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Google Mashes Up Local

Google finally took its popular Maps service out of beta, only to subsume it into a new entity called Google Local.

Google Local combines Google Maps with Google Local Search to create the new entity. (Both maps.google.com and local.google.com will both remain live, leading to the same place.)

"We've taken what we consider the best features of both to create a single, integrated experience," said Brett Taylor, Google Local product manager. "It combines the big, dynamic map and satellite imagery with the search functionality and data from Google local search."

The new integrated search, which is being rolled out in phases and is already live for some map searches, includes a single "smart" search box at the top of the page, Taylor said, allowing the user to do more complex queries such as "Wi-Fi hotspots Palo Alto." Maps with different views, driving directions and local businesses will be accessed from the same interface.

"We're proud of the fluidity with which you can go from maps to local search to directions and back again," Taylor said. "Maps are so crucial to the local search experience and vice versa."

Google has added new data sources, so that clicking on one of the "bubbles" that indicates a local business may bring up more than just its address. Crawls of unstructured data on the Web may add such things as how many rooms a hotel has or restaurant reviews.

Taylor said the combo was a response to feedback and the way people use local search. "We realized that maps and local search are so inextricably connected in the minds of users that having two separate places was a disservice," he said.

Kelsey Group analyst Greg Sterling said he had been a bit surprised by the massive usage of mapping applications. "The interface now featuring a prominent map is striking because it shows how popular not only Google Maps has been, but mapping as an aspect of this whole local search phenomenon," he said.

Sterling said the new Google interface is similar to Yahoo's recent redesign. Yahoo Local also placed a map on local search results. In August, Yahoo integrated its Yahoo 360 social networking service with its local search, so that users could rate local businesses and search for businesses their friends had rated.

"The difference between the three [top search providers] is that Yahoo has some additional content there, a broader content offering than either MSN Virtual Earth or Google Local," he said.

On Wednesday, Yahoo announced it would buy Upcoming.org, a social events calendaring service, and said it planned to roll it into its local search offerings.

Google officially launched Maps in March as an adjunct to its local search, launched in March 2004.

Yahoo and Ask Jeeves both launched local search products in August 2004. AOL Local Search went live in February 2005.

MSN didn't release a beta version of local search until June 2005, but when it did, its version included maps and aerial views.

Local is perhaps even more hotly contested than the rest of the search market, due to the possibility of increased revenue from ads that are highly targeted. For example, a restaurant would likely pay more to have its ad appear when someone was searching for a restaurant in the neighborhood where it was located than when someone merely searched for "Detroit restaurant."

Google's edge is the popularity of its APIs that let third-party developers build applications that use the map data, Sterling said. "What they've done with the APIs has helped to differentiate that product. They've given third-party developers the ability to create 'mash-ups' that help build awareness of Google Maps and create new interesting uses of the maps that might not otherwise have existed."