Google’s Satellite Imagery: What We`re Looking for?

It’s hard to argue with the sheer coolness of Google’s satellite imagery feature. But some advocates say it raises privacy concerns, while analysts point out that many Web surfers already consult other sites for driving directions. Just where does this new feature fit in, and how will it be used?

Google purchased digital map maker Keyhole about six months ago for an undisclosed sum. That purchase bore fruit recently when Google unveiled a new feature available through Google Maps. Those searching for an address in the United States or Canada can now connect with a map or, by clicking on the “Satellite” option, an actual satellite image of the location. Users can drag the image, zoom in or out, and even overlay driving directions. Best of all, the service is free.

It’s not perfect, though, or at least not yet. Right now it’s limited to North America. Keyhole’s general manager John Hanke says that their images cover roughly half the United States. In addition, they’re not always as up to date as some searchers might wish. The most recent images might be two or three months old, but some images might be up to three years old. For many areas, this is not a big deal. On the other hand, those searching for images of places with lots of construction going on (such as Florida) should certainly pay heed to that old cliché which states, “The map is not the territory.”

Some people have raised privacy concerns about Google’s new feature. It can be a little unnerving to see an aerial view of your home, up close and personal – and available to anyone who knows your address and cares to type it into Google. Keyhole’s origins provide no comfort for the paranoid in that department either. It was founded in 2001, and when it needed some money in 2003, it naturally went to a venture capital firm – in this case, In-Q-Tel. If the name sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because In-Q-Tel is itself backed by a well-known organization: the Central Intelligence Agency. As you might expect for a company indirectly backed by a government agency, a number of its 10,000 clients were also government agencies.

Would people really use these images for stalking, spy games, or other nefarious purposes? Or is this technology much better suited for the uses Google envisions, which include checking out how close their vacation hotel is to beaches, getting a feel for the neighborhood around a house or an apartment they might like to rent, and being able to make out local landmarks more clearly for driving and navigation purposes? One of the best ways to find out is by actually putting the feature to the test.

When a user clicks on Google Maps, it can take about ten seconds for the page to load (and that is with a fast connection). A map came up for me with the U.S. in the center, but it was very easy to drag the map so that Canada or Mexico sat in the center. Google did a quick redraw to accomplish the task; I could see it change several blocks at a time, but it was faster than bringing the map up for the first time. Zooming in and out was a breeze with the bar Google displays on the left side of the screen; just click on the plus and minus signs.

Clicking over to satellite brought up a breathtaking, full color image. I could drag the image in the same way that I could drag the map. Zooming in was also accomplished the same way. Starting from the most distant setting, I could easily keep zooming in until I could clearly make out individual roofs and buildings…and I reached that point about two notches from the closest zoom. At the closest zoom, I could clearly see swimming pools and individual trees. Cars, however, looked like little more than large colored dots; and at that, I only deduced they were cars because they were on the road. Needless to say, license plates and individual people were not discernable.

Since most people would use this feature to find an address, I typed in the address of a couple of close friends who live in the suburbs of a neighboring state. At the tightest zoom, I couldn’t make out their house. On the other hand, when I typed in my own address, I could easily make out my own apartment building, as well as other details of the complex.

South Florida is a bit more built up than where my friends live; my guess is that Keyhole (and therefore Google) put more effort into getting the details right for more “citified” areas. This makes sense; more people live in cities, after all, and more people are interested in trying to reach areas located in and around cities. Certainly, the details from the satellite image would have helped me to find my friends’ house even though I couldn’t clearly make it out in the image itself.  

When I typed in Developer Shed’s business address, I got a minor surprise. The road that we’re located on apparently used to have a different name, so instead of Flamingo Road, I saw the older name. And the little arrow that points to a location was pointing to…an empty spot in the road. Clearly, this office building must be less than three years old, and here was the proof!

If Google can’t find the exact address, it offers you several options, and in a very nice manner at that. The image shows several red arrows with letters; the letters match up to a list of businesses to the right of the image. These include phone numbers; when you click on either the business link or the red arrow, Google gives you the full address over the red arrow, in a white balloon. You can zoom in, too, but if you want to zoom in to a particular address at this point, you may need to drag the map to keep it centered.

Yes, Google has competition in this area! Generally speaking, when I want to get directions to a place, I point my browser to Mapquest. The company used to provide satellite images with maps of locations in U.S. cities, but discontinued the service last year. On the other hand, there are still some significant players in this arena. I’m going to look at two: Microsoft and Amazon.

Microsoft operates TerraServer USA as a research project. Clicking on the search feature, it gives you the option to search by coordinates, city (US or international), zip code, county, and address. I chose address. When I put in my friends’ address again, the next screen gave me a choice of images, including low-resolution, high-resolution, and topographical maps. Best of all, it included the dates that the images were taken. I chose the most recent high-resolution image, which was taken in mid-2002.

The image was not nearly as nice as Google’s, even though it resolved details up to eight meters. In addition, I could not zoom in any further unless I was a subscriber to the service. On the other hand, interestingly enough, I could buy a print of the image in various sizes and styles (glossy, matte, or laminated) for prices ranging from $22 to $145. This leads me to believe that it might be intended for a different purpose from Google’s satellite imagery.

Amazon’s A9 search engine includes an index that contains 20 million street-level photos of building exteriors in 10 major US cities. As you might guess from this, it won’t turn up images for more obscure addresses. Putting in the address for the White House, of course, turned up quite a few thumbnails of that historic building, which I could click on to get to the full-sized image; it also turned up two or three photos of the president, and at least two maps.

First of all, I’d like to point out that invasion of privacy fears are probably groundless. Neither Google nor its competitors could home in close enough to pick out individual people or cars, and the images themselves were old; there’s certainly no chance for real-time surveillance! If a person can get your address, they can see what kind of neighborhood you live in by driving there anyway.

The second point I’d like to make is the observation that any feature Google has, the other search engines will try to have within a couple of months. Satellite imagery might be a little trickier to copy than giving all of your email customers one gigabyte or more of storage space, though. How easy would it be to bring digital mapping technology and expertise in house at, say, Yahoo or MSN Search? And how many digital mapping companies are up for sale right now?

It seems obvious to me that the location imagery available for the different searches I tried suits different purposes. Perhaps it would make more sense for each search engine to play to its strengths in this way. Trying to out-Google Google could become a losing battle – and yet, customers have gained a great deal from these search engine wars. Satellite images have never been so easily available to the general public before, and it’s nearly impossible to argue with the sheer coolness of the feature. (“Hey, I can see my house from here!”)

There are a number of ways to tie this new feature in with advertising on Google, of course. When someone does a search on a business, for example, a coupon could come up when the person gets driving directions. Still, when I think of driving directions, I think of Mapquest; that is potentially the kind of mentality that Google would need to change. Then again, if Google is sincere about how it says it expects people to use the satellite imagery option, this might not be an issue at all. I like Mapquest for telling me how to get there…but now I might consult Google so I can see where I’m going.

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