Caught Mapping

Here's how you get from the center of Denver -- the intersection of Colfax and Broadway -- to the center of the mapping universe:

Start out going SOUTH on Broadway. Turn RIGHT onto West Colfax Avenue. Proceed less than one-tenth of a mile. Turn RIGHT onto 15th Street. Turn RIGHT after six-tenths of a mile onto Lawrence Street. Turn LEFT onto 18th, LEFT again onto Blake. Park, feed the meter and trundle over to the red-brick building with the MapQuest sign.

Total distance: 1.3 miles. Estimated driving time: four minutes. Unless, of course, you are attempting this trip during rush hour, happy hour, dinner time or weekend evenings, in which case you're better off doing the whole thing online.



For MapQuest, the champion of Internet mapping services, it's all about location, location, location. The company's headquarters, in the heart of LoDo, is within half a mile of 131 restaurants, within a mile of seventeen night clubs, and just a block away from the nearest caterer -- details gleaned from MapQuest's recently souped-up website, which, like most of its competitors in the online mapping business, now offers users a lot more than directions to Grandma's house.

All of those conveniently situated potables and pastries could come in handy this weekend as MapQuest celebrates its tenth anniversary in cyberspace. On February 5, 1996, a company called GeoSystems Global Corporation launched www.MapQuest.com from its Denver servers, and consumer travel-planning habits haven't been the same since.

Although the company was acquired by Virginia-based America Online in 2000, the Denver office, which has fewer than a hundred employees, remains its nerve center. "We're still kind of a stealth operation," says MapQuest general manager Jim Greiner, who's been with the company since 1999. "Not many people know that MapQuest is actually based in Denver."

They may not know its physical location, but they sure know how to find it in the virtual world. According to a study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 87 percent of Internet users who need maps or driving directions get them online -- a higher percentage of users than those who go online to check news, sports or weather reports, pay bills, play games or do just about anything else. Significantly, more than half of the online mappers say they only get their geography online -- and nowhere else.

That's a cosmic shift from the old fold-out road maps that never folded up right, and MapQuest is largely to blame. The company logged 41 million visitors to its site in December 2005, a tenfold increase in traffic from six years ago. According to comScore, a marketing company that measures web-browsing in much the same way Nielsen measures TV viewing, MapQuest commands more than two-thirds of all visits to mapping sites, easily outdistancing its nearest competitor. And the company's name is one of the top ten Internet brands in North America.

But its stunning success has also made MapQuest a huge target. As it turns ten, online heavyweights such as Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and Amazon are seeking to challenge MapQuest's dominance with map-happy sites of their own. The new sites offer eye-popping satellite imagery and bird's-eye photography, intriguing combinations of mapping and search functions, the ability to tag and customize maps, and emerging interfaces with wireless phones and in-car navigation devices. Maps on the Internet are no longer about getting from point A to point B; they're part of an "immersive experience" designed to lure geospace junkies, urban explorers, clueless business travelers, PDA-clutching real-estate agents, club-hopping hipsters who don't want to bother with petty details like addresses, relentlessly on-the-go soccer moms and everybody else.

MapQuest has responded with other innovations, including a big push into mobile applications. You can still quibble with the occasional oddity in the directions it provides (technically, you don't turn right onto 15th Street -- you keep going straight while Colfax veers left; and why turn on Lawrence instead of Market?) or the other quirks of its site. (Entering "MapQuest" as a place-name search yields four results: the company's New York, Pennsylvania and LoDo offices, and a totally unrelated golf shop in Marietta, Georgia.) The "enter address" boxes may seem almost quaint now that you can simply type in "airport" or "pizza" and let the search engine figure out what the hell you're looking for. But don't sell the industry leader short.

"They have a very successful formula," says Greg Sterling, an analyst for the Kelsey Group who tracks interactive local media. "They're going to make incremental changes that may not be as accelerated as Yahoo or Google, but they're going in the same direction. They're trying to balance what the MapQuest audience knows and likes with some of these more advanced features. They're trying to manage that transition and that tension, and they don't want to introduce too many disorienting features too quickly."

Greiner doesn't sound worried. "We've got ten years of experience in how to serve consumers," he says. "We will be the leader the next ten years. We've truly fulfilled one of the top needs on the Internet, which is maps and directions. That's our passion. That's what we do every day. That's all we do."

Back in the pre-digital era, when a wireless phone was a busted phone and three television networks ruled the airwaves, when darkness covered the earth and man was but a lowbrow savage still reeking of the primordial ooze, the weary traveler got his directions at a gas station. In between checking the oil and tires and, yes, squeegeeing the windshield, a pump jockey in grease-stained coveralls would gesture wildly with his hands and warn the motorist to take the turn before he got to the rendering plant if he ever wanted to see the interstate again.

In 1967, the cartographic-services division of R.R. Donnelly & Sons, a major Chicago printer, started publishing road maps for free distribution at gas stations. A modest promotional gesture, to be sure, but one that set great things in motion. As demand picked up, the custom mapping division moved to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and developed maps and related content for academic and travel publishers. In 1976, the company created the first maps ever published in a telephone directory. By the late 1980s, it was working on mapping applications for Apple computers.

In 1994, the mapping enterprise was spun off as an independent company called GeoSystems Global Corporation. The following year, GSGC opened an office in Denver, with the express aim of taking its mapping expertise online. A few months later, MapQuest.com was born. In 1999, as the Internet boom was reaching its surreal peak, the company changed its name to match the website and went public. Within a year, America Online bought the whole shebang for $1.1 billion.

For its money, AOL not only acquired a site with impressively mounting traffic, but a viable means of exploring what was, at the time, one of the great untapped markets of the Internet: local advertising. Consumers trying to get places -- and consume things -- are the logical audience for advertisers situated around those places. And it would be hard to imagine a site with more local content, yet more far-reaching, than MapQuest, with its millions of miles of maps spanning thousands of cities and dozens of countries.

The key to the site's popularity is its ease of use, Greiner says. When you enter a starting address and a destination into the search fields, the software assigns a latitude and longitude to each point, a process known as geocoding. Then, using what Greiner refers to as "proprietary algorithms," MapQuest figures out the best driving route between the two points and generates text directions and maps. "The quality of the directions is really dependent on the accuracy of the start and end points," he points out.

Over the years, the company has refined the options it provides its users -- avoid highways, take the fastest route, that kind of thing. But glitches do crop up when you're generating millions of maps a month. It's not hard to find folks who say that MapQuest dispatched them on a super-highway goose chase when surface roads would have been easier, or that they were sent hurtling toward a gated community with no warning about the gate.

Officials in one Florida burg took exception to MapQuest's choice of a narrow bridge with no guardrails as the ideal route from one side of town to the other. A few years ago, according to the Boston Globe, Beantown motorists who followed MapQuest's notion of a crosstown jaunt found themselves snarled in alleys, tunnels and construction sites far from the beaten path -- but then, Boston may be the trickiest place to navigate this side of Baghdad. A colleague who followed MapQuest's directions from Jackson, Mississippi, back to Denver got a tour of the wilds of northern Louisiana rather than the more efficient run through Little Rock or St. Louis. (The recommended route has since been changed.) Even in Denver, the company has occasionally lagged behind new developments or has listed streets that don't yet exist.

Only a tiny fraction of the company's directions turn out to have problems, Greiner says. MapQuest corrects routes when users report errors, and the company relies on its data vendors, who employ aerial photography, and driving teams to constantly update its information. Still, it can take six months to a year to authenticate maps of new subdivisions. "I'd love for it to happen in real time, but there are dangers to doing it too quickly," he adds. "We want to make sure it's the most accurate data possible."

Accuracy is only part of what consumers seem to want from their mapping services these days. They want the computer to be smarter than they are -- and a lot more intuitive. They want to be able to find driving directions to "Mount Rushmore," even if they don't know what state it's in. They want to be able to find the new brewpub in Golden, even if they don't have the name or address -- and they want to know where there's a coffee shop down the street to sober up or a hotel to sleep it off. They want aerial photos and 3-D mapping of the neighborhood surrounding the house they're thinking of buying, so they can examine their potential investment from all angles.

MapQuest has improved its search functions, but it has yet to match the flashier accessories of its major rivals. A few months ago, Google took over Keyhole, a digital program for manipulating satellite photos, and retooled it as part of Google Earth; one reviewer described the result as "MapQuest on steroids." The site allows the user to zoom in on landmarks or intersections, overlay and customize maps, get directions and more. Meanwhile, Amazon's A9.com is building an inventory of street-level photos of dozens of cities, while Microsoft and Yahoo are adding other visuals to enrich the mapping experience.

Greiner notes that MapQuest was the first mapping site to offer satellite photos; it removed them two years ago. "There wasn't as much usage as we thought there would be," he says. "It was kind of a whiz-bang curiosity satisfier. We plan on bringing it back, but we want to make sure it's useful."

Satellite imagery can be cumbersome for mapping purposes, even with the improved resolution Google has managed. The latest blog buzz has been for Microsoft's Windows Live Local, which provides bird's-eye views that are much more detailed than traditional satellite photos. Sterling calls it "the most impressive visual imagery available right now." Satellite photos don't help much when you're trying to find a particular address in a complex of look-alike apartment or office buildings; with the 45-degree angle provided by Windows, a user can mark her condo's location with a virtual pushpin, e-mail it to a friend with driving directions and provide a visual road map to her door.

But many of these new visuals aren't yet available for mid-sized cities (such as Denver) or more exotic locales. And while they may wow the tech-heads who beta-test them, their adoption in the larger marketplace is still up in the air. "There are a lot of products that get developed, and me-too responses, that may not have anything to do with actual consumer demand at this point," says Sterling. "It's just by virtue of the competitive landscape that it's happening."

According to Greiner, MapQuest is moving toward a more visual environment, too, but cautiously, so as not to confuse loyal users. "We're good at separating what's really useful and efficient versus what's eye candy or icing," he says.

Google and Yahoo have drawn attention by releasing map-programming code to hobbyists, allowing them to blend mapping functions with other kinds of data, known as "mash-ups." The bold move has led to all kinds of sites, commercial and personal: interactive real-estate guides; displays that show you the cheapest place in town to buy gas; recreation planners; even regularly updated, block-by-block crime blotters. Down the line, the concept has the potential of attracting massive amounts of local advertising, as various retailers or service providers fight to have their businesses highlighted on popular maps.

MapQuest, of course, already has licensing arrangements with hundreds of businesses that use its maps to show you how to get to their place. "Google has launched a free, very limited API [application programming interface]," Greiner says. "We plan on coming out with something to match and exceed what they're doing. But there are many restrictions on them. Who knows when Google is going to put advertising on them? Our business clients are high-enterprise -- for example, the hospitality and travel industry. They're fearful of Google having the control."

In fact, the commercialization of the maps themselves is well under way. Sterling points out that Google has already started embedding ads in some of its maps; if you search for New York City hotels, the sponsor's properties are highlighted with colorful pushpins on the resulting map. The analyst has even heard talk of digitally altering bird's-eye photos, replacing an existing billboard in a real-world landscape with a virtual ad from a cybersponsor.

"There are some very interesting legal issues that arise," Sterling says. "Who owns that? Is it something Microsoft owns because it's their copyrighted photography? Is it something the billboard company owns? Who knows?"

MapQuest executives don't believe the future of their industry hinges on 3-D graphics and other eye candy. It's about on-the-go personal navigation. No longer will people have to print out staid paper directions from their home or office computer before embarking on a trip; instead, they'll be engaged in a mapping adventure that evolves as the journey progresses.

"Where the market is going," says Greiner, "is from an online experience to an offline experience. You can use MapQuest on your cell phone today. In the future, you'll be able to use it to find places closest to you as you travel and navigate with it like an in-car map system. And that's just scratching the surface."

For a few dollars a month, you can send your driving directions from your computer to your cell phone, so that you can consult them as you travel -- a boon, presumably, to those who don't have access to a printer but wouldn't think of driving without a Nokia in hand. MapQuest also has a deal with Verizon to provide real-time traffic reports to its users' phones. The next step up from there relies on global positioning system technology: a GPS-enabled Nextel phone, or MapQuest's own $699 Personal Navigation Device, either of which can pinpoint your location, provide information on nearby attractions or shops, and offer turn-by-turn directions as you drive. Both services work much like General Motors' OnStar system, but with the distinct advantage of being transferable from car to car.

"Two or three years from now, when everyone has GPS-enabled phones, you'll be able to use MapQuest in new ways," Greiner says. "You'll put your phone on the dash, and a voice will speak to you and tell you what turns to take."

Wireless is the next big battleground for the mapping rivals. "MapQuest is probably a little ahead of the curve on wireless, and they're focused on that intensely," says Sterling. "It's definitely an area of opportunity and growth. However, it's much more complicated than the Internet. You've got different interests -- carriers, handset manufacturers, content providers, consumers. You've got a bunch of moving parts, and it's challenging to figure out how they work together."

Although he's been captivated by the "flashier" online mapping features, Sterling isn't sure whether he would plunge into personal navigation on his cell phone. "I don't know if, on my little Sprint Sanyo phone, those mapping tools are all that meaningful to me," he says. "The networks are too slow. My screen isn't big enough."

His skepticism begs a larger question. Just how many people are standing in line for MapQuest's "Find Me" service, which allows them to consult their Nextel phone in order to figure out where the hell they are? How many amnesiacs, blackout drunks, errant hikers and blind kidnap victims can there be wandering the country, with no notion of their actual location? How many truly need a GPS-enabled phone and MapQuest's proprietary algorithms to, as the website explains, "identify your location and share it with trusted others"?

Have we become a lost generation, so dependent on mapping services that we can no longer navigate on our own? Have we gained the world, only to lose our sense of place?

The traditional knock on services such as MapQuest is that they promote geographic illiteracy; instead of learning to read a map, you let the software figure out your route and give you marching orders like a backseat driver. But Greiner rejects that criticism. The increasingly interactive nature of mapping sites has had a positive impact on the culture, he insists, as people discover new aspects of their immediate environment and places they want to go.

"When analog clocks went digital, people thought nobody was going to be able to read a clock anymore," he says. "I don't think that's happened. When Microsoft Word came out with a spell-check program, everybody thought nobody would be able to spell anymore. There's this underground GIS [geographic information system] culture out there, and now it's being opened up to the mass market, with MapQuest leading the way. More people are going to be able to benefit from GIS and GPS technology. I think it will help people explore and enjoy their lives more."

The industry still has some formidable challenges ahead. Online mapping can take you only so far; the street-level data isn't readily available yet for some parts of the world. As the use of satellite images increases, so do the concerns about privacy and national-security issues. But Greiner sees a smooth ride ahead.

"We've pretty much established ourselves as a verb," he says. "Anywhere that can be put on a map, we'll find it for you."

Greiner is counting on people continuing to turn to MapQuest to find what they're looking for -- including themselves. Getting people to their destination has been the key to his company's success over the past ten years. It's what put them on the map.

We use cookies to collect and analyze information on site performance and usage, and to enhance and customize content and advertisements. By clicking 'X' or continuing to use the site, you agree to allow cookies to be placed. To find out more, visit our cookies policy and our privacy policy.


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >