and use such customization tools to their full advantage. Time will tell if that’s the case. In the meantime, the numbers look favorable to third-party content sources that want to tap into MapQuest’s 48 million unique monthly users.

“If you’ve got a feed and you want to expose it, we’re a large Web portal and will open it up to this audience and send traffic back to you,” says Law. “We can now be the front door to build traffic and a user base.”

The site will be populated initially by AOL’s internal content, which includes lots of local sources. But over time, it will also build value and variety around these third-party sources, according to Christian Dwyer, MapQuest senior VP and GM.

“Being owned by AOL, there is a whole bunch of content that can be extracted out of the network and used in this way,” he says. “Shopping, news search, events, city guides, careers; all the things in the AOL family are things that can be applied.”

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