• 5 minute Read

Map Quest

Location, location, location: The Web cognoscenti are mashing up data with maps to create a new way to communicate.

Map Quest

From 15,000 feet, the $2.5 million house at 123 Highland Drive in the Queen Anne district of Seattle doesn’t look like much. The roof is a nondescript gray square; the yard, a tiny patch of fuzzy space. This doesn’t bother Matt Bell, a 33-year-old sales executive in the market for a new home. He is focused on the numbers flickering at the bottom of the Web browser two feet in front of him, the constantly refreshed statistics such as average property value, county tax records, local schools, and previous selling prices. “Eh,” he sighs. “It’s $538 per square foot, but the neighborhood average is only $420.” Opting not to leave a comment on the house’s open blog, Bell abandons 123 Highland and zooms back out over the city, the neighborhood numbers blurring to keep up with him.

Forget point A to point B: Internet-powered maps are moving from simple driving directions to richly layered landscapes of living, breathing information. More than 1,000 new map-based Web sites have launched in the past year, with 3 to 4 more debuting every 24 hours. VCs are throwing money at any of them that promise to transform industries such as real estate and local shopping. And people are map hungry. In a Pew Institute survey last April, cell-phone users named maps as their most desired feature. (Instant messaging was second.) We’re not just talking about better maps: Digital maps are the Internet equivalent of a Dairy Queen Blizzard. They let users blend vast amounts of previously disparate data and display them however they please, and even add their own images, videos, comments, or other content. Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft all see this as huge; they’re spending millions to add both high-res satellite photography and street-level images to maps. But all the frantic activity leaves one nagging question: Can these developers and corporations chart a path to profit?

If you want to understand what an Internet-map-powered world might be like, look to Europe, where there’s a higher adoption rate of mapping technology. In the United States, for example, commuters get traffic updates from frenzied helicopter pilots shouting over muddled AM radio; it’s literally a top-down model. Many European drivers enjoy a more elegant solution. TomTom, Europe’s leading in-car navigation company, dynamically updates traffic conditions on the maps in users’ GPS devices, including which roads are congested because of an accident or roadwork and even the location of speed traps, all with the help of its subscribers. In effect, travelers are forming instant communities to cooperatively learn about their environment.

In the United States, people are just beginning to catch on to the power of these communities. Traditionally, in real estate, you’d have to go to the county records office or the police station, and pore through dusty file cabinets, to get the information that a Web site such as Redfin.com can display in a couple of clicks. “We want to organize information geospatially,” says Redfin CEO Glenn Kelman, “so people seeking a home can capture the gestalt of the neighborhood.” For example, the home seeker can ask why a house is more expensive than others in the rest of the neighborhood, and the seller can respond by adding information to the map about recent renovations, even posting before-and-after pictures. Such features keep the average user on Redfin for an impressive 72 minutes a week. “The map is basically a centerfold–it’s pornographic,” Kelman says.

People who hang out for long periods of time, contributing their knowledge to a local community, also have developers and advertisers excited about new opportunities in online search. “Maps enable immersive search,” says Stephen Lawler, general manager of Microsoft’s MapPoint division. “You can actually see the real world as you understand it.” Microsoft recently debuted map technology called Virtual Earth, featuring bird’s-eye, 3-D photography. Groups of like-minded users can add ratings and reviews, sharing customized maps with others. In addition, it’s testing an even more ambitious application, built from thousands of street-level photographs, which lets visitors maneuver through downtown Seattle and San Francisco. Both map-based search tools will offer businesses an unprecedented type of targeted advertising. Imagine, a retailer will be wooing any customers panning over its location.

Advertising is just one of the options being discussed in a nascent industry desperate for a revenue model. Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft currently subsidize mapping’s growth. “It costs Google money to pull up a map,” says John Musser, a blogger and software developer. “It’s all free now, but it can’t go on forever.” Targeted advertising may be the answer, but will developers and users accept it? Meanwhile, subscriptions have worked in Europe but generally haven’t been embraced by online consumers in the United States. “I don’t think any of us anticipated how ubiquitous maps would become,” admits Bret Taylor, Google Maps’ product manager. “We launched GeoAds, a map advertising program, this April” as a first effort to offset the cost of serving so many of them.

“The map is basically a centerfold–it’s pornographic,” says Glenn Kelman, CEO of real-estate startup Redfin.com.

Along with questions about money come questions about control. “Throughout history, the guy who controlled the map was the boss,” says John Metcalf, the former CMO at mapmaker Tele Atlas, who’s currently a consultant to Silicon Valley VCs. Opening the door to all of those user-contributed reviews, ratings, and comments puts the customers in charge. But that raises the prospect of unhappy sponsors and other users, because neither can control what’s said about them.

Nevertheless, the industry is currently favoring more collaboration with its customers. After all, companies can’t predict everything people will want, and user-created content gives them more to sell. “We are definitely encouraging users to customize their content and share their experiences,” says Jocelyn Vigreux, president of TomTom USA. “It’s the mark of a healthy community. We don’t need to be in control of everything.”

Whether user-generated or not, map apps are rapidly evolving from novelty to necessity. “You don’t just want to find a 7-Eleven,” says Metcalf, “you want to find one that carries your brand of toothpaste and that’s open right now.” The future is ours for the mapping.

Lucas Conley (lconley@fastcompany.com) is a Fast Company staff writer.