Google's Earth from above: A 3D look

Google's mapping software, Google Earth, Google SketchUp, and MyMaps has mapped out new territory for Google's Internet success. Here's why geography apps are winning users' hearts and minds.

MyMaps saves personalized content to users\' accounts (Credit: CNET Networks)

"Google Maps is changing the way we see the world," journalist Evan Ratliff declares in a June article for Wired magazine. I couldn't agree more. Google's universal mapping project isn't just changing the portals for viewing the world online, it's also changing offline understandings of how the world is best viewed--from Google's services, of course. Google has gained influence fast, by ambitiously developing innovative, interactive mapping software; integrating multiple online services into the majority of desktop and online apps; and familiarizing users with a particular Google-branded aesthetic.

In creating a suite of map apps to encourage users to contribute to Google's greater project and personalize locally-stored versions of a map, Google is not just bringing cartography to the masses, Ratliff points out, but is getting users to help build out its universe. This, of course, makes complete sense. With Google Earth, Google SketchUp, and MyMaps (watch the CNET "how-to" video,) Google's mapping software has surpassed competitors like NASA in digitizing the world. In so doing, Google has captivated the imagination of loyal users who will return to the company's Earth and maps programs to find business listings, explore culturally significant architecture, and plant personal photos and videos.

Google Maps got the ball rolling, having expanded beyond its function as a directions tool. It now provides 360-degree street-level views of map points, and lets users customize personal versions of the public maps by affixing their photos and tracking favorite restaurants and traveling routes. Google Earth expanded the borders by digitizing the globe, overlaying satellite imagery with 3D models of famous architecture.

Google Earth model
The Bombay Stock Exchange, in Google Earth, was built using Google SketchUp (Credit: CNET Networks)

Google SketchUp, a simplified CAD drafting program, has allowed modeling enthusiasts to submit representations of edifices and common objects, like lamps and cars, for inclusion into Google's official Earth. (Learn to use a Google SketchUp tool.) Users who download the program can surf Google Earth, submit a model for official inclusion, or save models of garden plots, dream homes, or futuristic dreamscapes on their private, locally-saved globe. (See: How to place 3D models into Google Earth 4.)

The theme here deserves repeating. In Google's earthly pursuits, geographical spaces aren't just spots on a map; they teem with traffic reports, business listings, satellite imagery, and YouTube videos. Locations become opportunities to place advertising, promote products, and show off the cultural integration that Google's gaggle of engineers has become famous for.

That's not all. Each free app that Google virally markets--products that have enjoyed huge popularity on CNET also a careful exercise in brand-building that reinforces Google's deliberately minimalist look. It's noteworthy that within the beating heart of a cybercommunity fixated with bubbly, shaded Web 2.0 graphics, Google's design is decidedly flat across its product set.

That hasn't dimmed Google's glow one bit. We can think of Google's gargantuan success in waves: first was Google's classic search engine, a project that founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page began as graduate students at Stanford University. Once completed, it soon dominated front-running competitors like Netscape and AltaVista and became so popular that corporations now hire departments dedicated to boosting their company's relevance on Google's search engine. Google then implemented a profitable advertising scheme that serves ads that are relevant to the user's search terms, and has itself branched out as an income opportunity for affiliate Web site hosts.

Google Docs & Spreadsheets
Google has taken aim at Microsoft, with a suite of free online productivity apps (Credit: CNET Networks)

Google documents appears to engender the third wave of prominence, with programs like Google Docs & Spreadsheets, a free Microsoft Office alternative, and Google Checkout, a PayPal competitor. Neither product relates to Google's core search business or even to its advertising enterprise; however, the apps are sought after, and, indeed, used. Google is clearly stretching its presence to all Internet frontiers.

If we accept Google products as desirable tools to organize personal payment and data, it's a short jump to accepting a Googlized world in which we imagine and experience the globe thanks to Google's design. In my local version of Google Earth I can forever associate a trip to South Africa with a Google-acquired YouTube video I made of myself feeding an elephant, and hiking photos I uploaded directly from Google's Picasa.

Darfur crisis mapped
Using Google Earth, activists raised awareness about genocides in Darfur (Credit: CNET Networks)

In fact, Google's geography products--Google Earth, Google SketchUp, and MyMaps--have already become important beyond the geo-hobbyist, Ratliff reports in Wired. The topography is used as an intelligence source for government agencies tracking disasters like Hurricane Katrina and genocide in Darfur. Britain says Google Maps has also been used by insurgents to plot and attack British soldiers.

The official and organizational usage of Google's mapping shouldn't surprise anyone, UC Santa Barbara geographer Michael Goodchild told Ratliff. Mapping has always been political. "There is no such thing as an objective map," Goodchild says. We should cease seeing maps as simply a way to understand the world the world in its "objective reality," he suggests, and begin realizing that the mapping process reveals "the advantages that may be derived from our territorial acquisitions."

Or digital representations of territories, as the case may be.

About Jessica Dolcourt

Jessica Dolcourt reviews smartphones and cell phones, covers handset news, and pens the monthly column Smartphones Unlocked. A senior editor, she started at CNET in 2006 and spent four years reviewing mobile and desktop software before taking on devices.