Google Earth's GM John Hanke: "User-Annotated Map"

Saturday Jul 7th 2007 by Nicholas Carlson

The GM of Google Earth, John Hanke, talks about how user additions to Google Earth add detail and richness to the application.

John Hanke

Google Earth is changing as fast as the world it virtually replicates. Now, Google wants to increase the pace. It wants Google Earth to organize all the world's geo-spatial information through user-annotation.

That's why earlier this summer, Google Earth and Google Maps general manager John Hanke announced that Google would open the new version of its geo-spatial mark-up language, KML 2.2, to the Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC). caught up with Hanke after his keynote address at the Where 2.0 conference recently to hear more about the Google Earth strategy. Excerpts follow.

Q: What do you mean when you call Google Earth a "user-annotated map"?

Well, it's something we started saying not too long after we allowed people to create simple mark-up in Keyhole, the application that preceded Google Earth. It seemed to tap into something people want to do. Everybody has some knowledge about the earth that's unique and it seemed like people really enjoy recording and sharing that. Over time, that mark-up language has gotten richer and richer.

Originally, it was just text, but now you can do photos and with My Maps, you can even embed YouTube videos [onto Google Maps and Google Earth]. We now see tens of millions of these annotations. It seems to be an interesting phenomenon and the end result is something really useful, a collaborative map of the world that's become very detailed. There's a richness to it you don't see in any other source.

Q: What is Google doing with standards to get more users across the world to annotate Earth and Maps?

There's a huge amount of annotation today, but to have a fully described map of the world, we do think there should be billions of annotations. That's not something that will be done by any one company. It's only going to be done if it's distributed across the Web.

People can have community sites about specific topics and, with this phenomenon of the long tail, you can have people aggregating around their specific interests and doing annotations around that and sharing them. And if [Google Earth] is going to be viewed as a single map, you need to have a standard so you can search and browse it. Otherwise it's just a bunch of siloed information.

What we've done is give our mark-up language to the Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC), which is a standards body that operates in the mapping space. Our hope is that there will be a common mode of expression for Geo-annotation the same way that HTML is a mark-up language for documents on the web.

Q: You've said that, like the Internet, Google Earth's content will be "built at the edges." What does that mean?

With the newest version of KML (2.2), it gives you the ability to include a referenced tag that declares you are the source of the annotation. The other thing we're allowing in KML 2.2 is linking between documents. Links are an important part of the way the Web is built. So it's basically that same context for geo-spatial annotation. It's really important to help this community of sites, this ecosystem, to be successful.

Q: How fast is the user-contribution rate to Google Earth growing?

It's exploding. It was growing at a good pace already when Google introduced My Maps a couple months ago, which lets people make very simple annotations. It's just point and click. That had a hugely positive impact on the rate at which these annotations are being created. There's no question it's a phenomenon. It's not as if we're waiting for it to happen. It is happening. The real question is how to manage this toward the best possible outcome.

Q: Is commerce happening over Earth and Maps? Are buyers out there finding vendors through annotations on Google Earth?

Maps are an important part of many commercial activities. The majority of the real estate sites you visit today would include Google Maps or maps of our competitors. We know that there are billions of dollars in home sales per year. In another area, you've seen all the major travel sites embrace this new generation of mapping products.

As geo-annotations become more search-able and more flexible and standards become more widely adopted you would expect to see many other kinds of transactions become possible. We'd like to create an infrastructure where non-commercial things are possible, but it would be healthy if there are some commercial uses, too.

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