Yahoo Inc. plans to begin public testing on Thursday of an improved version of its online mapping service designed to make it easier to use and more friendly to external developers. The Sunnyvale, California, company will begin previewing the updated Yahoo Maps service on Thursday at http://maps.yahoo.com/beta, Yahoo executives said Wednesday.
The move to enhance Yahoo Maps had been widely awaited, as recently rivals Google Inc. and Microsoft Corp.’s MSN division have trotted out competing services that are seen as more advanced than what Yahoo currently offers.
Users have been particularly drawn to the satellite and aerial images that both Google and MSN are providing in their mapping services. Yahoo users expecting to see those types of images on the mapping service will have to wait a while longer, the executives said. However, that feature will be added to Yahoo Maps eventually, they said.
Online maps have become essential components to the increasingly popular local search services Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and others offer, to let users find business listings.
The improved Yahoo Maps features a revamped user interface which traces routes to more than two points, so users can sketch a trip that involves stops in four different places, as opposed to the more conventional Point A-to-Point B functionality. On top of the main map, the interface also has what Yahoo calls a “mini map,” which is convenient to navigate across large distances and to zoom in and out of areas, executives said.
The driving directions feature has been enhanced with the capability to obtain reverse and round-trip routes, and to highlight route segments on the map by pointing at specific steps in the list of directions. Yahoo has also made it easier for users to scroll across a map, but supporting drag-and-drop with a mouse, instead of having to click on arrows on the edges of the map.
Moreover, this new version of Yahoo Maps is also more tightly integrated with the Yahoo Local search service for broader access to business listing information, reviews and traffic conditions, as well as automatic address-to-business matching.
For developers, Yahoo is providing new application program interfaces (APIs) to allow coders to integrate maps into their Flash and DHTML (Dynamic Hypertext Markup Language) applications, and host those applications in developer Web sites. Also new is support for geocoding and for GeoRSS, which are RSS feeds containing geographic data. More information about the developer improvements are at http://developer.yahoo.net/maps.
The improved Yahoo Maps puts Yahoo on a level footing with Google and MSN, said Greg Sterling, an analyst with The Kelsey Group. “It’s definitely competitive with what Google and MSN are offering,” he said.
Sterling doesn’t believe the lack of satellite images will hurt usage of the service. “Satellite images have a sex appeal and novelty factor to them but most images are too high up to provide a meaningful view of an area,” he said.
Those images become useful with capabilities such as the one found in MSN’s Virtual Earth service, where users can tilt high-resolution aerial images of buildings and see them at different angles, Sterling said.
Expanding and easing developer access to Yahoo Maps is a very smart move for the company, considering how a similar move by Google earlier has helped to create a loud buzz around its Google Maps service, Sterling said.
Currently, most people use online maps to get driving directions, but more and more people are also using them to discover local businesses and points of interest, so it’s essential for Yahoo, MSN and Google to continually improve the mapping functionality tied to their local search services, Sterling said.
By Juan Carlos Perez, IDG News Service