MapQuest: ‘Out of Hibernation’ or Muddling Through?

I’ve been seeing more than a few stories lately about some incremental improvements MapQuest has announced to its service, which befuddles those who think that the venerable mapping service isn’t doing nearly enough in response to its upstart competition (i.e., Google, but of course that includes Microsoft and Yahoo who aren’t standing still either). Now, Search Engine Land’s interview with two MapQuest VPs sheds some light on (1) what MapQuest has been doing all this time and (2) what (the hell) they’ve been thinking. As to the first point, they say they’ve been working on under-the-hood improvements. Mark Law, Vice President of Product Development:

During the last six months, MapQuest has come out of hibernation and is now firing on more cylinders and delivering more products. There were two things going on prior to that time period that explain our low profile. There was considerable effort working on our new back-end technology. It is based on completely new platform technologies that was consuming a fair bit [of] our effort. There was also a bit of miscalculation in that we didn’t do much that was visible to the user. In hindsight we should have been more visible but we knew we needed to get our house in order to do what we wanted to do. This is exemplified by the deliveries in the last four months. Every two weeks for the last four months we have delivered new functionality and features.

Fair enough (see recent posts on the MapQuest blog for announcements of said functionality and features). What I don’t get is what they say about their users and how that informs their strategy. Apparently their users are different from those of, say, Google’s, even though both are presumably looking for maps to destinations. Not only are they wary of radical changes, they’re different from Google’s. They see their audience as monetizeable — I guess they have to — and their users stick around and are more engaged with the site itself, whereas Google’s is there at the endpoint of a search query.

To be honest, I’m having a hard time following the plot in this interview; their strategy seems not only excessively conservative — hang on to that loyal user base — but also just a bit muddled. Google has built its success by sending people away from their site as quickly as possible — they get out of the way of what you’re looking for. If I understand them correctly, they’re trying to make MapQuest “stickier,” a destination in and of itself, which strikes me as not only hard (i.e., resource intensive from a content perspective), but also a distraction from the core service of, you know, producing maps to destinations. They do say they can’t lose sight of their core business, but there’s a real risk of cruft.

I’m not sure I see a clear strategy here, but I could be missing something. Any thoughts?

Via All Points Blog.

Previously: MapQuest Beta Plays Catchup; MapQuest Beta and Blog; Imagery Comes to MapQuest; MapQuest Upgraded; More About MapQuest’s Future; MapQuest’s Mobile Strategy; MapQuest at 10; AP: MapQuest and the Competition; What’s MapQuest Up To?