How MapQuest Works

By: Dave Roos  | 

screenshot of MapQuest
MapQuest created the world's first online mapping and turn-by-turn directions service. HowStuffWorks

MapQuest created the world's first online mapping and turn-by-turn directions service. It launched back in 1996, almost a decade before Google Maps, and was once so popular and ubiquitous that its brand name was used as a verb. As in, "I don't know how to get to Phil's house. Can you MapQuest the directions and print them out?"

A lot has changed in the online mapping world since the mid-1990s, including the rise of fierce competitors like Google Maps, Waze, Apple Maps and more. But MapQuest is still going strong as a website, a mobile app launched in 2012, and a licenser of its core technology. MapQuest continues to leverage its reputation for accuracy and privacy to serve up directions to millions of consumers and business partners every day.

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MapQuest pioneered the geocoding technology and algorithms that first turned satellite imagery and road map data into searchable, turn-by-turn directions. Today, the company continues to refine its routing technology to provide not only the most accurate directions, but also advanced features like maximizing fuel efficiency and viewing real-time traffic cams.

Before we explore the nifty features of MapQuest, let's take a trip back to the early days of the company — when it sold actual paper maps — and learn how MapQuest's domination of the online mapping game was undercut by Google.

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History of MapQuest

The original MapQuest, believe it or not, was born in the swinging '60s. In 1967, the commercial printing company R.R. Donnelley & Sons launched a paper map division called MapQuest that created driving maps for gas stations.

As the decades passed and computing technology improved, MapQuest went digital and was spun off as its own company in the 1990s under the less-than-catchy name GeoSystems Global Corp. Then in 1996, when the internet was still in its infancy and Netscape was the most popular web browser, the MapQuest name was resurrected as the world's first online mapping website, MapQuest.com [source: Harlan].

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Coincidentally, 1996 was also the year that two Stanford University graduate students, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, developed the "PageRank" algorithm that would become Google. But from the late 1990s through the mid-2000s, MapQuest was virtually the only name in the online mapping game, commanding nearly 100 percent of the market share for online direction searches. America Online (now AOL), another giant of the early internet, bought MapQuest for $1.1 billion in 1999 [source: Harlan]. When Verizon bought AOL in 2015, MapQuest was part of the package. In 2019, Verizon sold MapQuest to ad tech company System1. (Full disclosure: System1 is also the parent company of HowStuffWorks).

The first threat to MapQuest's dominance arrived in 2005 with the launch of Google Maps. Google was already the king of search engines in 2005, and the first version of Google Maps had some features that MapQuest didn't, like the ability to search maps for businesses, parks and other points of interest.

But industry experts believe that the real tipping point for MapQuest came in 2007 when Google removed all links from its search results to competing mapping websites like MapQuest and Yahoo Maps. Without any visibility on Google, by far the most-used search engine, MapQuest quickly began to lose market share and was officially overtaken by Google Maps in January 2009 [source: Sterling].

The next hit to MapQuest came with the release of the iPhone in 2007, which not only revolutionized mobile technology, but shipped with the very first mapping app, none other than Google Maps (just called "Maps" on the original iPhone) [source: Welch]. MapQuest was slow to release its own mobile app, which it did in 2012, the same year that Apple dropped Google and launched Apple Maps. One of the coolest features of the first MapQuest app was free turn-by-turn voice commands, the first ever in a mobile navigation app [source: Cunningham].

Fast-forward to today. While MapQuest might not be a household name for younger generations who don't remember a time before Google or iPhones, the company is still one of the biggest players in online mapping. The website averages 20 to 30 million unique users every month, which makes it the third most-trafficked mapping website after Google Maps and Waze (also owned by Google), according to John Chipouras, general manager of MapQuest.

Next, let's look at the basic underlying technology that makes a mapping tool like MapQuest work.

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MapQuest Technology

There is a lot of highly complex, not to mention proprietary technology that makes an online mapping service like MapQuest work, but here's a quick overview.

The core technology of online mapping is a process called geocoding, in which the street address of a location is converted into specific geographic coordinates (longitude and latitude). Once a location is geocoded, it can be pinned to a precise location on an online map.

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The maps themselves are created by MapQuest using satellite images and road data purchased from other companies like TomTom, a Dutch location technology creator. The online maps consist of millions of pre-drawn "tiles" that live on MapQuest's servers. You can zoom in on an individual tile or zoom out to see hundreds of tiles covering an entire city. Each tile is a baseline vector image into which other data can be plugged in, like the locations of businesses, restaurants or other points of interest.

MapQuest doesn't collect all of this location data itself. Instead, it partners with dozens of data providers who specialize in gathering geocoding data for restaurants, gas stations, hotels and more.

Of course, all of those data-rich maps are only useful if users can easily navigate through them. That's where MapQuest's search engine comes in. When a MapQuest user searches for "173 Hawkins Dr." or "coffee," the search engine scours the MapQuest database of addresses and locations for the best match. Results are optimized by anonymous feedback, using the search results chosen by past users to deliver the best options going forward.

Once the user chooses a location, it's time for the routing engine to plot the fastest and most direct route to the destination. This requires a very sophisticated algorithm that can juggle many variables at once: types of roads (one-lane vs. highway), speed limits, stop lights, turns, real-time traffic data, road closures and construction, and more. All data is crunched in fractions of a second to calculate multiple routes, each with an estimated arrival time and how much it will cost in fuel to get there.

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Using MapQuest

Like other online map and directions services, MapQuest offers both a website (MapQuest.com) and a mobile app. Let's start with the website first.

MapQuest.com will look familiar to anyone who uses other online maps. There's a prominent search bar on the top left of the screen where you can search for a location by name, address or keyword ("pizza"). Below the search bar are shortcut buttons that highlight nearby points of interest: hotels, food, shopping, coffee, grocery and gas.

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Once you select a location, MapQuest.com provides at least two routes to your destination. Each route includes the following information: how long it will take to get there via this route, current traffic conditions and the "estimated fuel cost." That last data point is unique to MapQuest.com and can be further customized by entering the make and model of your car.

But let's be honest, how many people still search for directions on a website? Since our smartphones have built-in GPS, most of us use mapping apps on our phones that provide turn-by-turn directions in real time. The MapQuest app includes all of the features of competing map apps, plus a few extras.

At the top of the MapQuest app home screen are two icons: "Find Places" and "Get Directions." The main difference between the two search options is that "Find Places" will give you additional information about the chosen destination — hours of operation, phone number, Yelp reviews — in addition to a button for "directions," while "Get Directions" goes directly to the directions.

Like the website, the MapQuest app offers multiple route options with the distance, time and traffic conditions of each route, but there are no estimated fuel costs on the app. The app makes up for that omission with several other cool features. There is a long and scrollable list of "layers" you can add to a map that go beyond the hotels, gas stations and grocery stores included on the website. On the app, there are shortcut buttons for bars, airports, banks, ice cream, schools, pharmacies, movies, hospitals and more.

If you click the "Traffic" button, you can opt to see real-time traffic conditions, traffic accidents and also real-time traffic webcams. Not every location has these fixed traffic cameras, but most cities do and they can be a great way to sneak a peek at highway congestion or busy intersections. Just click the camera icons on the map and check it out. One other cool feature of the app is that it shows the local temperature in the bottom right corner.

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MapQuest for Business

As a company, MapQuest makes money in two main ways: selling ads that display on the MapQuest.com website and licensing its mapping technology to other companies through MapQuest for Business. MapQuest for Business currently has more than 250,000 such B2B (business-to-business) clients that power their own software and logistics solutions with MapQuests geocoding and routing algorithms. Businesses use MapQuest in many ways.

For instance, Global DMS, a company that makes software called eTrac that helps real estate agents make accurate appraisals of property value. To do this, eTrac needs to compare the target home to nearby properties of comparable size. The software leverages MapQuest's technology to identify nearby homes, but also display maps for prospective buyers that include local points of interest like parks, schools and grocery stores.

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Some of the world's largest hospitals and electronic medical record (EMRs) companies also use MapQuest for accurate geocoding, directions and route optimization.

Coders and software developers can access MapQuest software development kits (SDKs) and application programming interfaces (APIs) for free by creating a MapQuest developer account. If your application requires more than 15,000 transactions with MapQuest servers a month, then you have to pay for a license. Enterprise licenses are available for large clients.

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Originally Published: Dec 6, 2005

Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Chipouras, John. General Manager, MapQuest. personal interview. April 14, 2021
  • Cunningham, Wayne. "MapQuest gives iPhone users free navigation." Road Show. July 6, 2012 (April 15, 2021) https://www.cnet.com/roadshow/news/mapquest-gives-iphone-users-free-navigation/
  • Harlan, Chico. "'Does MapQuest still exist?' Yes it does and it's a profitable business." The Washington Post. May 22, 2015 (April 15, 2021) https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/does-mapquest-still-exist-as-a-matter-of-fact-it-does/2015/05/22/995d2532-fa5d-11e4-a13c-193b1241d51a_story.html
  • Sterling, Greg. "A Eulogy for MapQuest." Search Engine Land. Oct. 4, 2019 (April 15, 2021) https://searchengineland.com/a-eulogy-for-mapquest-322945
  • Sterling, Greg. "ComScore to Report Google Now Number 1." Search Engine Land. Feb. 14, 2009 (April 15, 2021) https://searchengineland.com/comscore-to-report-google-maps-now-number-1-16570
  • The Verge. "Google Turns 20." Sept. 27, 2018 (April 15, 2021) https://www.theverge.com/2018/9/5/17823490/google-20th-birthday-anniversary-history-milestones
  • Welch, Chris. "Steve Jobs added Google Maps to the original iPhone just weeks before unveiling." The Verge. Sept. 29, 2012 (April 15, 2021) https://www.theverge.com/2012/9/29/3428380/steve-jobs-apple-google-maps-original-iphone

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