May 16, 2006, 12:00 AM

How online maps bind a multi-channel retail strategy

MapQuest has the longest online mapping service tenure, but Google and Yahoo now offer APIs that let retailers put maps on sites for free. At stake are brand exposure and future advertising opportunities.

MapQuest, owned by AOL, the longest-established mapping services provider online, provides the service to six out of ten retailers and other businesses that offer consumers mapping services on their sites. But over time, that could change: online maps’ appeal to consumers, and their ability when posted on a retail site to help lock in online customers for the last mile of web-to-store purchases, has attracted the attention of other providers willing to supply sites with maps and road directions on a third-party basis.

Since last year, both Google and Yahoo have offered an application programming interface (API) that allows web developers – and the online retailers and other businesses they work for – to access a degree of mapping functionality and put it on sites for free. And MapQuest is covering its bases with the addition of a free API to its lineup of B2B mapping products a few months ago

The free APIs currently don’t offer the same degree of customization to the business user that the licensed products from MapQuest do, but “free” can be a powerful incentive, particularly for smaller retailers that might not otherwise have access. The portals get more brand exposure through the free mapping APIs, but equally at stake are potential future advertising opportunties, Matt Booth, vice president and program director of interactive local media at local search and advertising consultants The Kelsey Group, tells Internet Retailer.

“It means they will have a larger share of the Internet mapping business. Over time, many people believe, the larger the control you have over mapping services, the more advertising you will be able to run on maps and the more integrated services you will be able to run on maps,” Booth says.

For example, in a recent earnings call Google discussed its hopes to integrate live inventory data feeds directly into its online maps in the future, allowing online consumers to mouse over a map see what’s in stock in a local store without having to leave the house or call to find out. “Over time, it makes sense to have live inventory feeds go directly to a map. Then you can run interstitial advertising over them as well,” says Booth.

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