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Local search is expected to grow from being a $418 million market this year to $3.4 billion in 2009, according to a forecast from The Kelsey Group.
Yahoo is selling sponsorships to certain merchants for placement on prominent buttons that appear below a map that will show locations of stores, wireless hot spots and other sites. Yahoo Maps also includes a feature that shows traffic conditions and a SmartView feature that allows people to pinpoint on the map various destinations such as Chinese restaurants, hospitals and hiking trails.
To improve its mapping service, Yahoo Japan has been accepting information from the public about information in their neighborhoods, such as the opening of new stores--another illustration of the value of social technologies and networks.
Yahoo Local directly integrates user content and places it on a map. Typing in "best margaritas" and a city and ZIP code, for instance, brings up three sponsored results followed by reviews and ratings written by customers.
"Yahoo, in particular, has seen maps as another doorway into local information," Sterling said. "I have historically used Yahoo Maps because I can plot a point and find a hotel in proximity to that location, within walking distance. That kind of information is hard to get a sense from most text links or standard searching."
Companies are looking at subscription and pay-per-transaction strategies, but so far advertising has been the "most tried and tested" business, said Jeremy Kreitler, senior product manager for Yahoo Maps and Local.
"For example, Holiday Inn can be plotted on a map and provide links to do bookings and get more information," he said. "Those are good for getting brick-and-mortar advertisers engaged."
Justin Osmer, MSN Search product manager, agreed. "The advertising model is the one that will take the lead. Pay-for-call is an interesting model. With a pizzeria example, if you click on that ad maybe MSN Virtual Earth gets 5 cents from that call. It's taking the click-through model one step further."
MSN Virtual Earth allows people to layer multiple searches on one map, for instance, pinpointing locations of restaurants, movie theaters and hotels. Microsoft is looking into business models that would allow merchants to add photos of their stores, hours of operation and other information, Osmer said.
In addition, real estate mashups provide opportunities for local agents to advertise and list, said Matt Heinz, senior marketing director of HomePages.com. "Real estate is a killer app for aerial mapping."
Alternative ways of making money are being tried on a small scale. On his GeocoderUS site, author Gibson lets people enter an address and find the longitude and latitude for free, but he charges businesses $50 for 20,000 queries.
"There will most likely be a shakeout down the road as methods for monetization evolve and those with a solution survive," Kreitler said.
In all likelihood, it is far too soon to tell what mapping services or mashups will prove the ultimate successes. Driven by the power of collaborative grassroots thinking, technology is advancing too rapidly on this front to predict with any certainty--commercially or otherwise.
Online maps are quickly becoming far more dynamic than ever imagined and will soon enter new phases of development as other technologies are mashed into the mix. Pegg of Google Maps Mania cited the street conditions as one fertile area, where truly real-time data would drastically change their usefulness with such alerts as traffic accidents and storm damage.
"For a really killer map interface, the only thing left is a live video satellite," he said. "That's the only thing that is missing--up-to-date mapping."
Tomorrow: Meet the 'millennials'