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Comparing the Mapping Services

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Online mapping has come a long way in the last year. Google Maps entered the field and added satellite imagery to spring itself into the spotlight – challenging the colorful cartoon-like map images of longtime mapping frontrunner Mapquest. The Google Maps API enabled developers to create new applications and mashups, thereby pushing the Google Maps brand to mainstream audiences. Microsoft, Yahoo and others quickly followed.

As popular as Google is, it is not the most well trafficked map service. It is virtually tied with Yahoo Maps (and the new Yahoo Maps beta product which we reviewed here). Comscore says that Google Maps had 19.1 million unique visitors in March, whereas Yahoo had 20 million. Both were dwarfed by Mapquest, with a whopping 46.4 million unique visitors in March, more than Yahoo and Google combined.

In addition to Google Maps, Yahoo Maps and Mapquest, two others, Ask Maps and Microsoft Windows Live Local, also have compelling offerings.

We looked at all five of the current map services and examined their features and performance. Below is a feature by feature comparison.

The best? Yahoo Maps, for many reasons. More below.

Views

All the major map sites offer two or more different viewing options, including a satellite view, except Mapquest. All the other sites have hybrid views overlaying map information onto a satellite image. Google, Ask and Yahoo also offer a pure satellite image. Windows Live Local boasts one of the more interesting views called bird’s eye view, which adds a 3D dimension to the map image — a sexy feature, though its value lies more in dazzle factor than usability:

Zoom Champion

The zoom feature is a recognizable characteristic in most mapping services. Ask, Google and Windows Live Local all tied for the title of “Zoom Champion.” To determine the champ we performed a zoom test which focused on a single landmark and zoomed in as much as the application would allow. We then compared the five zoom levels to see which application allowed us to zoom in the most. Since a picture is worth a thousand words, check out our results below.

User Interface & Features

Yahoo Maps has the best product for obtaining basic driving directions. Its Flash interface offers both multi-point directions and live traffic information. Want the directions sent to your cell phone? Click a button, enter the number and you have them. Yahoo also has a very responsive interface. Taking into account all of these factors, it’s the best for personal use.

Ask Maps allows multipoint directions, and Mapquest will send directions to your phone, but no other service offers both. And Yahoo alone offers live traffic information.

Ask Maps appeared to load a little slower than Yahoo and Google. Ask.com does offer a notable directions feature called Auto-Drive which animates the entire route. Unfortunately, Ask.com was the only service that provided inaccurate directions in our driving directions test.

With Window Live Local the route from point-to-point is not marked with a line like its competitors. This made it difficult to see the actual route. Contrastingly, the service introduces a pushpin feature enabling viewer-determined points on a map. This feature also is a social twist as pushpin points of interest can be saved and shared with others via another feature called a scratch pad.

API

Offering an API has become an invaluable marketing resource. The resulting mashup applications offer free marketing and buzz around a web 2.0 product. Mashups aside, mapping solutions in commercial use can have the same affect.

Google sports the most popular map API and is used in a number of applications such as Ning, CommunityWalk and others.

Google’s API isn’t the best, but it is by far the most used service for mashups.

Expect that to change somewhat over time. Yahoo offers the widest selection of map development APIs (both Flash and Ajax). And recently, Zillow , with its fuzzy number Zestimates, incorporated the relatively new bird’s eye view offered by Windows Live Local via the Virtual Earth API.

Mapquest also has recently featured an open API and even prodded developers to take action by creating a developers challenge contest. Amazon’s A9 Map Beta is a notable Mapquest implementation since it associates street level images with streets on a map to produce a unique mapping experience.

Yahoo is the only service with mapping on web-enabled mobile devices without a download. Google Local Mobile Beta is a free downloadable mapping application, but it does not work on every mobile device or carrier. Mapquest Mobile is a subscription model which starts at $3.99 per month, but access to this service is also contingent on your mobile carrier and device.

Summary

Mapquest is the most popular mapping service but lags on features and usability. Google is the most notable and has a ubiquitous API. Windows Live Local dazzles with its creative views and features but falls short of the others in direction functionality. Mapquest offers a number of features but still is missing satellite imagery, which makes it trail the competitors in core functionality. Ask Maps is a worthy competitor but had the highest error rate of the group.

Overall, Yahoo Maps was by far the best application tested.
Its fast Flash interface, multipoint directions, live traffic information, and easy send-to-mobile feature make it the hands down winner. It also features the most robust API options.

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