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."

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast