MapQuest Charts New Course

MapQuest today unveils an easier-to-use, redesigned site and revamped logo as part of the AOL-owned brand’s efforts to stay competitive in an increasingly crowded space.

Visitors can opt into the new site via a call-out atop the current home page, or by typing new.mapquest.com in their Web browsers. For the next few weeks, MapQuest — which had 49.1 million unique U.S. visitors in May, per comScore — is allowing users to switch back and forth between the two sites while it evaluates their feedback.

MapQuest’s redesign is its first in five years. The change comes as the brand competes with both popular online mapping sites — such as Google Maps (to which it runs second in the category), and those offered by Microsoft’s Bing — and mobile-phone suppliers, many of which are introducing built-in navigation applications.

Indeed, the mobile mapping landscape got a “boost” when Google added free, turn-by-turn navigation features at the start of the year and Nokia followed with its similar Ovi Maps product, said eMarketer analyst Noah Elkin. (The introduction of such apps is also challenging traditional GPS navigation technology companies such as Garmin and TomTom.)

To keep pace in that charged environment, MapQuest is touting several new features, including a cleaner, improved user interface that provides simpler, more engaging interaction with the site.

The old search box took up space, pushing many advertisers and the map itself below the fold. The new query entry area consists of a one-line text box designed to reduce clutter.

And the searches themselves have also been simplified.

Users can enter information ranging from the name of a major landmark (the White House, for example) to a local restaurant — or something as vague as an intersection.

“You can enter as much information as you can and we’ll help you find it,” quipped Christian Dwyer, MapQuest’s general manager, during a demo presentation of the reworked site.

Other new features include the ability to find directions for international travel, such as routes from London to Berlin.

Also, there is an intense focus on integration and synergy with content from parent AOL. That content includes restaurant reviews and local write-ups supplied by community journalism startup Patch.com, which AOL acquired last year, as well as hotel reviews taken from the Web portal’s travel section.

A toolbar atop the screen, meanwhile, allows consumers to easily search popular categories like nearby restaurants, hotels, airports and gas stations.

The logo, too, has been updated, eschewing bold red letters for a sleeker, lowercase approach with a stylized “m” and “q”.

MapQuest, which tapped brand consultancy Wolff Olins for the logo change, said the makeover is meant to emphasize a new focus and positioning for the brand.

The venue is moving away from its old image as an online mapping site. Now, MapQuest is “less about the utility and more about [becoming] a part of your life,” Dwyer said.

“It represents that partner that really helps you navigate your world,” he said of features such as the ability to plan and share itineraries with family and friends.

The move is consistent with AOL CEO Tim Armstrong’s ongoing push to “build great consumer experiences” or “experiences that ‘wow’ people,” Dwyer said.

Elkin, the eMarketer analyst, said MapQuest’s focus on local content follows similar moves by Google and Yahoo, and could yield additional advertising and marketing opportunities.

For example, Yahoo has an application running on the iPhone called Sketch-a-Search that lets users draw circles around specific locations in order to home-in on local eateries, coffee shops and attractions.

“It speaks to the idea of, ‘Yes, you’re going from Point A to Point B, but maybe there are other things you need to do along the way or other interests you might have that might be sparked by these features,'” Elkin said. (MapQuest’s new trip planner, for example, lets users add notes or select restaurants and lodging nearby one’s route.)

Central to MapQuest’s future success, however, is whether it can recruit users that have migrated to other online mapping sites, including Google, Yahoo and Microsoft. And that’s a challenge that’s not just MapQuest’s but AOL’s, which is struggling to rebuild its brand image and regain traffic, Elkin said.