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Historically speaking, MapQuest lost a beat by not pushing out its API. Instead of featuring MapQuest, most Web sites instead highlight Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft maps. Even without the buzz factor, however, MapQuest has retained its strong brand identify among consumers, and it still dominates map usage with a 64 percent market share (per comScore). Speculation has it that it would be AOL’s most valuable spin-off  if it were to come to that.

Speaking at Kelsey’s ILM conference in Philadelphia last week, MapQuest GM Jim Greiner addressed the company’s strong overall health and noted several trends in the mapping business that few would have anticipated even two years ago. Among them: the heavy use of YP-style category search and an overall move toward vertical categories.

“AOL underestimated that specialist (sites) win.” But now it is firmly dedicated to building out verticals, such as entertainment gossip, he said.

During those two years, category search has grown from 10 percent to 25 percent of all MapQuest searches. And “directions,” generally, are firmly entrenched as the second most popular Internet activity.

“People think of MapQuest when they want to find things,” said Greiner  especially women. Users go on from their mobile devices, too. MapQuest Mobile is the sixth most popular mobile Internet service with 3 million unique visitors per month.

But the searches on MapQuest tend to complement Yellow Pages, rather than compete head on. “It isn’t necessarily services,” said Greiner. Top searches include “Airports,” “Hotels,” “Restaurants,” “Schools,” and “Hospitals,” he said. “Doctors,” “Banks” and “Churches” are among the site’s top SEM categories.

It also isn’t about “local,” strictly speaking. “Sixty percent of local searches are not for home areas,” he said. More than half are for restaurants and entertainment. Shopping is also very important. But only for certain categories, and mostly on a vertical basis. “Users don’t go out and do a local search for ‘iPods.’ “

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