Microsoft enhances online maps in local search

Search engine providers scramble to improve their services to attract users and advertisers

Microsoft plans to up the ante in local search by adding 3D models of 15 U.S. cities to the maps of its Live Local service.

The 3D models will allow users to zoom into these metro areas and "fly" over and into them using their Web browser, a Microsoft official said. Microsoft expects to offer 3D models of over 100 cities by next year's third quarter, said Bobby Figueroa, director of product management for Live Local Search.

Microsoft, Google, Yahoo and other search engine providers have been busy improving their local search services because they have become very popular with users and advertisers alike.

Unlike searches conducted on a general Web search engine, which can stem from a variety of intents, those performed on local search sites tend to be motivated by a desire to shop, which is very attractive for advertisers.

Meanwhile, users have found that these local search engines act like phone directories on steroids, providing not only basic information like phones and addresses, but also customer reviews, driving directions and maps.

Microsoft will integrate ads into these 3D models in a way it considers organic, by displaying them on virtual billboards the users will encounter as they zip around the cities, Figueroa said.

Microsoft plans to announce the new feature, called Virtual Earth 3D, on Monday afternoon at a press conference in San Francisco, where the company will also change the service's name from Live Local to Live Search Maps, as well as the Web address for it to this one.

The richer mapping functionality will enhance the local search experience by giving users a more immersive, realistic and concrete way of exploring a geographic area than has been possible until now in Live Local, Figueroa said. Live Local has had satellite and aerial images, including very detailed "bird's eye" ones, but the new functionality will take the experience to another level, he said.

Like other local search sites, Live Search lets users find business listings, places them on maps, offers driving directions and displays real-time traffic information.

Google's Google Earth offers a similar experience, but it isn't browser-based. Instead, Google Earth is an application that has to be downloaded to a PC and that has its own user interface. Google's local search service also offers maps but it doesn't replicate the immersive and interactive experience offered by Google Earth.

"This level of graphical richness in the browser window doesn't exist in other online mapping services," said analyst Greg Sterling, of Sterling Market Intelligence. "This will raise the stakes in online mapping for everybody."

By delivering this via a browser instead of desktop application, Microsoft will make this immersive, 3D mapping experience widely available to many more people, Sterling said.

This eye-popping experience may seem like a novelty right now, because currently most uses of online maps are tied to displaying driving routes along with directions, Sterling said.

However, very soon, people will use online maps as starting points for discovering information, and then graphical richness and interactivity will go from being simply cool to being useful and mainstream, Sterling said.

All sorts of information overlays can be built on top of online maps, providing myriad opportunities for e-commerce, advertising and research, Sterling said.

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