Could a Redesign Help MapQuest Find its Way?

MapQuest, a unit of AOL (AOL), has rolled out a redesign that introduces a suite of new features—including local integration through AOL's news and directory service—in an attempt to regain some of the momentum it has lost over the past several years. Before Google (GOOG) became the globe-spanning juggernaut it is today, MapQuest was the gold standard for online maps: The service was first to provide easy online mapping functions, one of the first to allow its maps to be embedded in pages and services, and so on. Somewhere along the way, Mapquest stopped innovating. Last year, Google took the lead in the market. Will the latest version help MapQuest regain some of its lost luster?

Among the new features the service has added are:

• One-box search for finding directions, maps, and businesses

• My Maps, which sports a simplified log-in process using existing services (AOL, OpenID, Yahoo (YHOO), Google, Facebook, and Twitter)

• The ability to save and customize information, including My Maps trip itineraries, and share it with friends via social networks, including Facebook and Twitter

• Integration of Patch's directory information into MapQuest's search results (e.g., restaurants, stores, government offices, local services, parks, and schools)

uploading photos: "for the future"

Most of these features will come as no surprise to anyone who's used Google Maps or Microsoft's (MSFT) map service. In other words, MapQuest has finally caught up in some ways to its competitors, after years of allowing the service to decline (it added street-level photographs last year, more than two years after Google launched that feature). Mapquest has also upgraded the site's look (which can be seen here) to make it more modern-looking, including a redesign of its antiquated logo. Whether any of these changes will be enough to recapture users who have moved to Google and other services is an open question.

Maps and similar services are the kind of applications that users tend to get comfortable with, making them reluctant to switch. While this likely helped MapQuest retain some users after it stopped innovating, it's going to make it harder for the service to gain new ones. The new version of the AOL offering arguably continues to lag Google in some respects—for example, users still can't upload their own photos. Google has had this feature for some time, but MapQuest says it remains part of its "plans for the future."

One of MapQuest's most interesting additions is the local information that will be coming from AOL's unit, into which AOL has been pouring money in an attempt to dominate the hyperlocal news and information business. Although Google has also been adding local business information, Patch's content could differentiate MapQuest. At this point, however, that's about all the service can rest its hopes on. There have also been rumors that AOL is looking to sell the mapping service, meaning that the redesign and new features could merely be an attempt to buff up the property to catch a potential buyer's eye.

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