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Commercializing The World, Google Style

Be warned. This story contains some big ideas.

John Hanke wants you to look into a mirror of the world.

The general manager of Google Earth sees the potential for the application to become a browser for the Earth: to be able to see from our desktops, 3-D-rendered views of the other side of the world. Or where we want to go.

It's a big idea. And there's a little more to it: Google Earth is fun, but there's little point if content creators can't make money.

The marks are in place for Google Earth to generate content that sells, but not everyone is buying. Nevertheless, Hanke has a vision.

The Start of Something?

Before Google Earth was Google anything, it was Keyhole's Earth Viewer, a 3-D sphere overlaid with aerial and satellite imagery of the globe below.

Hanke watched users write KML (Keyhole Markup Language) files and load them onto Keyhole's Earth. Based on XML, KML files-- placemarks, ground overlays, paths and polygons -- the files can all be authored directly in the Google Earth client.

"We enabled people to author data and overlay it [with] a placemark in Keyhole that was initially an icon and a bit of descriptive text," Hanke said.

"We extended that to allow people to overlay vectors. We extended it a little bit more to allow place marks to dynamically update every 15 minutes."

Not only did the sheer quantity of user-generated content shock Hanke, so did its innovative quality.

"The first time I saw people had begun to collaboratively figure out where a picture was taken and create a server where you could browse around and new images would come into view was something I never expected," Hanke said.

Now, with Google Earth, suddenly, anyone can drape satellite imagery, pictures, texts, movies, hyperlinks and 3-D objects over their own Google Earth renderings.

And Hanke appears closer to giving the world to anyone who wants it.

But not everyone is into the idea.

Count Jeff Somers, director of business development for Zillow.com, among the naysayers.

Like Google Earth, Zillow uses satellite and aerial imagery. But Zillow's business plan is slightly less ambitious than the creation of a mirror world.

Go to Zillow.com, enter your home address, and up comes a birds-eye view of your house, tagged with a "Zestimated" value.

But unlike Google Earth, Zillow's content is about money and that's the way it's always been. The cool factor only gets you so far.

"You can now go back and visit Ancient Rome," he told internetnews.com. "Is that cool? Yes. But there's so much going on, they'll have to find a way to make money."

Most wouldn't predict the demise of Google if it failed to monetize Google Earth, but Somers makes a point even Hanke acknowledges.

"It is really expensive to collect and provide all this data," Hanke said.

The Ad Alpha

Google began advertising in Google Maps last month, and bloggers have screenshots of ad tests in Google Earth. So to see the company monetize Google Earth with advertisements wouldn't surprise many.

"Our approach with Google Earth has been to be very careful about advertising," said Hanke.

But he did suggest that advertisements in Google Earth might enhance the user experience.

"We present our ads and, in many cases, people find that they do value them," Hanke said.

The advertising in Google Maps, blogger screenshots and Hanke's openness to monetization presume a future for advertising in Google Earth.

But what if Google dotted its globe with ads and nobody clicked?

The well-known trick behind the ads Google makes so much money selling is that they are placed in context with relevant content.

Right now, Google Earth is brimming: The impact of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita; the Six Wives of King Henry VIII of England; a map of projected sea level rise effects on Vancouver, BC; and a virtual tour of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake are examples of content users have generated for Google Earth.

But take a good look at that content. It's cultural. Advertisers don't pay for culture.

There has to be economic incentive for a commercial company like his to do anything, Somers said.

"Where we go next is going to be driven by our customers."

So the fate of John Hanke's mirror world comes down to this: Is there demonstrable economic incentive for companies to create content for Google Earth?

Next page: The Ways And The Means to Your World