Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Maps and location online

Local services are difficult to do online, because the internet is not built around the idea of your location affecting what you do. That's kind of the point - no matter where you are, you can get to the same websites as everyone else. Sure, someone can create a website that tells you about local places and events, and individual business websites usually tell you where you can find their real-space offices, but that's just another outgrowth of the free-and-easy internet model. The same way Google can build a maps service, so can Microsoft or Apple or Facebook or Foursquare or anyone in their garage with the know-how and time. That's not a step towards clarity for local information.

What we need instead is a standard way to specify location information on any website so that Google Maps, Bing Maps, Whereis and all those other map search websites can crawl and index them, rank them and present them in any way they see fit. For instance, say BP publishes a list of the map coordinates of all their petrol stations worldwide as a KML file on their website. Google comes along and grabs that list, and then when you search for BP on a map, you can get your nearest petrol station, along with whatever metadata they associate with that map tag and a link to the website where it was harvested. We have a standard data format already that we could use for this: KML.

This kind of distributed map data publishing creates a greater incentive to spam, since now we're not just talking about page rank in Google keyword searches, but literal real estate on maps. If your result is more prominent than others, it's much more obvious and much more valuable. So there would need to be good ranking algorithms to make sure the right results show up for certain locations.

I wonder if map providers are already trying to do this, with their crawler bots recognising street addresses and associating them with keywords and icons. It would be surprising if nobody was trying, but I think a distributed map tag standard makes sense. It should also provide support for dates and times, so that we can list timed events too, and not just places.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - I know Google Maps already displays a lot of useful local information.
PPS - But does that come from automatic website scraping or from a team of people?

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