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Online Mapping: Where Do They Want To Go Today?

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For several years, online maps have been part of the way people and businesses communicate places and directions to each other. Now we're sitting on a bulging treasure chest of new features and new options for consumers and businesses to communicate the "where" of their stories to both personal and professional audiences.

If the alternative is to stop and ask directions, the typical driver would rather run a gas tank bone dry. But if that same driver can glance at a map from the privacy of his computer before the trip, or print directions to take along, suddenly Al Bundy blooms into Indiana Jones. Born-again orienteers have discovered free mapping web sites such as MapQuest, Yahoo! Maps, and MSN Maps & Directions, which are unleashing ever-greater features in an increasingly competitive field.

Naturally, you want to take advantage of the buried treasure where "X" marks the spot on these map sites. Features—and limitations—vary based on which map site you choose, and whether you'll use it for personal or company purposes. While at work, it's important that you read the map legend—er, the fine print. For example, all three sites allow others to place links from a web page to a map and driving directions:

  • In the case of MapQuest, that entity can be anybody. "From personal home pages to national retail sites, LinkFree is available for you," says the site.
  • For MSN Maps & Directions, "Linking to MSN Maps & Directions maps is ideal for small-to-medium sized organizations that are not ready to invest in a full-blown location-based solution."
  • Yahoo! Data and Maps, however, is for "personal use."

Companies such as MapQuest and Microsoft (publisher of MSN Maps & Directions) offer business solutions that are far more complex than adding a free link to a map or directions. After exploring the growing collection of freebies, we'll take a look at the services that companies are paying for, including the Advantage line of business solutions by MapQuest and the MapPoint line by Microsoft.

Location, Location, Location

If driving traffic to the company web site has been a plus for your firm, imagine driving traffic to the new brick-and-mortar warehouse outlet: two and a half turns past Curvy Goblin's Ridge, out past Old Toad Creek Parkway. All three of the main mapping sites offer pushbutton means to email maps to friends or send directions to the company picnic.

Yahoo gets a prize for posting this sign: "These email addresses will be used to email the map on your behalf and will not be collected or used by Yahoo! for any marketing purposes." On mailing the map, Yahoo even offers a text-only option.

MSN had to walk the plank: While the Yahoo! and MapQuest sites used a simple web field to accomplish the map mailing, MSN Maps & Directions complicated things by attempting to open my mail program, which it promptly crashed. Twice.

Some means of getting maps off the web bump up against third-party services, and break the spell of "free"-dom: MapQuest customers can choose to pay about $4 a month on their cell phone bills for delivery of maps and directions to compatible cell phones, and Yahoo! customers face possible fees from SMS and web-enabled wireless carriers if they want driving directions delivered on the road. Fees are clearly marked in the sign-up process, however.

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