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A Closer Look at Windows Live Local

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The undeniable attraction of Windows Live Local (WLL) is still its spectacular "Birds Eye" aerial photography, but there are many other product features to recommend the service.

For the small number of people who may not yet have seen it, Birds Eye offers high-resolution aerial imagery of more than 100 cities in the U.S. and Europe. This article will explore the other features that are effective on WLL, what's weak and what we'd still like to see.

Strategically Microsoft regards mapping as a potential differentiator in the struggle against competitors Google and Yahoo for consumer usage and loyalty. To that end, the company has an ambitious product roadmap and has been making significant investments in the area, most recently buying Vexcel Corp. a Colorado-based company that provides radar, satellite, mapping and "photogrammetric solutions." Vexcel also makes an ultra-high resolution digital camera for aerial photography.

A few months ago, Steven Lawler, GM of Microsoft Virtual Earth lead a conference call with analysts and discussed Microsoft's strategy to create a "rich, immersive experience" via Virtual Earth and WLL. Virtual Earth is the technology platform that supports WLL, the consumer destination. Lawler argued that what's "still lacking" in mapping and search generally is the ability to "explore and discover information in an intuitive way."

He said that Microsoft's ultimate vision is to digitally recreate the real world that people live in and navigate everyday. For Lawler and his team, this "digital world" is fundamentally a visual one and features lots of rich photography and 3-D images. To that end, he promised that Microsoft would combine the "best visuals, best content and user-generated content" in WLL. (Along similar lines, I wrote previously about Google Earth as an "emerging geo-browser.")

Lawler expressed some very lofty aspirations for WLL, many of which will take years to realize. But where does the product stand today, as it approaches the first anniversary of its beta launch?

When WLL was unveiled roughly a year ago it wowed people with Birds Eye. However, upon closer scrutiny and in actual usage, WLL's basic mapping functionality wasn't equal to some of the site's more impressive features and its interface was somewhat clunky with too many dialog boxes and other clutter obscuring the map.

Some of these problems have been corrected and the WLL team has been working to improve performance, add new functionality and product enhancements. Among those that were just added in May were real-time traffic data, European coverage and some interface improvements. In addition, WLL more recently added "call for free" call completion for all listings. (Here's my earlier post about it.)

The call completion functionality is unique among the top four mapping sites. Users only need to enter their number once, after which they can effectively initiate the call with a click. And VoIP adoption will further streamline this process in the future. Currently WLL isn't charging merchants anything for the service, but the "call for free" capability could become the basis of a pay-per-phone-call billing model at some point.

Another unique feature of WLL is the ability to create "collections," which are saved searches that may feature one or more locations or points of interest. Collections could be seen as "low-end mashups" that people with no technical skill whatsoever can put together for themselves or their friends and family.

Collections might consist of the "best sushi restaurants in New York" or "my favorite hotels in London" or "stops along the old Route 66." Once signed in to WLL users can save their collections and later access them from a pull-down menu, like traditional browser bookmarks. Individual locations or listings within collections can also be annotated with commentary or personal notes. Saved collections may be easily shared via MSN messenger (any maybe Yahoo Messenger in the future), email or blog (MSN spaces).

Eventually a good number of these collections will be searchable by the public. The more people compile collections and the more they become part of a searchable database, the more interesting the entire offering becomes. For users the site also becomes more engaging and participatory over time. However, collections is something of an advanced tool, notwithstanding its general accessibility and simplicity, and will take some time to develop momentum with the consumer public.

A less intriguing but more practical tool is the "locate me" capability. Clicking "locate me" inserts a "pushpin" on the map indicating your location (i.e., "you are here"). For people in unfamiliar areas or traveling or who otherwise don't know their precise location, this is useful. After pinpointing your precise location, you can then find the nearest parking garage, ATM, bar, Starbucks and so on.

WLL uses WiFi technology to locate the user's computer or, alternatively, its IP address. This is another feature unique to WLL among the major mapping sites.

Another nice feature, WLL gives users three "layers" to plot on the map. In other words, I can search for a certain restaurant category and then layer movie theater locations followed by branches of my bank where I'll find an ATM. Here's an example for "sushi restaurants" + "movies" + "Wells Fargo bank" in San Francisco. And, as already mentioned, I can also plot real-time traffic on top of all of this by clicking a single link. (Yahoo features the ability to perform two layered searches after identifying a particular location.)
This combination of imagery and features makes WLL an impressive mapping site. Having said that, it remains far from perfect.

The original interface featured two side by side "what" and "where" boxes. Believe it or not this created confusion among some users, a lesson the Internet Yellow Pages sites learned a few years ago as their users would put the business name or category in the location field and vice versa. Microsoft has corrected this potential confusion by stacking the two boxes and inserting text that indicates precisely what information goes in each box: "search for a business or category" and "enter city, address, or landmark."

I would like to see WLL move from the two stacked boxes to a single search box, or at least make it an option, like what Google has done on Google Maps. This makes query disambiguation harder but it broadens the usability of the map as well.

I also find it frustrating that almost every time I input a geography in the lower search box on WLL, a pull-down menu prompts me to identify my location. The site could use a "suggest" tool to help accelerate the process -- or improve its algorithm.

When I enter "New York" I'm given 10 choices of places I could be referring to. Aggregated search data would indicate the probability is high that I mean Manhattan. Why not default to New York City and offer me the ability to change my location after the fact if I want someplace else. Also, I should be able to use "NY" and "NYC" instead of a zip code or formal city name. Today, both Yahoo and Google have taxonomies of keywords and synonyms that map abbreviations and similar informal references to proper city names or other locations.

Another significant weakness compared with Google, Yahoo and others is the lack of information on the business details page. This listing is for the Sheraton Russell Hotel in New York. The "details" are very thin (just basic contact information). The other tab "Web Results" offers more context and potentially more information to users. But it's just drawn from Web search and so not highly structured. Users thus have to sift through both relevant and irrelevant information as they would if they just did an ordinary web search for the business.

Still another problem is the need to exit Birds Eye to see new results from a subsequent search. Specifically, if you're in Birds Eye and you conduct another search or searches you won't see any results until you change views and zoom out. It would be nice to move "automatically" from Birds Eye to another map view, in response to the query, and not have that process be so "manual."

Despite some nifty viral features, there is also no community content per se on WLL—no ratings and reviews. Elsewhere on the Microsoft campus in Redmond its classifieds marketplace, Expo, is developing community tools and content to build around listings. Having these tools and the related content on WLL will make it richer and more useful to consumers.

Microsoft should also be getting data from multiple sources for WLL—as many as it can. Admittedly this is isolated and anecdotal, but one of the sushi restaurant searches I performed, "Tachibana Sushi" in 94611 appeared on Google and Yahoo but not on WLL.

Currently of the top four mapping sites, Microsoft is in fourth position in terms of traffic, according to comScore. It goes, Mapquest, Yahoo, Google and WLL in that order. Mapquest is the least dynamic of the four but still dominant. Part of that is the brand and consumer habit and part of it is the use case. Most consumers have not discovered the full utility of mapping sites as a starting point for local search. The dominant use case today remains driving directions after I've decided where I want to go.

That will change over time as users catch up to the full range of capabilities of these mapping sites. In the interim, WLL has time to make more improvements to its product, which is impressive yet imperfect.

Perhaps if one could mash up the best features of the current WLL, Yahoo Local and Google Maps now then you'd have the perfect mapping site.

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