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Technology: Google Goes Local

by Dan Giancaterino

Summer 2006, Vol. 69, No. 2

Quick ... Do you know where the closest notary is? What’s the neighborhood like around the Wyndham Franklin Plaza Hotel? Is there parking near the Wilma Theater? You can answer these kinds of questions using a variety of local search and mapping tools available from Google, MSN, Yahoo! and other Web services.

Search-engine owners know that when people search for a product or service, they want local information. Local search sites also provide their owners with the opportunity to display paid advertisements. (Right now, online ads account for close to ninety-nine percent of Google’s revenue.)

Google Maps is the best known of these services. It features business listings—obtained from Google’s crawl of the Web and combined with commercial Yellow Pages data—along with maps and satellite images for United States cities. The satellite images are one to two years old, depending on the city. Until late last year, Philadelphia’s dated from early 2002. Now the Center City area appears to be from 2003 to 2004.

To find a Center City notary, simply type notary 19103. Relevant businesses will be displayed on the left-hand side of the page—yes, the ubiquitous Google ads are there, too—and plotted on a map on the right. You can zoom in or out and switch from map view to satellite image. The hybrid view overlays map elements such as street names and directions on the satellite images. Driving directions are also available.

Google released the Application Programming Interface (API) for its maps service last summer. Since then, talented hackers have created interesting and useful “mashups” by overlaying other types of data on Google Maps. For example, HousingMaps.com combines information on houses for rent or sale from craigslist.org with Google Maps. Zillow lets you search for a property and view it on a satellite image map, along with “comps,” comparable recently sold homes. They even provide a “Zestimate,” which allows you to compare a home’s estimated value to the asking price. For more mashups, visit GoogleMapsMania.

Google Maps does have imagery for cities in in other countries—I was able to zoom in on my mother-in-law’s house in Somersham, England, for example—but for best results, download Google Earth. This free program lets you fly to any location in the world—some places have better resolution than others—and look for local attractions, tilt and rotate the view and even save and share your “trips” with others. You’ll need Windows 2000/XP or Mac OS X to run Google Earth.

You can also access Google from your cell phone. Simply send a text message to 46645 (GOOGL). In less than thirty seconds you’ll receive a text message back with the desired information. Imagine you’re standing outside your favorite restaurant in Manayunk. You’ve been told that there’s a two-hour wait for a table. You whip out your cell phone and text Google with the query restaurant manayunk. In a few seconds, you get a text message back with some names, addresses and phone numbers. (No satellite images or maps, sorry.) Your date isn’t ruined after all! Yahoo (92466) and 4info (44636) offer similar services.

MSN’s Windows Live Local is similar to Google Maps, but features 45-degree-angle “Bird’s Eye” images for more than twenty U.S. cities, including Philadelphia. The images are also at least one to two years old. It’s a beta (test) product, so it can be flaky at times.
To scope out the area around a local hotel, type Wyndham Franklin Plaza in the “What” box and Philadelphia, PA in the “Where” box. When the map loads, zoom in until you see a yellow box with the caption, “There is Bird’s Eye imagery available for this location.” Click on the box. Once the bird’s-eye view is loaded, you can click on the compass to rotate the image or click on one of the nine thumbnails to move to a different area of the neighborhood. Satellite imagery is also available via the “aerial” link.
If you want to know what other people have discovered in Windows Live Local’s imagery—aircraft, landmarks, whatever—visit Bird’s Eye Tourist. There’s one for Google Maps, too, Google Siteseeing.

Want more satellite imagery? Ask.com, formerly Ask Jeeves, has a Maps service with animated driving directions so that you can “drive” the route from, say, your house to BWI Airport. Yahoo Maps Beta features “live” traffic conditions that can be superimposed on satellite imagery. That way you can determine whether you’ll encounter construction, road or lane closures or congestion on the way to BWI. Finally, NASA World Wind and TerraFly both let you zoom in on any place on Earth.

A9.com Maps features “BlockView” street-level images of two dozen U.S. cities, including Philadelphia and—go figure!—Fargo, North Dakota. Currently the images date from 2004 to 2005. A9.com is owned by Amazon.com, which also owns Alexa Web Search, the Internet Movie Database, and funds 43 things.

To check out the parking situation at the Wilma, type 265 S Broad St, Philadelphia, PA. You must search by address. If you want to search by name, visit A9’s Yellow Pages. You can “walk” up and down both sides of the street by mousing-over the BlockView image thumbnails in the lower right-hand corner of the page. If you want to enlarge one, simply click on it. So is there parking near the Wilma? Yup, right next door.

Privacy advocates have expressed concerns about local mapping services—aerial images are a great tool for stalkers, and A9.com’s BlockViews often contain shots of unwitting pedestrians—but these services are here to stay. As Sun Microsystems Chairman and CEO Scott McNealy said a few years back, “You have no privacy, get over it.”

SITES MENTIONED IN THIS STORY

Alexa Web Search
A9.com Maps
A9’s Yellow Pages
Ask.com Maps & Directions
Bird’s Eye Tourist
Craig’s List
43 things
Google Earth
Google Maps
Google Siteseeing
Housing Maps
Internet Movie Database
Map mashups
MSN’s Windows Live Local
NASA World Wind
TerraFly
Yahoo Maps Beta
Zillow