Home' Technology Review : October 2005 Contents 60 FEATURE STORY
waiting to be planted with billboards. The attraction is especially
great for companies in the search business, for one simple rea-
son: interactive maps have the potential to greatly extend the
power of contextual advertising---the engine that drives the search
industry and accounts for Google's ever rising revenues.
Every time you do a search at Google or read a message in
your Gmail inbox, you'll see a di erent set of ads on the right side
of the browser window. This selection isn't random: each ad re-
lates to a keyword appearing somewhere in your search results
or in your mail. Users are more likely to notice ads if they relate to
products or ser vices they're already looking for, as is demon-
strated by measurements of the all-important "click-through"
rate for contextual ads, which is higher on average than that for
other types of ads, such as banner ads. Because search companies
charge advertisers by the click, they have a huge incentive to g-
ure out which ads will be most relevant to a user at any given
moment and to make sure he or she sees just those ads.
There's one big drawback to using keywords to tailor ads,
however: advertisers lose the opportunity to cater to users' other
interests. Say you're searching for tickets to The Producers on
Broadway. You might also be curious about restaurants near
Times Square with early seatings. But today's search technology
can't hazard such guesses e ciently---and it may never do so.
After all, what search engine could divine that a visitor to Chi-
cago is interested in both Cézanne and architecture?
Maps provide a way out of this dilemma. We may be able to
communicate instantly with friends halfway around the globe,
but we're still eshly creatures who must ful ll our basic needs
locally. If you're new to a particular area, looking at a map is the
most natural way in the world to search out local services. In this
case, the "context" for contextual ads is no longer a list of key-
words but a location---meaning that the primary measure of an
ad's relevance to the user is simply proximity, with no fancy psy-
chographic algorithms required.
The developers in Yahoo's local-services division understood
this sooner than Microsoft or Google. In March 2004, they intro-
duced SmartView, a set of buttons alongside a traditional Yahoo
map that allows users to highlight points of interest, from spas to
sports stadiums. (In an example of custom marketing, the maps
can also show special icons for the locations of Carl's Jr. restau-
rants, Jeep diesel stations, Intel Centrino--certi ed Wi-Fi hot
spots, and other branded ser vices.) "It's cool to see a photo of the
Sphinx from a thousand feet up, but we're focused on under-
standing people's key tasks and helping with those," says Yahoo
local-ser vices manager Paul Levine. But Yahoo is also asking out-
side programmers for help thinking up new ways to deploy Yahoo
maps; the company released an API for its mapping service on
the same day as Google.
Microsoft, which launched MSN Virtual Earth at the end of
July, may appear to be a latecomer to advanced Web mapping.
Actually, the company has been in the map business since the
early 1990s, o ering business-oriented products such as its Map-
Point Location Ser ver, which helps companies track shipments
or mobile workers, and consumer travel-planning software such
as Microsoft Streets and Trips. But Virtual Earth is a di erent
animal, exploiting all the power of the Web-services model to act
as something like a "geo-organizer"---a way of managing data in-
tended to complement, and perhaps someday supersede, classic
organizational tools such as address books.
The ser vice could become a powerful rival to Yahoo Maps,
Google Maps, and even Google Earth. Graphically, it o ers sat-
ellite views similar to those available from Google Maps. But it
also o ers some unique features, such as a scratch pad where
users can paste in notes about the locations they view. One
mouse click lets the user e-mail the scratch pad's contents to
friends or publish them to a blog page on MSN Spaces, Micro-
soft's new blog-hosting service. "You'll be able to take content
from Spaces into Virtual Earth and take content from Virtual
Earth into Spaces and share it with whomever you want to share
it with," says Mark Law, lead product manager for MSN Virtual
Earth. That will be a boon for Web users, who will gain a new
channel for communicating and sharing digital content. And it
will be a boon for Microsoft, since every Web page viewed in the
process of sharing represents new real estate for contextual ads.
Annotating the Planet
As the big three vie for Web users' loyalty, they're likely to intro-
duce more ways for people to import their own data and see it
displayed on professional-looking maps. Google Earth Plus, an
enhanced subscription version of the program, allows users to
upload and view data collected by their GPS units, such as "track-
logs," series of virtual bread cr umbs showing where the user has
been. And other companies are getting into the mix. A program
for Nextel GPS camera phones, Trimble Adventure Planner,
helps users create online travelogues by uploading photographs
and pinning them to the appropriate spots on a Web map.
Siemens, meanwhile, is developing software that will let a
GPS-enabled mobile device associate notes with speci c coördi-
nates; when someone else with a similarly programmed gadget
approaches the coördinates, the note appears on his or her
screen. A tourist bureau might "label" a particular spot along San
Francisco's Embarcadero as the site of a fatal duel in August 1879.
John Udell, a columnist for InfoWorld, has coined a phrase for
this phenomenon: "annotating the planet."
It's a trend that the main providers of mapping platforms have
every incentive to encourage. After all, as the history of the Web
itself has shown, interesting content draws more tra c, which
drives more click-throughs. "The world is really dense with in-
formation," says Schuyler Erle. "Access to ubiquitous networking
and location- nding ser vices means that we can take that infor-
mation and make it accessible in the places we are actually in,
when we need it, and that allows us to make much more intelli-
gent decisions on the spot, at that time."
Every page on the Web has a location, in the for m of a URL.
Now every location can have a Web page---indeed, an in nite stack
of them. That may sound like a recipe for information overload.
But in fact, it means that navigating both the Web and the real geo-
graphy around us is about to become a much richer experience,
rife with occasions for on-the-spot education and commerce. It
means that we will be able to browse the Web---and the virtual
earth encompassed within it---simply by walking around.
Wade Roush is a TR senior editor based in San Francisco.
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