Tuesday, January 17, 2012

New in town? Get a feel for a neighborhood with MapQuest Vibe

The race to provide targeted local tourist information has heated up with the introduction in October of MapQuest Vibe.

Gone are the days when MapQuest (owned by AOL) and Google Maps only pinpointed locations on interactive maps and distributed driving directions. They still perform these functions, but today they also traffic in searches of local attractions and services, and provide tourism information.

MapQuest’s new service is all about discovering neighborhoods, delving into their trendiest sections, and finding the top-ranked restaurants, shops and activities within their “hot spots.”

Introduced online in beta at mqvibe.mapquest.com and reinforced with a free iPhone app, MapQuest Vibe digs into 50,000 neighborhoods, 27,000 cities and 50,000 hot spots in the USA and publishes rankings of the top-rated neighborhoods and within them, the most popular restaurants and bars, retail outlets, activities, local services, lodging, spas and more.

MapQuest Vibe’s hot spots are popular areas of a neighborhood – often an intersection of a couple of streets – which have clusters of highly rated activities or venues.

For example, with its focus on breaking down a city into trendy areas and popular venues, MapQuest Vibe gives an editorially driven Vibe Score of a perfect 10 for the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C., which designates it as the most highly touted neighborhood in the city.

But MapQuest Vibe goes a step further with its consumer-influenced Vibe Ranks of businesses and other attractions. For example, Vibe Ranks categorizes Filomena Ristorante and the Four Seasons as the top-rated restaurant and hotel, respectively, in the Georgetown hot spot of “31st west & Corcoran Alley west.”

As MapQuest Vibe evolves, Vibe Ranks’ assessments of local businesses will fluctuate based on whether users vote them up or down, as well as on MapQuest tallies of the number of users who search or get directions for those businesses.

At 3 months old, MapQuest Vibe doesn’t have the volume of content that the larger and more well-established Google Place Pages does.

Launched in 2009, Google Place Pages provides abundant information about local businesses and landmarks. There are 50 million Place Pages globally, and they can be found in Google local results on Google Maps, Google.com and Google Mobile.

How they compare:

MapQuest Vibe provides a more convenient and accessible way to research and get a feel for neighborhood points of interest on a popular block than does Google Place Pages. With MapQuest Vibe, “hot neighborhoods” are ranked by attributes such as walkability or edginess and are displayed on a single page. From there, it’s easy to focus on local hot spots and search for top-ranked bars, museums or hotels within them.

Google Place Pages, on the other hand, enables you to explore areas of a city, businesses, museums and parks through photos or listings. But it takes a lot more work, such as saving points of interest to a map, to figure out how they all relate to one another.

MapQuest Vibe falls short in the comprehensiveness of information about particular venues. For example, if you’re planning a vacation to New Orleans, you see that the University Uptown neighborhood is rated 9.7 out of 10. From there, you focus on the Audubon local hot spot and see that the Audubon Zoo is the top-rated activity among a few dozen ranked. But the information that MapQuest Vibe presents about the zoo is bare bones compared with the zoo’s Google Place Page.

MapQuest Vibe provides the zoo’s address, a small map, contact data, directions and a skeletal overview of the facility in six sentences from Citysearch. There are no photos, no anecdotes about what it’s like to visit and no user reviews.

In contrast, Google’s Place Page for the zoo enhances a not-very-enlightening description from Wikipedia with more than two dozen photos, an enlargeable map, 20 user reviews written for Google, and 144 other consumer reviews collected from TripAdvisor, Yahoo and TravelPod.

Google also serves up a list of Place Pages for related sites such as the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas, 4.5 miles from the zoo.

Overall, MapQuest Vibe is a great concept, but it has a long way to go in executing its neighborhood vision.

Source: USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc., Dennis Schaal, Special for USA TODAY.

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