Google to Earth

Google launched a new mapping product that lets users do virtual flyovers, then find local businesses.

Google Earth is a free downloadable tool for viewing streaming, 3-D views of streetscapes and landscapes. The service is based on the Keyhole technology that Google acquired in October; the search giant first tested Google Earth among Keyhole’s paid subscribers.

Google has integrated its local search and mapping applications to let users find local businesses and information. The interface includes a search query box and a list of various types of local information, such as schools, parks, restaurants and cafes.

If an item on the list is checked, icons appear on the map view. Clicking on an icon brings up basic information and links to any Web content available.

“There are two ways for viewing local information,” said John Hanke, general manager of Keyhole. “You can enter a loosely structured query into the search box, or the layers let you browse around and explore without typing in words.”

Google’s Web crawlers look for data, such as place names, and matches it to the records it gets from data providers, such as Yellow Pages listings, Hanke said.

For example, if a blogger reviewed a restaurant, a snippet from the blog item might appear when the icon showing that restaurant’s location on the map was clicked. The searcher could click on it to read the rest of the entry.

The service includes video playback of driving directions, so that users can practice the route before getting on the road. “You get a nice sense of the road itself, such as how the freeway exits are structured,” Hanke said. “It’s almost like having been there before.”

Google said the geographic information would let people get a better view of local information, for example, when researching a trip. They can combine information from the different Google services, such as cross-referencing school districts with address look-ups of available homes, business listings and public transportation.

Users can save and share their search results in a My Searches folder within the application window. For example, someone planning a trip could save the hotel location, driving directions from the airport and a list of restaurants that looked interesting.

Google has made two more advanced versions available.

Google Earth Plus, offered for a $20 annual subscription, adds GPS compatibility, data import and annotation. Google Earth Pro, for $400 a year, includes high-resolution printing and GIS data import capabilities.

Hanke said there probably would be ads in the free version at some point. “It’s part of the concept, but we’re not there yet,” he said. “If we do it, it will have to fit with the Google mantra of making ads useful and not obnoxious.”

Robert Charlton, an independent consultant on search engine optimizing, said marketers definitely would buy placements on Google Earth. “Marketers will use it more and more, because [Google Earth] is going to be harder to optimize for than regular search will be. If you’re a national company with local outlets, you want to buy ads that fit into that system.”

Charlton said a problem with Google’s local search is that it determines the relevancy of a business listing by its distance from the center of the zip code or address.

“That’s great if you’re looking for pizza or a café,” he said, “but if you’re looking for a lawyer, it doesn’t have to be on a particular street.” Ads will have to be targeted and sold differently, he added, so that advertisers could buy by ZIP code or region.

Andy Beal, vice president of marketing at WebSourced, a search optimization company, said Google probably hopes to take the cool factor to the bank.

“It will be tough to monetize Google Earth as a stand-alone product,” he said. “As bandwidth increases, you could see Google Earth available as a Web service without having to download the application first. This would no doubt increase the use of the product, which would bring more consumers looking for local search results. Wherever Google can attract the consumers, they’ll attract the advertisers.”

Search rival MSN plans to offer its own Virtual Earth later this year.

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