RealTime IT News

Search Meets Maps, APIs

SAN FRANCISCO -- With the launch of Google Earth on Tuesday, mapping got sexy. In fact, said Keyhole general manager John Hanke, Google had to halt downloads of the Google Earth client that offers streaming, 3-D views of streetscapes and landscapes because of server overloads.

It's about to get sexier.

Both Google and Yahoo announced the availability of application programming interfaces (APIs) for their mapping services on Wednesday. Google will publish the XML schema it uses to describe locations, Hanke told attendees of Where 2.0, a mapping conference taking place in San Francisco on Wednesday and Thursday.

Access to the search companies' mapping functions and the geospatial data that informs them could take local search to all sorts of new places.

The APIs will let third-party developers and publishers include mapping applications that use the underlying mapping and geospatial technology. For example, housingmaps.com combines information from Google Maps with craigslist's classifieds to show rentals, home sales and sublets in a graphical interface that makes it easy to understand where a property is located.

Yahoo will publish its own Maps API, built on the open standard for Geo RSS. Web publishers need only insert a link into the code for their pages.

Jeremy Kreitler, senior product manager for Yahoo Maps and Local, said the company chose a standards-based approach in order to take advantage of third-party applications already out there that could hook into Yahoo's map services. "People didn't want to have to redo their code in order for it to work with Yahoo Maps," Kreitler told internetnews.com. "We're trying to encourage people to get more local content online so we can use it."

In fact, there's a dearth of local content that can be related to local search results. Local search results are mostly bare-bones information: name, address and telephone number.

The job is too big for any one data provider to take on.

Primary sources such as county maps and databases may leave important information out. For example, Robert Denaro of NavTeq said there's no replacement for actually driving the streets. NavTeq provides digital map data for for automotive navigation systems, mobile navigation devices, and Internet-based mapping applications. Primary sources such as county maps and databases may leave important information out. He showed examples of streets that showed up on maps but were actually only dirt tracks. Verification is only part of the value his company adds; NavTeq provides up to 160 road attributes such as speed limits and traffic rules for the roads. The company also offers video capture and voice file notations.

"The value is in the attributes," Denaro said. "The more you can buy [that information] from local sources or multiple sources, it's a huge help to us."

Beyond road attributes, the industry is hungry for content to give search engines more to pick from. What makes local search results interesting is what Ramesh Jain, professor of information and computer science at the University of California at Irvine, called "experiential information." Such information includes video, audio and image files, as well as user reviews, blogs, news stories and upcoming events.

MSN's Stephen Lawler said that while Microsoft is investing heavily in satellite images and mapping technologies, it's looking to its user communities to handle better classification of the listings. "MSN Local Search (launched in June) provides the essentials," Lawler said. "MSN wants to establish a way for the community to get information into an open forum to be shared."

Users of both MSN Spaces and Yahoo 360 are encouraged to rate local businesses -- and when they do, their comments are available to enrich local search results. When 360 members search local listings, they're notified if someone in their social network has rated the business. When they view friends' profiles, they also can see what businesses friends have rated, and then rate whether the info they posted was helpful.

"It adds to the trust of the whole thing," Kreitler said.

Trust -- and reliable information, becomes crucial when it comes to search, said Google product manager Shailesh Rao. "The content bar is higher in local search," Rao said. "Users come with readymade knowledge about their communities, so users are more discriminating in what constitutes good local search results." The question that remains to be answered, he said, is, "How do we engage users as content providers?"