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AOL’s MapQuest has strived to remake itself for several years. But it has really been going into overdrive since June, with new management, and the launch of MapQuest Local, a map-based directory and city guide service. More recently, it has unleashed specially tailored versions for smartphones.

What’s surprising about MapQuest is that it remains the industry leader, even though it has been overshadowed by more cutting-edge mapping services from Google, Microsoft and Yahoo. It has 46 million to 48 million unique visitors a month. Yet it’s in the odd position of “catching up” to its rivals before its technology and distribution lag causes permanent damage.

“Since the end of June, we’ve been following an entirely new road map,” says Christian Dwyer, MapQuest senior vice president and general manager. Dwyer notes that the arrival of smartphones and GPS has added entirely new elements to the business. It isn’t just about printing out maps anymore. And it isn’t just about releasing the API either. You need to go “live” with saved information now, he says. That changes things.

The September launch of a beta of MapQuest Local, which incorporates data from lots of AOL vertical properties (autos, jobs, city “best of” content, etc.) is pivotal to the company’s efforts. The service has had 3 million unique visitors since its introduction.

The strategy’s second leg is the launch of My MapQuest, a personalized version that starts every search from a saved home (or business) address. My MapQuest has been available since the end of November.

“We want to help users on the front end of discovery rather than strictly be a place on the Web for directions,” says Dwyer. “We want to [provide information on] where, how and what is nearby.” The company will also “extend MapQuest to the mobile experience.”

A horde of additional changes will take place in early 2009, with the incorporation into My MapQuest’s home page of lots of personalized, localized content. Content offerings will include spatial maps, traffic, weather, a business directory, gas price info and even an AOL Careers job search widget centered on addresses that are searched. All of it will be offered via RSS feeds.

“It is about much more than the business listings piece,” says Mark Law, vice president of product development, a mapping veteran recruited from Yahoo. “We are going to be a one-stop shop for all local content” — something that is being syndicated to sites such as Yelp and Flickr.

Law sees the introduction of the RSS feeds and the ability to save content as key to making MapQuest a resource that goes beyond the commute or the overnight trip. “It is going to really drive hyperlocal,” he says. The launch of a MapQuest Twitter feature also moves along this path, as users will be able to constantly update conversations (“the crash on the 805 is really gruesome”).

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