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Following closely behind the social media trend in local search, Microsoft Live Search Maps launched a feature that will allow users to read and contribute ratings and reviews of local businesses. This is part of a new feature set it began rolling out today which also includes:

 RSS feeds for updates to collections  Customers are now able to subscribe to a Live Search Maps collection and their RSS reader will automatically receive any updates made to that collection.  Firefox support  3D functionality within Live Search Maps on the Firefox Web browser.

 Advertisements  now incorporated directly into the maps using the Brandfinder technology.

 Further 3D rollout  3D functionality is now expanding into 14 additional cities in the U.S. and will for the first time be available internationally in five U.K. cities.

 Instant Answers Maps feature  For Live Search queries with “local intent,” customers will now be presented with the picture of a map, embedded into their traditional search results. For example, if you type in Las Vegas in the Live Search bar, a map of Las Vegas will be included at the top of your Live Search results.

Microsoft is doing some very interesting things in local search with the many social tools it has integrated into Windows Live Local and Live Search Maps, such as the collections feature mentioned above. Collections lets users tag map locations or local search results with certain terms that make them searchable or sharable among peers or members of a community or area of interest. The new RSS functionality brings an interesting twist.

Such features have the potential to tie together nicely with Microsoft’s existing products that are deep rooted among many users, such as IM and e-mail (hotmail). Developing a local search product that has user attraction and retention value around widely used existing products will be smart. There is also opportunity to integrate other products in the Windows Live lineup of products that are developing in parallel, such as the Windows Live Expo classified marketplace.

This product mix also includes the immersive Virtual Earth 3-D, which is by far the most advanced online mapping product in the market today but has somewhat of a bottleneck to adoption in that most users’ broadband speeds don’t allow its potential to be realized. It still has a great deal of potential and could eventually be a game changer in making 3-D mapping the centerpiece for local search (see TKG Advisory “Microsoft’s Virtual Earth 3-D: A New Dimension for Local“).

Part of the challenge for Microsoft will be to position all these products in the right way so as not to disorient or fragment its user base with multiple local search products. Though they are connected in different ways, the company currently has a few local search and mapping “brands” out there right now. Live Search Maps and Live Local are essentially the same product but have different names. They integrate the underlying technology of Virtual Earth, which is also its own enterprise application that integrates technology from Microsoft’s MapPoint Web Service. And then there is also Virtual Earth 3-D, mentioned above, which is a separate product with some of the same underlying technology. This can add to the confusion in an already fragmented competitive landscape of search products.

The products and their associated feature developments continue to be strong though, and the existing users of Microsoft’s many products position the company well to push these out and see decent traction. Underlying all this is Microsoft’s looming challenge of transitioning its products and its user base online (Windows Live product line) as the trend that is bringing most desktop applications online continues.

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