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The future of the map
The leap from physical to digital maps was game-changing for marketers and consumers alike, but what's next on the horizon? Columnist Brian Smith explores some possibilities for the future of mapping.
We’ve come a long way since the days of unfolding a paper map across a dashboard just to plot the next move on our road trips. Though it’s unlikely maps will soon make another leap so dramatic as going from inhabiting our glove compartments to inhabiting our cell phones, digital maps continue to evolve at an astonishing pace.
Here’s a look at the direction future maps are heading — and its implications for local marketing.
Going beyond and below the pin
Today, the digital map is dominated by the pin. That’s not likely to change. Pins simply make it easy to find locations on a map — too easy to ever fall out of use. However, that doesn’t mean the area around the pin will remain static. In fact, we’re seeing the buildings the pins represent undergoing a radical transformation in their clickability.
If you open Google Maps and zoom in on your current location, you’ll notice that the walls of the buildings around you have become much more distinct and “3-D” — so much so that they cast tiny digital shadows. The buildings themselves have become so visually enticing recently it’s almost as if Google wants you to click on them… which of course is precisely what Google wants you to do.
As of right now, only the largest, the most iconic and the most frequently visited buildings are getting this clickable treatment. For example, take a look at Rio’s Olympic soccer stadium, the Maracanã.
By zooming in and clicking on it, Google literally blows the roof right off the building by allowing you to toggle through its various floors, making it easy to find things like bathrooms and stairs.
Places like shopping malls and sporting venues are the current primary beneficiaries of indoor mapping. While the mapping feature is underutilized at the moment, don’t expect it to stay that way for long. As businesses and consumers become more familiar with the feature, buildings you’re less likely to get lost in will begin implementing indoor mapping as well.
The likely early adopters will be big-box retailers, especially if their businesses inhabit multiple floors with multiple departments (or even multiple businesses) under the same roof. But other industries are ripe for mapping the great indoors as well. Hospitals, with their labyrinth of various medical offices, are likely early adopters. So, too, are sprawling universities and hotels. Your business location can be an early adopter, too, if you feel so inclined. All you have to do is submit your indoor location information to Google here.
But let’s say you’re a small business that isn’t located in a shopping mall; why should you care about implementing indoor mapping? Because inventory mapping is the future of local marketing.
These days, customers do so much pre-shopping online that they’ve often picked out their product long before they set foot in a store. This is especially true for millennials, who would prefer to skip chitchatting with the sales associate and simply pick up the item they came for at the discounted price of the coupon they dug up online.
There’s an obvious need for inventory mapping — just ask anyone who has ever tried to find a tool at Home Depot on their own. It’s no coincidence that Home Depot employs some of the best sales associates in the business; we’d literally be lost without them! Granted, Home Depot does have a map with inventory placement on their app, but that only does you good if you happen to have downloaded the app.
Therefore, the logical next step in the evolution of mapping technology is inventory finding and tracking. Eventually, we’ll reach the point where inventory is integrated with the map, and a click on a product ad will not only lead you to the store with that product in stock, but also to the very shelf it sits on. Many companies, Target in particular, are making excellent strides in terms of product mapping for customers. But making the connection between local searches and the product on the shelf has yet to be realized.
Most likely the breakthrough will come in the form of RFID or some other real-time location system. While beacons are frequently touted for their ability to push (or hassle) customers with notifications, they are proximity-based, and so they don’t track individual items. RFID technology, on the other hand, has the advantage of being incorporated directly into the product. Not only does RFID allow the tracking of individual items on the shelf, but it also allows the tracking of individual customers as they push their carts down the aisles — assuming they have products in their carts.
Self-driving cars, drones and the need for real-time mapping
Another aspect of mapping that’s going to continue to develop at breakneck speed is real-time mapping. The big push behind this need is self-driving cars and automated drones, both on the ground and in the air. Interestingly enough, self-driving cars, with their abundance of cameras and sensors feeding road conditions back to the fleet in real time, are likely to provide a major part of the solution.
As the speed at which maps are updated continues to improve, this opens up exciting opportunities for temporary locations. Granted, temporary locations do sometimes appear on Google Maps — for example, a search for the beach volleyball venue at the Rio Olympics will appear on the map even though the stadium won’t last much longer than the summer games.
However, for the vast majority of us, it isn’t likely we’ll be hosting the Olympic games in our neighborhood anytime soon. But that’s precisely where the greatest potential for temporary events lies. Think local farmer’s markets, music festivals, bike races and the like. Facebook does an excellent job at letting you know what temporary events are happening near you, but temporary events and locations have yet to be implemented on the major mapping providers. I’d expect that to soon begin to change.
Mapping the virtual and physical world
Another thing to keep an eye on with the future of maps and local marketing is the overlapping of the physical world with the virtual. As I mentioned in my Pokémon Go article, augmented reality opens up the potential for virtual billboards that will significantly rely on mapping technology for their placement.
From a legal standpoint, very little has been done to define the digital property rights that overlap the physical world. But my guess is that that the physical ownership of property will eventually equate to the virtual ownership of the same space. If this happens, you can be certain that digital mapping precision will take on an even greater importance.
Google Maps becomes an increasingly walled garden
Ads have officially arrived on Google Maps. As such, Google would prefer that you not leave the map — unless of course, you click on an ad. In an effort to keep you in Google Maps longer, and therefore increase the likelihood of your clicking on an ad, expect Google Maps to become an increasingly walled garden.
The only way Google accomplishes this is by improving the utility of Maps through things like indoor mapping and by returning increasingly personalized local search results directly to the map. Furthermore, you can be certain that as the utility of digital maps improves, so will the importance of local search.
Mapping the great indoors is the next frontier. But it’s only the beginning. It’s time brands take a long look at the map and start plotting a course for the future ahead.
Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.