But for companies exploring the Internet for the next big business opportunity, the geospatial Web is the equivalent of a virgin continent waiting to be planted with billboards. The attraction is especially great for companies in the search business, for one simple reason: interactive maps have the potential to greatly extend the power of contextual advertising – the engine that drives the search industry and accounts for Google’s ever rising revenues.
Every time you do a search at Google or read a message in your Gmail inbox, you’ll see a different set of ads on the right side of the browser window. This selection isn’t random: each ad relates to a keyword appearing somewhere in your search results or in your mail. Users are more likely to notice ads if they relate to products or services they’re already looking for, as is demonstrated by measurements of the all-important “click-through” rate for contextual ads, which is higher on average than that for other types of ads, such as banner ads. Because search companies charge advertisers by the click, they have a huge incentive to figure out which ads will be most relevant to a user at any given moment and to make sure he or she sees just those ads.
There’s one big drawback to using keywords to tailor ads, however: advertisers lose the opportunity to cater to users’ other interests. Say you’re searching for tickets to The Producers on Broadway. You might also be curious about restaurants near Times Square with early seatings. But today’s search technology can’t hazard such guesses efficiently – and it may never do so. After all, what search engine could divine that a visitor to Chicago is interested in both Cezanne and architecture?
Maps provide a way out of this dilemma. We may be able to communicate instantly with friends halfway around the globe, but we’re still fleshly creatures who must fulfill our basic needs locally. If you’re new to a particular area, looking at a map is the most natural way in the world to search out local services. In this case, the “context” for contextual ads is no longer a list of keywords but a location – meaning that the primary measure of an ad’s relevance to the user is simply proximity, with no fancy psychographic algorithms required.
The developers in Yahoo’s local-services division understood this sooner than Microsoft or Google. In March 2004, they introduced SmartView, a set of buttons alongside a traditional Yahoo map that allows users to highlight points of interest, from spas to sports stadiums. (In an example of custom marketing, the maps can also show special icons for the locations of Carl’s Jr. restaurants, Jeep diesel stations, Intel Centrino-certified Wi-Fi hot spots, and other branded services.)
“It’s cool to see a photo of the Sphinx from a thousand feet up, but we’re focused on understanding people’s key tasks and helping with those,” says Yahoo local-services manager Paul Levine. But Yahoo is also asking outside programmers for help thinking up new ways to deploy Yahoo maps; the company released an API for its mapping service on the same day as Google.
Microsoft, which launched MSN Virtual Earth at the end of July, may appear to be a latecomer to advanced Web mapping. Actually, the company has been in the map business since the early 1990s, offering business-oriented products such as its MapPoint Location Server, which helps companies track shipments or mobile workers, and consumer travel-planning software such as Microsoft Streets and Trips. But Virtual Earth is a different animal, exploiting all the power of the Web-services model to act as something like a “geo-organizer” – a way of managing data intended to complement, and perhaps someday supersede, classic organizational tools such as address books.
The service could become a powerful rival to Yahoo Maps, Google Maps, and even Google Earth. Graphically, it offers satellite views similar to those available from Google Maps. But it also offers some unique features, such as a scratch pad where users can paste in notes about the locations they view. One mouse click lets the user e-mail the scratch pad’s contents to friends or publish them to a blog page on MSN Spaces, Microsoft’s new blog-hosting service.
“You’ll be able to take content from Spaces into Virtual Earth and take content from Virtual Earth into Spaces and share it with whomever you want to share it with,” says Mark Law, lead product manager for MSN Virtual Earth. That will be a boon for Web users, who will gain a new channel for communicating and sharing digital content. And it will be a boon for Microsoft, since every Web page viewed in the process of sharing represents new real estate for contextual ads.