Different Directions: Online mapping services are changing

Do you have a favorite online mapping service? We take a look at the "Big Four" and decide which is best.

Don Reisinger
Former CNET contributor Don Reisinger is a technology columnist who has covered everything from HDTVs to computers to Flowbee Haircut Systems. Besides his work with CNET, Don's work has been featured in a variety of other publications including PC World and a host of Ziff-Davis publications.
Don Reisinger
5 min read

Over the past few weeks, I've been using online mapping services more often to figure out which is best for me in a pinch.

But now that I've completed my research of the four major services--Google Maps, Live Search Maps, MapQuest, and Yahoo Maps--I've come to a staggering conclusion: I'd only consider using one of those apps.

Google Maps
Google Maps is simple and fast, elegant and useful. It's the best mapping solution on the Web. Period.

Google Maps is easily distinguished in the market by its design. Once you surf to the company's Maps page, you're immediately presented with a search box to input an address. If you want to get directions from one place to another, it's as simple as clicking the "Get Directions" button and inputting another address.

Google Maps
Google Maps traffic data is outstanding. Google Maps

To evaluate its accuracy, I queried Google Maps to find the best route between two addresses I'm familiar with. The service performed beautifully and delivered perfect directions. I then mapped a route from my home to West Palm Beach, Fla.--a trip I've made on a few occasions--to see if it could determine ideal directions over a long ride. Once again, it cut down on wasteful driving and delivered the most direct route.

But the beauty of Google Maps goes beyond directions. Its satellite imagery is outstanding and the most up-to-date, based on my testing, and the service's live traffic feature, which offers real-time traffic data throughout the day, is a welcome addition that provided generally accurate information. But my favorite feature is Street View. As I look for a new home, it's an ideal tool to help me determine if I want to live in a particular neighborhood without going there myself.

Live Search Maps
Although Microsoft has struggled to keep up with Google in the search space, I was impressed with Live Search Maps. It might not offer the kind of functionality Google Maps provides, but it's certainly a viable alternative.

Live Search Maps
Live Search Maps has a useful menu feature. Microsoft

Much like Google Maps, Live Search Maps is simple to use and elegantly designed. I especially liked the menu to the left of the map, which provided me with options to find a specific place on a map, get directions, or share those with others.

When I input directions to locations I know the best routes for, I was generally pleased. That said, there were a few occasions when the directions sent me to a different highway exit or to wrong streets before getting me to my destination.

Microsoft's "Bird's Eye" feature is outstanding, and Live Search Maps responded quickly to requests to zoom in on certain locations. Unfortunately, Microsoft's 3D mapping feature, which allows users to see locations in 3D, only works with Internet Explorer, so as a Firefox user, I wasn't able to test that out. That's annoying.

MapQuest has undergone a series of changes over the past few months in an attempt to improve its standing in the market. And although I applaud the company for trying, I'm simply unsatisfied with what it offers.

MapQuest's new homepage aims at making the once-cluttered site more usable. In some respects, it works. It is much easier to input directions, and finding locations is as simple as inputting a company's name into the search box. But unlike Google Maps or even Live Search Maps, which offer simple page designs, MapQuest's homepage is inundated with distracting ads, links to local events, and other features that I don't care about.

Can't you just save it yourself? MapQuest.com

MapQuest's response time is much slower than Google Maps and much like its homepage, the maps show too much information, turning them into a mess. It's also unfortunate that the site requires users to click a "save" button for it to remember a search. Its competitors do that automatically.

But not everything MapQuest offers is sub-par. Its driving directions are generally on point, and when I searched for directions around town or to Florida, they provided ideal routes. I also like that the site now features an extremely large map. It's a simple thing, but it really does add to the site's overall usability. Unfortunately, almost everything else on MapQuest detracts from that usability.

Yahoo Maps
Yahoo Maps was my favorite mapping solution years ago before I discovered Google Maps. And in that time, it hasn't changed substantially. But based on my testing, it doesn't need to.

The first thing that struck me about Yahoo Maps is how simple it is compared to the rest of Yahoo. I've often taken issue with Yahoo's cluttered homepage, but Yahoo Maps doesn't suffer from that problem.

Yahoo Maps
Getting directions is quick and easy. Yahoo Maps

Instead, Yahoo Maps offers a well-designed page that I found simpler than its competitors in one respect: it didn't require me to click an extra button to get directions. In its place, the site features two search boxes, which make it quick and easy to find directions and go about my day.

Yahoo Maps also performed well when I searched for directions around town. In fact, it returned all the same routes as Google Maps, which provided the best directions of any service in this roundup.

In almost every respect, Yahoo Maps, as a Web application, is equal to Google Maps. But with over 70 percent market share, Google Search is a top destination on the Web. And while people are busy inputting queries into the search engine, a Maps link is always waiting at the top of the page. If those users are looking for a business or directions to someone's home, it's much easier to click that link and use Google's tool than surf to a competing service.

Worse for competitors, the Google Maps API is being used by thousands across the globe who find unique ways to fit Google Maps into their businesses or personal lives. Sure, competitors like Yahoo offer an API too, but they're not nearly as popular or widely used as Google's.

And in recent years, that has become a major issue for Google Maps competitors. How can they stymie Google's growth if users are already using other Google services and find it quicker to use Google Maps instead of their tools? I don't have the answer. And I'm not sure Google's competitors do either.