MSN Unveils Plans for Local Maps, Search, Ads

Microsoft’s MSN this week laid out plans for competing with Google and Yahoo in the local space, demonstrating a satellite mapping application and describing a local search service. Both will debut in beta this summer with locally targeted ads from partner Yahoo Search Marketing.

Beyond sponsored listings, however, the applications hold promise for marketers looking to highlight everything from local retail outlets to restaurants to WiFi hotspots to real estate listings. Microsoft hasn’t announced specific deals to integrate such location-based data into the applications, but says it’s in talks with a variety of players to do so. The company also plans to eventually offer more traditional advertising opportunities within the services, once the user experience has been improved.

The satellite mapping application, called Virtual Earth, shares similarities with Google’s Keyhole and with Yahoo’s SmartView. The company will use satellite imagery, both from the U.S. Geological Survey and from partner Pictometry International, and overlay it with data about local businesses.

A user will be able to pull up the satellite-generated map for a particular address, for example, and then overlay data on local restaurants, hotels, dry cleaners, etc. Below the organic local business data, MSN displays three locally targeted Yahoo Search Marketing ads. Clicking on the organic links to individual businesses will reveal detail pages for each business. Those detail pages will be shared with the local search product.

Yellow Pages data will initially come from Amacai, but MSN intends to eventually allow businesses to update and enhance their own listings, though it hasn’t worked out how to do that.

“Our intent is to be able to search anything — to take everything in the real world and enable you to view it in the virtual world,” said Mark Law, lead product manager for Microsoft’s MapPoint unit. “Restaurants, movie listings, gas prices, traffic, entertainment, news. The idea is to have multiple components that you can look at all at once.”

Law said the company was in talks with various data players to provide the other components. While he stressed the user experience was the highest priority, he didn’t rule out the possibility of sponsored data layers. On Yahoo’s SmartView, for example, Intel sponsors a search that displays WiFi hotspots around the geographic area that’s mapped.

“There has been lots of business discussion around businesses wanting to be a part of this,” said Law, adding that any advertising or marketing would have to be contextually relevant and add value to the user experience.

Microsoft wasn’t able to provide as much detail about the local search product, but said it would also debut this summer and would incorporate locally targeted sponsored listings from Yahoo Search Marketing.

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