May 31, 2006, 12:00 AM

Are We There Yet?

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A huge amount of technology underlies the creation of online maps and particularly, of driving directions. Outdated data is online map users’ top criticism, and one of the top challenges facing online map and road directions service providers.

The right address

The first layer of difficulty in creating online maps is getting the store address right. Mapping service providers don’t always get business addresses directly from the businesses involved, according to Booth. Those store addresses are more typically provided by database companies such as Info USA that specialize in compiling and continually updating data, including physical addresses, on U.S. households and businesses. “Anytime you see an online map, it’s created by geocoding the address, which has come from somebody like Info USA, and putting a latitude and longitude on the physical address,” says Booth.

Keeping map displays current isn’t the only issue. The ever-changing status of streets and roads also presents a challenge in keeping driving directions current. To accomplish that, online mapping service providers such as MapQuest and Yahoo contract with road network data providers such as TeleAtlas and Navteq. These providers have crews out actually driving the mapped roads continuously, collecting and coding attributes on each road.

Online mapping services that provide a map display and driving directions use that updated data as the basis of what they show consumers. At MapQuest, for example, the data are processed against business rules or algorithms to create driving direction logic from point A to point B that factors in considerations such as, how many stoplights or left turns or how much expressway driving is on a given route. “That is all done on the fly to calculate driving directions,” says Dwyer.

So while a free mapping API might be simple enough to attach to a retail site, the technology supporting it is complex. In fact, that’s why Yahoo’s free API, which provides an interface that lets a retail site’s users call up maps from Yahoo while remaining on the retailer’s site, actually links users directly to if they want driving directions. “All of that data requires a lot of care and feeding and for the moment, we don’t have a way to syndicate that out to a merchant’s site. But we do have an easy way to link, so if a merchant wants to provide links to driving directions, they can,” says Maniago.

Customizable directions

Typically, he adds, the API implementation takes the form of a frame set that pops up a new window for the directions while the retailer’s site remains present underneath. That’s the approach taken by Yahoo Maps user sandwich chain Quiznos, which has added the API to its store finder. “They are putting a frame on top of Yahoo Maps in order to keep the user on Quiznos’ site. It’s a low-cost way to provide maps and driving directions and still control the users’ experience by keeping them on Quiznos’ site,” says Maniago.

MapQuest user Sears buys a higher degree of functionality and integrates mapping capacity with its inventory system to let shoppers pull up a page showing, for example, which stores within a designated ZIP Code have a searched appliance in stock, or when they will. Maps and customizable driving directions to those stores (for example, users can choose a different map display format or a route that avoids highways) are accessible through a link on that page.

While map providers get a definite benefit in advertising revenue driven by the fact that more consumers are using their sites, the ROI to retailers, while intuitively obvious, is less clear cut. “When we talk about ROI for mapping on retail sites, we talk about driving traffic to their store and providing higher levels of value to the end user throughout the online experience,” says Dwyer.

If plans for service that opens a window with live inventory status as consumers mouse over a store locations on a map are in the works, other online mapping features that would have seemed like something out of Star Wars a few years ago already are here. Google, for example, has started providing satellite photography with maps. But while such features may be high on wow factor, if consumers are simply trying to find their way to the nearest Wal-Mart that has a pharmacy, do they really care?

The key factor

“The most important thing about maps is that they get people to the right place in the easiest way,” says Booth. And potentially, every retailer with a web site has the ability to offer that service. According to Booth, with database services such as Info USA compiling addresses for virtually every business listing in the country, including retailers, essentially, driving directions for those businesses already exist. Whether or not the companies have integrated them into their own web sites is another matter, but chances are that if they are not providing driving directions on their site to their store, Yahoo, Google and others probably do.

Historically, one reason retailers and other online businesses haven’t incorporated maps on their sites has been the associated expense, but with three free APIs, that reason has receded. “Now that it’s really more about just the time it takes for the IT department to plug the API in, more businesses will start using plug in maps,” says Booth. “Mapping has gone from a nice-to-have to a have-to-have futue.”

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