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Yahoo tries to find a place on the map

While Foursquare, Yelp, and Google Latitude took off, Yahoo hit the snooze button on Yahoo Maps. Now it's working with Nokia in an attempt to play catch-up.

NEW YORK--When you ignore the map, sometimes you take a wrong turn. That's what Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz admitted her company did a few years ago when it stopped devoting significant engineering resources to its Yahoo Maps product.

Bartz held a press conference Monday with Nokia CEO Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo to announce a partnership that will bring Yahoo's e-mail and messenger services to Nokia's Ovi service and Nokia's Navteq mapping service to Yahoo. While the story on the surface is that Yahoo is gradually shedding its properties that have fallen behind, handing over the reins of its mapping service to a partner company much as it did with search and Microsoft, the more interesting dimension to the relationship is Yahoo's attempt to play catch-up in all things "geo"-related--fast.

Navteq's site Screenshot by CNET

"Location should not be seen as a destination. It's a new dimension of the Internet," Kallasvuo said in the press conference, which was held in a Nasdaq-owned space above Times Square and its famed hordes of camera-clutching, geographically disoriented tourists.

"People take photos today and they're geotagged," Bartz added. "Location has just become such a common part of everything."

Indeed. In the time that Yahoo let Yahoo Maps lie fallow, we saw the emergence of, to name a few, Google Latitude, a dozen or so location-based networking start-ups, the near ubiquity of GPS-enabled mobile handsets, AOL's ambitious attempt to redefine local news reporting with, and Google's botched multimillion-dollar bid for business reviews site Yelp.

Bartz admitted that "we're definitely behind in maps" and that "we just didn't put the amount of engineering resources on it that the company should have," something that the company seems to consider a major fault as local services began to form, like Kallasvuo had put it, a dimension of digital media that was of growing importance. In the meantime there were some catch-up attempts: Yahoo launched a location-sharing service, Fire Eagle, as a sort of experiment. It didn't really catch on. More recently, it was rumored to have been willing to cough up as much as $125 million to acquire the year-old Foursquare.

At least judging by Bartz and Kallasvuo's preliminary pitch, the Nokia mapping partnership will be very noticeable across many Yahoo properties, but they're not saying exactly how yet. "I want to overemphasize local," Bartz said. "The ability to do local performance advertising is really on our radar screen...(and) because mapping is combined with other things you're doing, as you're moving through other Yahoo services, maps will just be part of that service."

The straightforward interpretation of Yahoo's deal with Nokia--that it's trying to focus its internal resources on the goal of becoming a powerful content and media company--is true, too. The company just acquired Associated Content, and has been hiring prominent journalists in-house away from the likes of Gawker Media and Politico. But it's also obvious that Yahoo believes a stronger focus on location-based services will cure some of its (many) ills.