Google Maps: A Primer for Small Business

By Vangie Beal | Posted June 01, 2006

If you are a small business owner who relies on advertising, then you've most likely had experience with different directory services or even spent countless hours online searching for ways to advertise your business and products at a price that fits your small business budget. There are many ways to let potential customers know your whereabouts and services, and believe it or not, some of the best of services are free (and yes, we mean the completely, no-strings-attached kind of free).

We're sure you're already familiar with the Google name in terms of its search engine, but there is a whole lot more to Google than just searching. Google Maps is a service that offers mapping technology to businesses.

Imagine taking some of the major directory listings published throughout the world, and mapping the location and contact details for every listing in those publications to a dynamic, scrollable and searchable map interface. That is exactly what Google Maps does. Listing with Google Maps presents your business to prospective customers through a graphical map interface using a PC or a mobile phone. And that's where things get even more interesting.

How People Use Google Maps
People looking for a specific type of business, or one located within a certain geographical region, can type in a variety of search terms in the Maps search box. Searches can be based on a business type, location, walking or driving distance from a starting address, and many other criteria.

When Google Maps returns the results, a listing of all business that fit the search terms appear listed on the left-hand side of the page. A graphical map interface appears to the right of the listings. If you select a text listing on the left you immediately see the location displayed on the graphical map to the right, allowing you to zoom in, scroll around, or even view a satellite image (or hybrid of the satellite image overlaid on the graphical map). From there you can view the business contact information via a marker posted to the map or even print precise driving directions from your own driveway to the selected location.

You can use Google Maps on mobile devices as well. In the U.S. if you have a Short Message Service (SMS) device, you can simply text message "GOOGL" the type of a business you are looking for, along with a city name, and Google will send back the top three matches to your query.

If the mobile device has a browser, you can search local listings and see map and driving directions as well (Java-enabled mobile phones and the Blackberry support this capability). Mobile Google can be a very useful way to market your business to potential customers who are in transit and looking for a specific type of business nearby.

Step-by-Step Guide to Listing Your Business
While Google doesn't make its traffic numbers available to the public; comScore has ranked Google Maps as the number two mapping Web site in terms of U.S. traffic. It's worth making sure that you list your business with Google (and make sure it's listed accurately) because Google search results can direct a lot of traffic to your site.

The search company's Local Business Center can help you add your business to Google Maps. Once you load the Local Business Center page, you will find listing your business a rather quick and easy process.

Getting Listed in four Easy Steps

Google Maps: Local Business Center
Google Maps: The first form field where you enter your business information.
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  1. Start by entering your business contact and location information including: name, address, city, state/province, country and zip code
  2. Once you enter this, hit continue and then include your phone, fax and mobile phone numbers as well as any e-mail and Web site address information
  3. The next screen prompts you for a description of your business, the forms of payment you accept and your business operating hours. You will also select up to five categories that best describes your business
  4. Once you have entered all the information, you select a verification method. For some areas in the U.S., you may opt to receive a phone call; otherwise you will receive a postcard in the mail. Verification provides you with a unique personal identification number (PIN) and account activation instructions. After activating your account, you can control the address and listing information (very handy if you should happen to move your business or open additional offices or stores)

Google Maps: Local Business Center
Local Business Center: The completed listing information, along with a map placement image.
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Along with creating a correct listing in Google Maps, each time you edit or create a new listing the information gets added to a central database that shares the business contact information with other Google services. These include Froogle shopping, Google Earth and Google Web search to name a few. All mobile Google products also interface with this database, so you are actually increasing your exposure through many other Google products and services.

Using Google Maps on Your Web Site
Listing in Google Maps is free, and so is using Google Maps on your own Web (as long as your Web site is free for consumers to use). Google lets you download the Google API, which is what you need to display Google Maps on your own site. Adding Google Maps to your own Web site presents a unique opportunity to provide a myriad of graphical information related to your business.

The map will be embedded with copyrights, naturally, but basic editing of the API lets you place your own markers and display information specific to your company or industry. Google Maps on your own site enhances traditional text-based store or office branch locators; it provides customers with an easy way to find and print driving directions to your place of business. And — if implemented correctly — it can boost specific topic areas within your site. Anything that can be mapped, geographically speaking, can be displayed in Google Maps.

Businesses are using Google Maps in some very imaginative ways. City officials all over the world have mapped complete transit routes; tourism Web sites use maps to highlight areas of interest to potentials vacationers. In fact, you can find a Google Map for just about any topic from reported crop circles to locations of federal prisons. The possibilities are endless; and with some time and a little creativity you too can provide interesting and useful information to your clients through the Google Maps API.

To get a better understanding of the different ways people use Google Maps, we recommend starting with a look at the popular blog, Google Maps Mania. This blog tracks new Google Maps being developed and presented online.

To use the Maps API, you first need to create a directory on your Web server to host the map (if you don't own your Web server, contact your ISP to set up the directory). Now head over to Google and download the API. Before you can download, there's a sign-in process you must complete in order to obtain a validation key. To get the key, you need to enter in the exact URL location of the directory you just created.

While you can freely use the Google Maps API, it is important to note that Google does not provide any support, so you should be prepared to go it alone. The good news, however, is that the Google Maps API is widely used, and you can find lots of online resources to help you get the job done. Google provides an extensive FAQ to get you started, and if you need more assistance on the technical side, help is also available through a Google Groups discussion forum.

Example of a Local Business Ad
A special marker and information window shows Barnes and Noble retail locations when you search for "bookstores in New York, NY." The sponsored text links (ads) appear in bottom left corner.
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Google Maps Advertising
Now that we've covered listing with maps, how people can use these maps to find your business and how to use Google Maps on your own Web site, there is one more area of interest for businesses: Google Maps advertising. Unfortunately, this one isn't free.

Most Google services let you connect with AdWords, and Google Maps is no exception. If you currently use AdWords for advertising, you already have the ability to opt-in and buy Maps ads.

You can choose to purchase normal text ads (where you pick the relevant keywords and your listing shows up in the three paid ads located on the organic Map search results), or local business ads where the search results will show a special marker on the Google Map display.

If AdWords through Google Maps sounds like an interesting way to advertise, we recommend that you start with the Google local business ads Web page to get an idea of how AdWords works.

All of these different aspects and options can seem a little overwhelming. Like with any new project, the best way to start is with small steps, and in this case your first step should be to register an account and add your business listing so it can be found in Google Map searches. From there you always have the option to investigate using Maps on your own Web site and using Google local business ads to further advertise your small business.

Based in Nova Scotia, Canada, Vangie Beal has been writing about computers and technology since the early 90s. She is also the managing editor of Webopedia.com.

Do you have a comment or question about this article or other small business topics in general? Speak out in the SmallBusinessComputing.com Forums. Join the discussion today!


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