Google Earth, which uses broadband streaming technology, shows an aerial view of a user-requested location. The software can zoom in from space-level close enough to see streets and buildings, and overlays the search location on the picture.
The service includes local search for finding businesses, residences, points of interest and other places. Driving instructions are also overlaid on the aerial view, and are available in text format, which is printable. The view itself can be tilted and rotated.
The new product uses technology from Keyhole Corp., a digital-mapping company that Google acquired last year. Keyhole, based in Mountain View, Calif., has built a multi-terabyte database of mapping information and images collected from satellites and airplanes. Google sold the Keyhole 2 LT software package for $29.95.
Google is not the first of its major rivals to combine aerial images with local search. Microsoft Corp. last week started testing on its MSN portal a service that enables consumers to get directory information from Yellow and White pages, corresponding street maps from Microsoft MapPoint and digital aerial images supplied by TerraServer USA, a research project operated by Microsoft.
Another major competitor, Yahoo Inc., doesn't offer aerial views with local search. But Gary Price of SearchEngineWatch.com said that's probably just fine for the average consumer, since aerial views don't add a lot of value when getting directions from one location to another. A street map or driving directions in text format is all that's needed.
But the Google service is advanced enough to attract attention, which adds to its marketing image of being a technology-focused company that's always on the cutting edge, even when less known companies, such as GlobeXplorer LLC, has offered 3D aerial views for years.
"This helps Google reinforce its brand," Price said. "It keeps people talking about Google. It keeps the buzz going."
And buzz has been a significant contributor to Google's success in luring consumers. As of early June, the company's share of the U.S. search market reached an all-time high of 52 percent, more than double its closest competitor Yahoo and more than four times that of MSN.
This certainly helps Google in the area of local search, which holds strong revenue potential for search engines, experts say. The reason is many web surfers look for products and services near their home or in cities they're visiting, making local search a favorite category among advertisers.
Google is offering a Google Earth Plus service for $20 a year that has additional features, including compatibility with global positioning systems and the ability to import data and make annotations. For businesses, there's a professional version for $400 a year that offers high-resolution printing and the ability to import data from geographic information systems.