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Peek at The Plans For Google Earth

Reporter's Notebook: Before meeting with Google Earth Product Manager Peter Birch, I had a theory that Google planned to turn Google Earth into a virtual world replete with avatars, flying cars and virtual storefronts: a Second Life clone.

When hasn't Google been interested in making money by opening a platform for users to share information with room for advertisers in the middle?

So when I was offered lunch at Google with a senior product manager for Google Earth, I saw my chance to have my theory confirmed.

There I sat in Google's sunny cafeteria, face to face with Birch, and I began a series of roundabout questions. But he saw right through me, realizing all that the questions led to one: Is Google planning to turn Google Earth into a Second Life-like virtual world?

No.

Birch said that there were no such plans for Google Earth and that Google is not actively working on anything like avatars. The reason, Birch said, is that Google Earth and Second Life have different purposes.

"In Second Life, you're exploring a fantasy world. It's very different than exploring the real world and that's what we're about: being able to discover, browse, explore and share all of the geographic that is about the world," Birch said.

Eventually, I decided to trust Birch's answer. He's just not the Second Life type. Though his job before Google was graphics lead for Xbox, Birch told me he's not much of a gamer.

"I'm not really into fantasy role-playing. I'm an information junkie. I love news, politics and information about the world." Doesn't sound like the kind of guy who'd get his kicks attending one of Second Life's a virtual weddings, does he?

So where is Google Earth actually going?

This rooftop for rent?

Since its initial launch, Google Earth has been downloaded over 200 million times by different users. Many of them are unapologetic schemers.

There's longtime Cape Cod rooftop advertiser Colin Fitzgerald who put rooftop space for sale on eBay soon after checking out Google Earth for the first time. Now there's a company called BrightGIS, which has begun marketing Google Earth 3-D Virtual Billboards.

But Fitzgerald soon called it quits and BrightGIS might have some trouble sustaining its business. In the end, only Google could reliably offer that type of superimposed advertising in Google Earth.

After talking to Birch, I can tell you the likelihood is that your rooftop will never be for rent in Google Earth. Birch and Google's plans for Google Earth are to make it mirror the real world.

So unless Google is renting your rooftop in the real world, it isn't likely to in Google Earth, either. But what about billboards?

Birch admitted that Google doesn't feel the responsibility to reproduce the ads displayed on every billboard on Earth. He confirmed that Google wouldn't feel it had betrayed its mission by changing the ads in New York's Times Square, for example. He said it would be too hard to keep Google Earth up-to-date.

But the truth is, superimposing advertising on 3-D designs isn't really Google's game. It'd be more Google's style to advertise to Google Earth users once it knows better what exactly they're searching for, wouldn't it?

Searching for 'Hotels Near Mumbai'? Then have we got the site for you!

A few weeks ago, Google quietly introduced KML search to Google Earth. Quietly, Birch told me, because the quality of the search isn't where the company wants it to be yet.

But make no mistake, KML search is big news.

When Google released version 6 of its 3-D design software Sketch-Up, one change was that users could now contribute designs to be included in Google Earth's default settings.

But Google Earth users have been contributing content for years now. They've been creating .kml and .kmz files that, once-downloaded, add information "layers" to an individual Google Earth application. Those layers might detail information about a yacht race, someone's vacation, or a hotel in Mumbai.

Before KML search, however, users had to find these files on the Internet, download and install them. But now, when users perform KML searches in Google Earth, the results will return all the relevant files Google has found.

To better understand why KML search is big news, imagine you're planning a vacation. You want to go to Mumbai. You go to Google Earth and do a search with the terms "Hotels Mumbai." If hotel owners in Mumbai are smart and know that there are 200 million Google Earth users, you'll find information about their hotels in the form of geo-located pictures, text and 3-D design.

But which hotel did you find first? And if you found another hotel first, would you have stayed there instead? Hotel owners might wonder.

So perhaps those owners will ask Google if they can pay to have their result show up first, the same way their hotel's Web page shows up first in a Google Web search. They'll ask if they can bid to have a link to their KML file and Web site show up first as a sponsored link next to KML search results.

What do you think Google will say? Sources confirm it is a likely scenario.

Sponsored search results were born on the Web the same way and give me nine to 18 months, tops, and I'll show you them in Google Earth. It's not Second Life; it's reality.