Google Maps Hit Mark

An upgrade to the popular service shows the search giant can still innovate.
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The latest addition to

Google's

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popular Maps service shows the company is still headed in the right direction.

On Thursday, Google

unveiled a new set of tools that would let users easily customize its Maps. Users will be able to easily add text, graphics and video to the maps, which they can publish so other Web surfers can see them or keep them private.

While "mashups" that overlay data of interest on Google's mapping platform have long been popular, they typically require a good deal of programming expertise to create. The new tools, though, allow anyone who can point and click to be a mapmaker.

"The average user with no technical skills can simply drag and drop," Google Maps product manger Jessica Lee said in an interview. "It's very simple and makes mapmaking accessible to everyone."

The ability to scribble on digital maps may seem like a lighthearted way to open up mapmaking to the masses. But the move marks a shrewdly calculated play by Google to push into some of the hottest and most profitable areas of the Internet, such as user-generated content and local search, and, ultimately, into a domineering position in the mobile market.

Tying it all together is Google's marquee search algorithm.

Just about every Internet company is trying to get in on the flood of user-generated content making it to the Internet. The term, which refers to the material created by a site's users rather than the company itself, is the key to the success of

News Corp.

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, for example, with MySpace and Facebook.

Many Internet companies are hoping to cash in on the trend through ill-considered plans. But Google Maps, which had thought through its moves, is in a good position to cash in. Start-ups ranging from property value site Zillow to location-sharing site Frappr have demonstrated the flexibility built in to the Google Maps platform.

The wildly popular Yelp, meanwhile, shows that users are eager to share their opinions of their locales. Throw in Google's vast user base, and the company's plan to increase the quality of local information starts to makes sense.

One obvious application is for Google to tap users to plug holes in its local listings. Google lacks local information about areas such as Greenland and Finland, Lee says. But more than that, the service could, for example, let families create maps locating kid-friendly restaurants in their neighborhoods, she says.

Of course, Google's massive user base would also make sorting through the many different maps created about a topic an issue. But that's where the company's cornerstone search engine, with its remarkable ability to fish out the right Web site from the vast ocean of the Internet, comes in. "Search is something Google does well," says Lee.

"We would use our ranking algorithm to search through user-generated content and find the most relevant aspects."

The move will allow Google to redouble its efforts in the fast-growing local search business. The Kelsey Group, a research firm, expects the local search market to grow from $3.4 billion in 2005 to $13 billion in 2010.

And while input from users will go a long way toward improving the quality of local search from a desktop, the real potential lies in Google's ability to makes results available through mobile devices.

Currently, the new service is not accessible from mobile devices. About that, Lee says only that making the service available through mobile devices is "certainly an interesting idea. There are a lot of benefits to users being able to access it from anywhere, and not just the computer."

But despite Lee's somewhat tight-lipped stance, it is likely only a matter of time before the service is launched on mobile devices. Google has already announced that the basic Maps service will be available on graphic-rich and highly anticipated devices such as

Apple's

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iPhone.

The search giant has high hopes for the mobile space, where it will face heated competition from

Yahoo!

(YHOO)

, which

leads that nascent market.

Google's ability to weave together hot new technologies in a way that users will find appealing should also boost the confidence of investors. The company has struggled to make inroads into entrenched, traditional media markets such as radio and print --

with television joining the list on Thursday.

But it is debatable how much Google brings to the table in areas where existing players have been doing fine for decades without it. The stock closed Thursday off 49 cents at $470.90; shares are stalled at levels they first saw in October 2006, as investors look for the company to garner revenue beyond online advertising.

Google's creativity in understanding how users are approaching the Internet -- in the realm of user-generated content, for instance -- and applying it to emerging technologies, on the other hand, remains as impressive as ever.

That should hearten investors. After all, the stock didn't climb to where it is today because Google found a clever new way to sell scrap ad inventory in declining media.

It did so because the company was able to think about how to profit from new media in novel new ways. And its latest venture shows it still can.