Mapquest Beta Tests Local Search

America Online’s Mapquest is road-testing a local business search tool, driving into a space that’s seen recent entries by Google and Yahoo.

The option is displayed at the top right-hand side of the homepage, just under “Driving Directions” and “Yellow Pages.” The roughly 26 million monthly users of Mapquest can search by category or business name, with directory information provided by InfoUSA and results powered by Switchboard, which is set to be acquired by InfoSpace. Users can sort results alphabetically or by distance. Each entry is linked to a map.

The more prominent placement of the search box is aimed at encouraging users to search for businesses, even if they don’t have a specific address.

“It [the local search feature] will soon be featured even more prominently,” said David Schafer, general manager of Mapquest.com.

Sponsored links provided by Google appear on the right-hand side of the search results page. Google has been providing these listings to Mapquest since June of 2003 for its maps and driving directions results. Interestingly, Google uses Mapquest to power the mapping features of its own local search offering, now in beta.

Mapquest is competing in an ever-more-crowded field in the local search arena as major players jockey for position in local search, a sector predicted to generate $2.5 billion by 2008, according to The Kelsey Group (TKG) and ConStat Inc. About 25 percent of online buyers seek merchants near their home or work locations, according to TKG and BizRate.com.

In early March, Yahoo launched SmartView on Yahoo Maps, giving users an interactive and visual way to search for local content. Less than two weeks later, Google launched its own local search offering.

Mapquest, ranked the number one mapping site and travel site in the U.S. by comScore Media Metrix in early 2004, has offered similar, local search-type tools to users for some time.

Schafer would not say how much usage the tool has had since it launched at the top-right-hand side of the homepage several weeks ago. He did say local search queries are “growing significantly.

Though the Mapquest Web site is 8 years old, the company was actually founded more than 30 years ago, producing paper maps for gas stations. The company still produces paper atlases for other companies.

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