The Geographic Internet : Open for Business

By Philip Abrahamson

The convergence of traditional GIS technologies with the Internet has led to a succession of companies chasing a common goal: to provide consumers with digital access to useful "local" information.This goal has been described by different names such as "Geographic Search" on the wired Internet, "Location Based Services (LBS)" on the wireless Internet, and "The Digital Earth" in business plans and white papers.Many companies have aspired to dominate this apparently lucrative market, but a growing number of casualties attest to the difficulty of the quest.

At a time when traditional Web search companies on the Internet such as Google and Overture are finally (and some might say surprisingly) achieving profitability, we will assess what lessons can be brought into the Geographic Internet marketplace, and what data and business models could place the industry on firmer financial ground.We also describe an open source initiative that may help to provide the necessary infrastructure.

Many companies have seen technology as the key to their success with the Geographic Internet, hoping that content would follow naturally, and a good business model would suggest itself.The Wireless Location Based Services industry is firmly focused on the technology of positioning users and presenting their location and surrounding data, but the data itself is often taken for granted, or introduced from the same data sources, such as paper business directories, that the industry is ultimately trying to supplant.Recently failed Geographic Internet company "Lasoo" was an unfortunate example of this trend, featuring admirable technical vision, but lacking a solid business model, and relying on existing business directories for its data.

Traditional Web search engines long ago discarded static, manually compiled, directories of information.For example, encyclopedias were the original paper-based precursors of today's search engines, and featured briefly in some of the early Internet content, before being superseded by the Web itself.The Web's dynamic, user-contributed, open data far surpassed the limitations of size, concurrency, and relevancy that characterized data compiled by private organizations.

Likewise, the key to successful content for the Geographic Internet is almost certain to be open, user-contributed content, and the richest source for that is none other than the Web itself.An attempt to geographically locate existing Web page information is suggested as the route to finally attain adequate content for the Geographic Internet.This hidden level of geographic content that exists already on the Internet is what the authors see as the foundation of the Geographic Internet.

Unlike the Wireless Location Based Services industry, the more mature wired Internet Search Industry has seen some attempts in this direction.Dogpile, Northern Lights, and Vicinity have all operated "Geographic Searches" that were based on the user-contributed content of the Web.The authors consider that their failure to make a significant impact was based less on their choice of content, but more on their inadequate integration with maps, and lack of scalable "proximity sorting", which limited the speed with which geographically relevant results were returned to the user.

Google's recent rise through the traditional Search market was in large part due to the speed and relevance of its results.For a Geographic Internet solution to achieve comparable success, it must provide similar benefits.It must, like Google, be scalable over a large number of servers; and for cost effectiveness must be based on an open technology.If Google had to pay license fees to a company such as Oracle for their database technology, or Microsoft for their operating systems, on thousands of servers, its business would have been severely curtailed.

A newly launched open-source project, Mobilemaps, attempts to widen the use of user-contributed content on the Geographic Internet.It offers a Geographic Internet "Spider" that crawls the Web, recognizing addresses on Web pages, and "geocodes" them (i.e., identifies their geographic location) from address databases.Unlike most of its closed-source predecessors, Mobilemaps is integrated with maps, and features a scalable proximity sort, promising comparable speed to modern search engines like Google, if installed on a sufficiently large number of servers.While Google's relevance algorithms needed a high level of sophistication to be successful, a Geographic Internet search has the advantage of automatically achieving a respectable level of relevance from proximity alone.By blending a simple keyword relevance algorithm with proximity, Mobilemaps holds the promise of a similarly successful level of relevance.

Good business models have been very hard to find in both traditional Internet Search, and Geographic Internet marketplaces.The traditional Internet Search marketplace was for a long time blinded by the graphical attraction of banner advertising, which mimicked traditional advertising in other media such as print, TV, and film.It wasn't until Overture and Google began using text-based, keyword advertising, that Internet Search companies have become profitable.

The profitable Internet Search companies found a ready market in small and medium businesses, which needed to target their advertising to specific niche markets so they could compete on price and visibility with larger businesses.Text search technology that includes a keyword input, perfectly matches these commercial requirements: it is faster and cheaper for advertisers to create text advertisements; it takes less time to display text advertisements to users; the advertisements are tolerated more than banner advertisements because they are less intrusive; matching the advertisements to keywords entered by the users in their searches ensures the advertisements are highly relevant, and more attractive to advertisers.

Following a similar path to early Internet business models, many wireless Location Based Service companies have been attracted to "push" advertising, in which typically larger companies present advertisements that will likely be considered irrelevant and intrusive to local wireless users.

In contrast, the advertising model that has worked well for modern Internet search engines, is a "pull" model that provides relevant, less intrusive advertising alongside users' search results by only returning advertisements related to what users are searching for, and only when they are searching.

A similar model is certain to be applicable to the Geographic Internet: combining a keyword search with text advertising achieves similar market advantages.Furthermore, by adding a location element to the search and advertising, there should be a significant increase in the advertising relevance, benefiting advertisers, users, and the Geographic Internet search services.

The necessary technology for keyword advertising in a Geographic Internet search will shortly be available in the open-source Mobilemaps, and should help to introduce this advertising model to the Geographic Internet Industry.

Currently successful search engines like Google must naturally limit the number of advertisers seeking visibility through particular keywords, for example "insurance".A Geographic Internet search company, however, can sell this same keyword to many more advertisers in different geographic areas.Consequently, there may be even greater commercial promise for the Geographic Internet than the traditional search market.

Looking back on the Geographic Internet's early failures, particularly in light of the recent successes in the traditional search market, suggests that the Industry's previous problems are possible to solve.Adopting a user-friendly advertising model, and an open, user-contributed data model will create a Geographic Internet that can be both profitable for companies, and an indispensable resource for users.

Philip Abrahamson
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Peter Abrahamson
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Published Monday, December 30th, 2002

Written by Philip Abrahamson

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