Maps and real estate websites seem to go hand in hand.

It only makes sense, I suppose.

Everyone wants to know where the house is, what the neighborhood is like, how far it is from stuff, and so on.

A map is one of those crucial bits of information display that gives a wide variety of context about one of the things we assume people are looking for when they’re on a real estate website: the house.

In this way I suppose it could easily be argued that maps are a sort of data visualization tool. They take a handful of variables and plot them using symbols to show relationships.

There is even a little bit of standardization to them. That’s why we can look at a Rand McNally road atlas and Google Maps and figure out that both are maps and that we use them to get someplace.

Online, the standard for the past few years has been Google Maps. Wherever we see a map online, we see the familiar yellowy-beige, the familiar typefaces, the line weights representing roads of various capacities.

But since maps are such a big part of real estate websites — some sites even focusing almost entirely of the map-driven experience — there’s a bit of a drawback. There’s a sameness that creeps across the real estate Web landscape.

As maps increase in size and prominence, the sameness also increases. There is less room for distinction or brand differentiation as the non-Google Maps portion of real estate websites continues to shrink.

Years ago, when Google Maps was released, there weren’t any other viable options to integrate map data into the visual experience of websites. The few that did exist either weren’t practical (custom map images from a designer get unwieldy as you try to extend that to every property in an IDX feed), weren’t that different anyway (MapQuest? or that other mapping tool I can’t even remember?) and certainly none of them offered the excellent integration API that Google provided out of the box.

Life was pretty good for digital mapping for some time after that. Everyone started figuring out how to customize elements of their maps and incorporating Google Maps into everything.

Then there was that whole fee thing. Sooner or later Google needed to get a little revenue for the computing resources being devoted to serving up maps for the world. Most just grumbled a little bit and carried on as before.

A few switched to Bing maps, which look just different enough from Google maps to push their own blanditude across the real estate Web. It’s like being excited because you can choose Coke or Pepsi.

But lately a viable alternative to map blandness has been growing. It’s a combination of open source technologies: OpenStreetMaps (to provide the actual data about where streets, buildings and other features are) and MapBox.

MapBox provides the ability to style maps any way you like. So instead of Google’s beige-yellow color scheme, you can use something else.

MapBox allows you to create styles for maps using coding techniques that will be familiar to anyone who knows how to use cascading style sheets (CSS) to change the look of a Web document.

Will absolute chaos and anarchy ensue from this? Will maps suddenly become reminiscent of the final days of MySpace? Probably.

But that’s just the way things go when people with little taste get their hands on production tools formerly available only to professionals. Once people get a little familiarity — or successful examples become available demonstrate the economic value of taste — then things cool down a bit.

Perhaps things like MapBox will usher in a map design experience of the mid-90s grunge design phase made possible by a generation of designers who grew up with a Mac in the house. Or perhaps not. Who knows?

What it does provide, however, is the chance to use one of the most-used visual design elements of your real estate website to re-enforce your visual branding efforts.

Shouldn’t there be uniformity in all maps?

A friend of mine made the argument that all maps should look the same — that consistency in cartographic design makes them easier to use. I disagree.

The maps and “wayfinding” designs used by the New York City Metropolitan Transportation Authority to guide subway riders are quite different than those employed by the London Underground. Both seem to work well enough that many people use both of them in their lifetimes with minimal trouble.

The different cartographic design choices in those maps — typefaces, colors, symbols, organizing principles of the lines themselves — not only serve their intended function but also help to reinforce the different character of these two different cities. The brand of London is carried forward in their use of Gill Sans, just as the brand of New York is carried forward in the use of Helvetica.

I suppose one could say that the branding of the cities to their respective underground transportation systems came about simply because of familiarity. The branding happened through repeat use of the systems.

But that simply emphasizes the importance of repeat exposure to visual branding elements — nothing new to brand advertisers.

In fact, it furthers the case that if real estate website owners and designers are to continue to increase the size and prominence of maps on their sites, then imbuing the design of those maps with visual brand-driven decisions would be a clear path for distinction and differentiation.

Let’s just hope it doesn’t end up looking like MySpace did.

Or if it does, that it’s your competitor’s site.

Gahlord Dewald is the president and janitor of Thoughtfaucet, a strategic creative services company in Burlington, Vt.

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