At times, it gets tiring to read the number of pile-on posts and comments written about AOL. At this point, AOL’s destiny is in their own hands, and we will see what the future holds for them as they hunker down and focus on 2009 financial performance (as we all are).
One thing hit the wires yesterday, however, that caught my eye. It was a post by Heather Hopkins about the latest traffic statistics about MapQuest and Google Maps, and where both where from an aggregate traffic perspective.
As backdrop, here are the latest stats from Hitwise on the comparative market share (based on UVs) for MapQuest and Google Maps:
As the chart shows, 2008 was a seminal year for Google Maps. Their share gain,regardless of whose stats you use (Comscore, et al) has been nothing short of tremendous. Unfortunately, that in large part has come out of the hide of the incumbent, MapQuest, an AOL property.
I have always been a cheerleader for MapQuest – the role they played on web-enabled consumer behavior change in the 90’s can’t be denied. Seeing us reach a tipping point in the US market, in terms of share shift, really pains me.
I think there are a number of self-inflicted wounds that they need to address, but I also think MapQuest represents an opportunity to be a focused poster child of business transformation in 2009, and I will share my thoughts on that a bit later.
First, let’s deal with the pain. It stares me in the face each time I use MapQuest as a consumer service.
Let’s look at the results of a request for directions on MapQuest and Google Maps.
Here’s the MapQuest experience (rendering for a 1024 by 768 display, the usual web design guideline):
Now, let’s see the same results from Google Maps:
This is part of the long-term issue with MapQuest: At some point along the journey, it has lost its way, in terms of the primary mission it is meant to serve. It is all about simple, informative directions.
The current experience is, as a friend of mine says, a dog’s breakfast. I am not sure what my eye is supposed to be drawn to. It sure the heck isn’t the actual directions – they barely begin above the fold. This looks like a misapplied implementation of a tactical focus on short-term revenue (e.g., note the big slug of non-relevant sponsored links for Florida and Cancun smack dab in the middle of the page).
Now, look at the Google Maps display – it is all about consumer payoff. I see the turn-by-turn directions and the map rendered above the fold, and the first sponsored link is on the left rail after the directions.
I do understand the case for monetization of traffic, but when that starts materially impairing the consumer experience, you start putting the franchise at risk. MapQuest has reached that point.
Unfortunately, in large part, AOL has its hands tied about changing course, in terms of how the property is managed. The market is hyper-focused on AOL’s near-term financial trajectory, and that means running the business for cash. I am sure there are a number of smart people at AOL who recognize the issues facing MapQuest, but they don’t have the latitude to consider strategic investment in the property.
That’s why I think structural opportunities are the right near-term focus:
It looks like, from the press over the last year, the financial dialogs with third parties have been focused on large, macro-sized chunks of AOL (e.,g., the access business and Earthlink, the ad and audience businesses and Yahoo, etc.). Unfortunately, the September market collapse took the wind out of the sales of lots of M&A dialogs, especially in the high-multiple sectors like technology.
Is the real 2009 opportunity for AOL to take great, more focused, franchise properties like MapQuest, and post their first win in creating a next-gen version of AOL, perhaps manifested as a holding company sitting on top of material stakes in properties spun out of the mothership?
In examining strategic options, let’s be sure to give credit for what MapQuest still is, in terms of aggregate traffic and as a brand. It is an attractive franchise with real potential, but it needs the capital to play offense in the space. With the billions of private equity currently parked on the sidelines, a major property like MapQuest could attract a good deal of interest. I would engage a team today focused on a mission to actively pursue strategy options for MapQuest, in parallel to whatever other efforts are underway.
Now, assuming an option to infuse some strategic capital in MapQuest exists, what exactly should be done to change the slope of growth line?
I think there are a variety of things to pursue:
1. Fix the consumer experience ASAP – make consumers love MapQuest again
2. Find your voice in the market – maybe strive to be “the most accurate directions on the web”. That takes work, and things like Google’s ability for me to submit address corrections to their database means your work is cut out for you, but that is a real pillar of value the consumer market might understand.
3. Find the platform play where you can win. Maybe that starts with being the champion of things like OpenStreetMap.
4. Find ways to get more organic traffic. Over 60% of Google Maps’ traffic came from Google. They have a natural advantage here. That doesn’t mean there aren’t creative SEO/organic traffic opportunities. You know the mid and long tail of popular physical addresses and locations. What next-gen location-centric pages could you generate that takes in all the great geo-coded data being added to the web daily?
5. Push the envelope more on your mobile experiences It is not enough to just have sites render well on a phone’s browser. They need to exploit GPS, accelerometers, electronic compasses, etc., to deliver a competitive experience.
6. Find the right local review play to leverage. One of the biggest opportunities discussed over the years about MapQuest has been local search, and today that means access to local and location-contextual reviews. Find out how to have a great horse in that race. The sector doesn’t have to be ceded to Yelp. Local reviews are, at some level, fundamentally broken (poor at long-tail items, subject to vendor rating spam, etc.). There is a good niche acquisition opportunity in your future to jumpstart things here, in my opinion.
7. Be the first to deliver a free Telenav-level consumer experience (real-time, text-to-speech, turn by turn) – that does means addressing the current Navteq pricing practices (hence the push to accelerate the open source mapping efforts).
These are just a few ideas. I am sure people at AOL have a lot more. The key is finding the structure to allow these ideas to be pursued.
The goal is simple – do what it takes make MapQuest the property it deserves to be.