Where is Apple Moving in Local (and Why)?

There’s been lots of speculation around Apple’s moves into local search and advertising over the past year. This has accelerated in the past 30 days with the acquisition of three different local mapping-related companies (and a failed Waze acquisition).

We’ve covered bits and pieces of this here over the past few weeks and I’ve synthesized a lot of that thinking in my Street Fight column this month. It published on Monday and you can check it out here, as well as the excerpt is below.

Much more on this topic at our upcoming SMB Digital Marketing Conference, now just 2 weeks away…

Apple’s mapping-related acquisitions keep rolling along. Last week it was revealed that the company snapped up Embark, my favorite app for navigating NYC Subways. Lots of speculation has been swirling around these moves, as it goes for all things Apple. But a lot of it has been misdirected (bad pun intended).

First, as background, this marks the third acquisition (not counting the Waze miss) in five weeks to strengthen Apple’s backbone in mapping and navigation. Locationary standardizes local business listings, while HopStop and Embark specialize in different flavors of navigation and public transit. These features were clearly missing in Apple Maps’ famous fail.

But moreso than the features, these post-Mapgate acquisitions are all about what’s behind the scenes in this age of big data. This goes back to what a lot of people don’t realize about Apple Maps: it’s is actually a pretty slick mapping tool. But what it has in dazzle, it lacks data; things like place listings, navigation and public transit.

For the sake of comparison, these are precisely the things Google has built by collecting mapping and routing data from hundreds of billions of queries since Google Maps launched in 2005. Any good mapping engine will iterate and apply this data to get better over time. In other words mapping is a game ultimately won on data — not flyover imagery.

I wrote as much before Apple Maps launched, when the beta was unveiled at last September’s iPhone5/iOS6 launch:

However one thing Apple could underestimate is that mapping and local search are games ultimately won on function over form. In other words will it find what I’m looking for, regardless of pretty flyover images of Big Ben?

That’s governed by the local data and algorithms that deliver relevant search results. And this is new territory for Apple, which is now cobbling together a silo’d list of local content partners like Yelp and Waze.

Now realizing this, Apple’s is playing catch-up. And since it doesn’t have the time to build mapping data a la Google, it’s applying a tiny slice of its $145 billion cash reserve to buy its way out of the problem. The latest acquisitions achieve some degree of listings integrity and navigation, especially public transit directions famously lacking in Apple Maps.

While there’s been lots of agreement on most of the above, the punditry has unraveled in effectively answering the question of “why?”

Read the rest.

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