Editor’s note: In this three-part series, Inman News looks at what industry insiders and participants expect will drive change and technology development in the next few years. We’ll drill down on two of the hottest Web trends that are expected to get hotter for real estate: mapping and Web applications that drive consumers to broker and agent Web sites.

Editor’s note: In this three-part series, Inman News looks at what industry insiders and participants expect will drive change and technology development in the next few years. We’ll drill down on two of the hottest Web trends that are expected to get hotter for real estate: mapping and Web applications that drive consumers to broker and agent Web sites. (Read Part 1 and Part 3.)

Online maps for real estate searches have moved from novelty to norm in about a year.

“Maps represent the ultimate interface,” said Ian Pilling, marketing manager for MapQuest Business Solutions. “Mapping and search … let users search for properties in ways that make sense to them.” For example, real estate searches might revolve around proximity to work or a park or a highway, he said, depending on individual priorities — and maps are a simple way to put these criteria in context.

Maps are not just a flash in the pan — they are a stepping stone in an increasingly interactive multimedia experience, say other mapping experts.

Microsoft Corp. in December launched Windows Live Local, an interactive mapping site based on Virtual Earth aerial imagery that also includes birds-eye imagery for major U.S. cities that allows views from several different angles. The site allows users to create a list of map points, attach text and other information to those map locations and share those personalized maps with others. The site essentially adds the dimension of community to online maps.

“Mapping is not a standalone application. It needs to be integrated into the business processes that people are already using,” said Steve Lombardi, Virtual Earth program manager for Microsoft. Pilling, Lombardi, and other online mapping gurus discussed mapping innovations and trends during Inman News‘ Real Estate Connect conference last month in San Francisco.

The Live Local site has already proven popular for the real estate community, said Lombardi. Home buyers can personalize a map page with the location of for-sale properties that they are interested in, as well as notes about those properties. And agents can customize a list of properties for sale using the site, he said, based on the preferences of buyers.

Google in April announced the release of a Google SketchUp, a free tool for building three-dimensional models in Google Earth. Google Earth and Microsoft’s Virtual Earth are global mapping interfaces — Google Earth is a software application while Google Maps is a Web-based mapping tool.

In a blog announcement, Google developers said, “Go ahead and model that new kitchen, or deck, landscape your virtual garden, or impress your teacher with a roller coaster or medieval castle. When you’re finished, place your model in Google Earth. There! The beginning of a virtual world.”

Stephen Lawler, who is general manager for Microsoft’s Virtual Earth, said in a ZDNet report last year, “Rooftops don’t give you enough context. Literally, we want to digitize the real world and bring it to you on your computer.”

Microsoft has also captured street-level data for some cities and has launched a site, http://preview.local.live.com/, which gives users the experience of “driving” around a city in a simulated racecar. Amazon’s A9.com mapping site, at http://maps.a9.com, integrates street-level imagery with more standard overhead maps.

Such developments by major Internet companies suggest that mapping technologies are leading toward a more immersive environment that offers far more realism than a standard flat map.

Paul Rademacher, the creator HousingMaps.com, a pioneering Google Maps mashup that plots craigslist.org real estate listings on a Google Maps-based map, said other mapping mashups have incorporated other types of content — even live imagery.

Now a software engineer at Google, Rademacher said, “Somebody took the location of street-level cameras in New York City and took street-level imagery (from a9.com) and put that on a map. For developers (mapping technologies) brings up a lot of possibilities.” Rademacher said he expects to see more integration of real-time data, including video and photos, in Web sites.

Several major Internet companies, among them Google, MapQuest, Microsoft and Yahoo, have developed mapping APIs, which are essentially tools that make the platforms more accessible and adaptable to programmers who seek to incorporate the maps with their own sites.

Michael Lawless, product manager for Yahoo! Maps, said, “Not just in real estate but broadly — maps are becoming ubiquitous with almost anything having to do with location.” Ease of use is an important issue with new mapping technologies, he also said, as some Web users may have a longer learning curve in using the interactive mapping sites.

Gabe Gross, founder and president of RealBird Inc., a real estate technology company, said his company offers several mapping options for clients. The company has data agreements with 13 multiple listing services and has a number of clients from large brokerages that use interactive maps at their Web sites, Gross said. The company uses aerial maps from the U.S. Geological Survey, topographical maps, Google Maps “and we are looking to add other maps as well,” he said, as different clients have different mapping preferences.

“We believe that maps now have become a commodity. Last year they were pretty unique. This year I see that most everybody has them,” he said, adding that maps are “one part” of a larger range of services that real estate Web sites can provide to users.

The staff at Movoto, a tech-centric real estate company based in the San Francisco Peninsula, wrestled with whether to place its Google Maps-based property-search tool at the forefront of the Web site, said Mark Brandemuehl, vice president of marketing for Movoto.

“We had a very heated debate. We decided to put the map front and center,” he said. The decision, he said, now seems like a no-brainer. “I would not do a real estate Web site without maps. It’s almost jarring to me when you go to another Web site — it takes 11, 12, 13, 14 clicks to get to a map.”

There are some consumers who use other search tools at the site and some consumers who are frequent users of the company’s map-based search, he said. “We kind of joke about real estate pornography … there are people who are just kind of addicted to this.”

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Send tips or a Letter to the Editor to glenn@inman.com or call (510) 658-9252, ext. 137.

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