By making their code and mapping data available free to anyone who wants to use them, Google and Microsoft have given businesses impressive location-finding website tools to help attract customers, says Ross Bentley
Hospitality operators are expected to be among the prime groups to benefit from some exciting developments in online mapping that have taken place since the turn of the year.
Microsoft, for example, has incorporated mapping technologies into its Bing platform - the name of the company's new search brand launched at the end of May.
The reasoning behind this move is that Microsoft sees a close connection between how web users employ search and mapping, according to Matthew Quinlan, the company's group product manager for enterprise mapping.
"Two areas where this link is particularly strong are where people are researching a travel itinerary or looking for something locally," he said.
"Restaurants, cafés and hotels can all make use of the latest in mapping technology to help people find them, and to also engage them on their website to the point that they decide to book or visit."
The Bing service allows users to search for the location of a business, hotel or landmark and then view the results on either a standard road map, a high-view satellite image or from a "bird's-eye view" - digital photographs taken from low-flying planes that offer detailed impressions of streets, buildings and the landscape.
Users can move the cursor to zoom in and out, and to roll the map along - generally having to wait only a few seconds for the next section of the map to download. The same functionality is also available on the Multimap platform, an established online mapping service purchased by Microsoft a year-and-a-half back.
According to Quinlan, about 2,500 companies or organisations are using Bing maps on their websites, including the likes of Lastminute.com, Activehotels.com, Marriott, Starwood, Starbucks and McDonald's.
Microsoft offers Bing maps free to companies by making the interface code available, so it can be integrated into their websites. There is also a paid-for service for businesses who are building significant applications using the technology and who want the reassurance of a service-level agreement.
But for most small operators, such as Adrian Thurley, owner of the Firs bed and breakfast in Newmarket, Suffolk, a simple link to the service is enough.
When he is not looking after guests Thurley designs websites, so is perfectly placed to comment on the benefits of using rich-media maps to cater for online customers.
He says: "Most operators would need the help of a developer to incorporate Microsoft maps into their website, as it does require a small element of know-how.
"But the maps create a good first impression for people visiting the website, and I get a lot of people commenting on how it helped them find their way to us."
The birds-eye view functionality is particularly fun for users, allowing them to get close-up images of their locations of interest. Quinlan says areas encompassing about 80% of the populations of the USA and western Europe have been photographed so far, and that Microsoft continues to add about 30 terabytes of mapping data from locations around the world each month.
Online tourism information guide VisitBrighton is piloting the technology, allowing visitors to its website to locate popular attractions, such as the Palace Pier or the Pavilion, on a map before being given an option to click on a Photosynth of the structures.
IMAGES OF PREMISES
Marketing manager John Carmichael says he is encouraging businesses in Brighton, including hotels and restaurants, to take a series of images of their premises to produce a Photosynth that can be included on the VisitBrighton site.
Of course, Google has also been active in mapping this year. The biggest news on this front to come out of the internet giant occurred in March, when it announced it had launched its popular Street View imagery service in the UK, offering street-level views of 25 cities, including Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Leeds, London, Manchester and Oxford.
Google is reported to have so far spent about â¬500m (£432m) obtaining similar imagery of cities around Europe, taken by a fleet of cars fitted with high-definition, multi-directional cameras. In areas where Street View is available users can access street-level imagery by zooming in to the lowest level on Google Maps, or by dragging an orange "Pegman" icon on to the map.
The Street View technology is also available free to businesses, which can embed Google Maps directly into their site.
One of the first UK websites to incorporate the technology was online pub guide FancyaPint.com. According to Gordon Butler, founder of the FancyaPint website, being able to drill down to street level and see a pub helps visitors to the website make up their own minds about a place, as well as helping them to find it if they decide to visit.
Street View is also available for Google Maps for Mobile - another area where constant innovation in digital mapping is happening. As usage of smart phones, such as Apple's iPhone, become more widespread and unlimited data plans that allow users to download richer media without incurring huge costs become more common, expect to see an uptake in applications that combine mapping with location-based services, such as those developed by Loopt.com
Quinlan at Microsoft says that people accessing mapping applications from their PCs are more likely to be researching a trip, while the chances are that those downloading maps on to a mobile device are already in a location and trying to find their way about.
Either way, businesses in the hospitality sector are well positioned to take advantage of the technologies coming through as a means of directing customers to them.
THE IT PERSPECTIVE
Billy Waters, IT manager at Yo! Sushi
"Street view, and particularly Photosynth, have been around for a while now, but it is only the recent release of APIs [application programming interfaces] that has allowed embedding into websites rather than just external links.
"At Yo! Sushi we have recently carried out a root-and-branch review of our online strategy and are in the process of planning a new website with heavy Web 2.0 features. Street view and Photosynth are both possibilities for inclusion, particularly on venue-specific pages.
"While slightly more gimmicky than commercial, they are new and cutting-edge, which aligns nicely with our brand. Photosynth would additionally give us the ability to show off new, unique design features in upcoming restaurants online."
Richard Pemberton, head of IT at City Inn
"A drawback of systems such as Street View is the potential for images to be out-of-date. The view of our Westminster hotel, for example, is covered in scaffolding from some maintenance works that finished nine months ago.
"A practical application of Photosynth could be a 3D/360Â° walk-through view of the hotel to entice potential customers. While this is not a new concept, the trick would be how to use this ‘glossy' technology to its full potential to ensure speed of the display, so any investment is recouped."