Yahoo! Maps Adds Aerial Photography

After some careful watching and waiting, Yahoo! has decided to match Google and Microsoft/Windows Live Local, adding satellite and aerial imagery to its mapping product (although it doesn't quite have the "wow" factor of WLL's "BirdsEye" photography, which is itself imperfect). The addition of aerial photography fills in a missing piece in Yahoo!'s otherwise very strong mapping application.

Yahoo!'s US mapping product is the second most popular after MapQuest, according to the most recent data from comScore. Here's an overhead shot of San Francisco on the new satellite view, as an example. Yahoo! says it has high-resolution imagery across the US and the most complete coverage of any mapping provider in the US market. (Yahoo! also says it is considering adding adding ultra-high resolution imagery to US urban areas in the not-too-distant future.)

The company also offers the aerial photography globally, with medium resolution. But Yahoo! has incorporated city names, major roads, train lines and other data into maps abroad. Accordingly, Yahoo! Travel (e.g., FareChase) will be one of the first sites in the Yahoo! network to see the benefits of this imagery, as well as some other new features. (I'm very impressed with what Yahoo! Travel is doing; in a way it's a microcosm of Yahoo!'s entire search + vertical + user-generated content strategy.) There's lots more to say here of course.

This development further ups the stakes for MapQuest, the category leader, which has gone on record saying it will be adding aerial imagery in the near term. (MapQuest had satellite imagery years ago but abandoned it — the company was years ahead of consumers with that offering.)

To put all this in perspective the mainstream consumer public is still largely at "driving directions," although that will change as these applications continue to get richer and better. And we're just at the beginning in terms of what we're going to see on these maps: click-to-call, video, chat, coupons, etc.

Visual imagery will be extremely important going forward — the Internet in general is becoming more and more a visual medium — but a winning mapping site will require more than good visuals. It will need to have a combination of features and functionality, data/content, personalization and imagery. In the latter case, it means going beyond just satellite imagery and getting down to the street level (whether through 3-D or actual photography) as well. Showing me the site I'm seeking in context (whether a local business in Detroit or a hotel in Delhi) is what visual mapping is all about.

There's so much going on in the mapping space that this material requires a much longer treatment, which I intend to give it — just not at this moment.

Here are the official specs from Yahoo!:

  • Comprehensive Nationwide Satellite Imagery Coverage
    Wall-to-wall coverage within the lower 48 states in the US. We are going for the best coverage nationwide, from the streets of New York to every inch of Redding, CA.
  • Global Satellite Imagery
    The product features global images at 15 meters per pixel (zoom level 5, medium resolution), which basically lets you find and see every city, town, and major land feature in the world at medium resolution.
  • Global Maps
    We’re releasing maps and overlays at medium resolution for the whole world as well. This should help you view not only the suburbs of Bangkok, Thailand, but also help see the context of the imagery in hybrid mode.
  • APIs
    The new imagery and global maps are available for API developers on the Yahoo! Developer Network. So whether you’re new to the world of mashups or an experienced hacker, there is no better time to show off what you can do.
  • Better Views
    In addition to getting all the data we can, we’re processing the satellite imagery to make the visuals more aesthetically pleasing for users. We’re blending away seam lines and normalizing the color pallet to create a continuous plane of imagery.

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Related: Michael Bazeley has a write-up at SiliconBeat. Forrester's Charlene Li has a somewhat bearish assessment. She's correct that satellite/aerial mapping is now almost a commodity (table stakes). See my comments above that a combination of features will be required to win. More from O'Reilly Radar.

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