By WALTER S. MOSSBERG
Fewer and fewer drivers use traditional fold-out maps in the car.
Instead, they simply print out maps and directions for where they're
heading from one of the popular mapping sites on the Web, often
moments before they leave.
One such Web site, MapQuest, a subsidiary of America Online at
www.MapQuest.com, has long been a favorite. Its straightforward,
no-frills approach asks you to enter "start" and "end" points for your
trip, and selecting "Get Directions" completes your navigational
duties. Numbered instructions, a map, and an estimated total time and
distance for the trip are retrieved to help you along your journey.
Yahoo also built a following with a similar plain mapping site.
But, since Google entered the category with a flashy new type of
mapping service earlier this year, competition in the online-mapping
category has heated up. All of the big portals and search engines are
looking to build their local search businesses, which they see as a
golden opportunity for ad sales and other revenue. And they have come
to see their mapping functions as a gateway to these local search
databases, which make it easy to find businesses and services in the
areas people want to map.
This week, my assistant Katie Boehret and I tested the old reliable,
MapQuest, against Google Local, http://maps.google.com, and a new,
enhanced version of Yahoo Maps, http://maps.yahoo.com/beta. Yahoo's
new site was just released last week, and it's still in its "beta," or