growing emphasis on localisation by online companies in India today, maps are becoming a useful tool for local information. While online maps have been around for a while, they were mostly used by companies to track their distribution network or customer demographics. However, with the increasing access to the Internet at higher bandwidth, online maps are moving into the consumer realm. Portals are looking for ways to integrate maps into their services and also as a means of attracting revenue through local advertising.
It is early days yet and maps are just beginning to register their presence among Internet users in India, largely for visual location search as yet. However, in developed markets, maps are morphing into a Web 2.0 phenomenon, providing 'layers' of information to which users can contribute. An example is Wikimapia, combining Google Maps with a community which can edit landmarks and locations on a world map. There is an added feature of local advertisers corresponding to the locations on the map.
The company has also been providing its mapping application to various websites, which have adapted them to their own services. The Yahoo! India Maps beta, launched in April, is powered by CE Info Systems. The service lets users find local businesses like pubs, movie halls, tourist spots and banks in a locality. According to Sandeep Srivastava, director, search, Yahoo! India, maps have a great potential for engaging the community. "Maps can provide content which is related to the location. For instance, if you are reading an article on Surat, you can be shown a map with the relevant location. Text gets boring after a while, and maps are so interactive and visual," he says.
Srivastava adds that content on travel or instant messages can benefit from map applications. The company is also exploring the commercial viability of maps through local business search. Yahoo! India has not added user-generated marking or annotations on its maps yet, but Srivastava says that the service needs to have "critical mass" first.
Google, which has a map service called Google Maps, is yet to be launched in India. However, the company is already testing local search in India and is expected to make the announcement soon. A Google spokesperson did not share details, but wrote in an e-mail response about the interactive quality of online maps: "The ability to better understand one's neighbourhood and the larger corresponding world around an individual through new mapping technologies and the ability to mash up these maps with other forms of content... is a relatively new phenomenon."
Google has already started offering business listings in its Maps service, with local ads in the US, Canada, the UK and Japan. "These ads are listed alongside Google Maps search results and have corresponding map markers. When you click on an ad marker, an info window will expand on the map, providing additional information about that business," adds the spokesperson.
Yahoo! has started the exercise with local listings in India. Srivastava of Yahoo! says, "Overlaying of information on the map without getting intrusive is the key. Targeting users interested in a location can be very contextual." MapMyIndia plans to add advertising on its site in the coming weeks. "A relevant ad appearing as a pop-up on the map will be more powerful than an unrelated ad," says Verma.
Microsoft has tied up with the Indian government to develop Virtual India, a map of the country in English, Kannada, Hindi and Tamil. Microsoft is also reportedly working on its own map product and is in the process of sorting out the legal formalities. A Microsoft spokesperson declined to comment.
Online publishers may be gung-ho about the potential of map applications, but whether that enthusiasm rubs off on advertisers is the real question. For now, search results are the preferred way of monetising online maps. However, as they get more interactive, advertisers may look for other ways of connecting with customers. A search for a pizza joint, for instance, may lead to discount vouchers. Publishers may also look at integrating maps into their mobile applications, where they are even more relevant.