The End of Yahoo Maps and the Missing Local Strategy

Shortly after Marissa Mayer took over as CEO of Yahoo she made a pledge to revitalize many of Yahoo’s long-suffering consumer properties, such as Yahoo Mail and Finance. She also signaled that search would be a “core priority.”

She has increasingly made good on that promise — especially with the recent, re-negotiated search agreement with Microsoft that gives Yahoo more control and flexibility. But somewhere in that mix is local content and local search, which have not received the attention of other inititiatives. Indeed, if anything, Yahoo has distanced itself from local.

Mayer explained that despite the renewed Yahoo focus on the consumer experience in general and search in particular, the company wasn’t going to invest in local search. In roughly Q3 of 2012 Mayer said the following:

I really do love [local], but it requires a deep investment, a lot of energy and time to build terrific listings. We already have some products in this area. They’re good at the moment, but it’s hard to take that next step. We don’t expect to make changes in the short term. It’s not an area where we’re going to make significant investments right now.

Given Mayer’s background, especially right before she left Google, I was very surprised by this. She had managed the Zagat acquisition by Google and been in charge of the company’s local product before she came to Yahoo.

At a Yahoo press event later that year (2012) I had a brief chance to chat with her about Yahoo’s local reticence and came away with the impression that Mayer was really referring to maps. I inferred that she had concluded Yahoo wasn’t in a position to compete with Google and its massive investments in this area.

Prior to Mayer’s arrival, Yahoo had announced a deal with Nokia wherein HERE Maps (then called Ovi) was to be “the exclusive, global provider of Yahoo!’s maps and navigation services, integrating Ovi Maps across Yahoo! properties, branded as ‘powered by Ovi.'” This was one of a series of content and technology outsourcing deals struck by Mayer’s predecessor Carol Bartz.

Then, out of the blue, in September 2013 Yahoo made a surprise announcement that it had done a design refresh on the PC user experience for Yahoo Maps and added additional features and content, including new satellite photos and Flickr imagery as well as some new routing and public transportation information. This seemed to signal new Yahoo commitments (if only modest) to local search and mapping.

But then, last week, Yahoo said it was essentially discontinuing the Yahoo Maps website (as well as several other products):

The Yahoo Maps site will close at the end of June. However, in the context of Yahoo search and on several other Yahoo properties including Flickr, we will continue to support maps. We made this decision to better align resources to Yahoo’s priorities as our business has evolved since we first launched Yahoo Maps eight years ago.

Yahoo explained that it will continue to show maps in search results, presumably still supported by Nokia’s HERE (which is for sale). This support for maps in search extends to mobile as well.

Earlier this year, at its first mobile developer conference, Yahoo said it was now a mobile company. Indeed, mobile is one of the key growth areas for the company and the lead component of its “MaVeNS” strategy. MaVeNS stands for mobile, video, native and social.

Perhaps basic business listings and a map in PC or mobile search results is sufficient in Mayer’s mind to satisfy basic local user requirements. But it’s not going to win any new usage for the company from Google, which controls about 90% of queries in mobile search. (Mayer has said she wants to win the iPhone Safari browser’s “default search” business.)

There have been rumors of Yahoo acquisition talks with Foursquare, which I’ve always thought made sense. Despite the rumors, no deal has been struck (obviously). There are also rumors that Yelp is for sale, which would be an even stronger — though more expensive — acquisition.

Either of those companies would help plug a significant hole for Yahoo in local and mobile search. But it would also mean the company would need to plunge back into the “local search market” in a big way. At a time when Google is putting growing emphasis on “near me” search, local content and online to offline tracking, it’s strange to see Yahoo at least publicly backing away from many of these initiatives.

I suspect some of the confusion here stems from terminology. Local means different things to different people.

It can mean small business; it can mean national brands with local stores. It can mean franchises. It can mean map-based search. But from a consumer perspective there’s no question that location-relevant content is the single most important part of mobile search. Ultimately it’s online research about offline products, services and attractions.

There’s something here that simply doesn’t compute for me. As I’ve said elsewhere before, I don’t think that Yahoo can truly succeed as a mobile search company without a rich local strategy. And it doesn’t have to be synonymous with maps.

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