I’ve written before about the Map Wars, or the fierce competition between online mapping services to be the most advanced—or the most popular. And there have certainly been casualties, with valuable B2B mapping tools getting terminated or bought and sold. But for the past five years, the main online mapping services have not changed. The field has been more or less in gridlock.
That has now changed with the announcement that Yahoo Maps is closing, and fast. June 30 is the last day that the Yahoo Maps site will function, as Yahoo announced on its official Tumblr blog. The closure is not exactly a surprise; at this point I wouldn’t be surprised if all of Yahoo closed overnight. But it is a surprising choice, given the other options the company has.
Pulling (most of) the Plug
Yahoo says that the decision will “better align resources… to priorities.” That means Yahoo Maps is not profitable or popular enough to keep putting money into it, and getting back into the Map Wars is too costly and unlikely. Yet Yahoo isn’t completely nixing its map function, it’s just shuttering the site. Yahoo Maps will continue to be utilized in other applications, like showing where a Flickr photo was taken.
This is a little baffling. Yahoo is admitting that a good map engine is still crucial to its services, but it’s essentially bowing out of continuing to improve that engine. That means that while Google and Microsoft’s applications harness increasingly “smart” map engines, Yahoo’s remaining offerings will be ever more outdated.
Similarly, if the map engine will still be maintained to fuel those services, then there’s literally no reason to stop offering Yahoo Maps to users. Even if traffic is low—which it undoubtedly is—the remaining traffic still represents millions of consumers who have stuck with Yahoo after its downfall. By effectively referring them to Google Maps, Yahoo is risking they take their searches elsewhere too. And that means less ad money.
One option Yahoo could have considered (and possibly did) is simply outsourcing maps altogether. If developing competitive maps is too costly, as developing a good search engine was, they could contract the service out. Yahoo already contracts its search results to Bing, sharing ad revenue with its competitor and basically making profit as the middleman. If maps.yahoo.com showed a rebranded Bing Maps, users would get great functionality and Yahoo could earn a referral fee.
There are good reasons for Yahoo not to outsource more of its services, of course. Becoming a shell company of Microsoft is not the road to reclaiming past glory. But it increasingly, it seems like Yahoo doesn’t have any road at all. Despite testing out some non-Bing-branded search results, there are no announcements of a new Yahoo search engine, and more of their own services are cut every quarter. Yahoo is starting to look like a collection of somewhat-valuable web properties with no coherent brand or direction.
Perhaps CEO Marissa Mayer has a Howard Hughes-esque master plan that none of us can see. But the final day of Yahoo Maps will come and go with little eulogy, and when it does I feel like Yahoo will leave money on the table.