Google Rolls Out Sponsored ‘Maps’ Icons

Google today rolled out a new—albeit beta—feature to its U.S. mapping service: sponsored icons.

The latter refers to the miniature brand logos that will now pop up in lieu of the generic, gray icons consumers commonly encounter when searching for nearby destinations using Google Maps. (The company revealed the announcement in a blog post.)  It allows advertisers to prominently display their businesses to users, while giving consumers quick and easy access to useful information.

Matthew Leske, a product manager on Google Maps, said the initiative is part of the search giant’s efforts to enhance its user experience. By calling out nearby and popular venues such as a pub, restaurant, fast food chain, or even services like an ATM, consumers can easily locate the information they’re looking for, he said.

How it works: A consumer going to the movies with friends, for instance, may find that it is convenient to know that there is an ATM nearby, a “coffee shop around the corner, and a burger place across the street,” Leske said.

“It’s easy to recognize, so I can either pay attention to or ignore it, but [either way], it’s more information per pixel on the map,” he said in a telephone call from Australia yesterday evening.

Google, which began testing the enhancement in Australia in March of this year, said it decided to extend the feature to the U.S. after interest from American advertisers. The sponsored icons project launched with four U.S. advertisers thus far: Bank of America, HSBC, Target and Public Storage. These brands’ icons are now starting to show up on Google Maps when they happen to appear in nearby searches.

Though businesses ranging from bakeries to pet shops and even public attractions like city parks, currently show up on Google Maps, the sponsored icons feature is available only to advertisers with a well known brand and multiple locations, Google said. Size isn’t necessarily what matters, as HSBC is a much smaller and New York-concentrated bank compared to Bank of America. What is more important is that consumers overwhelmingly know of the brand, and it’s widely accessible. (The guidelines are aimed at reducing clutter by ensuring that only the most useful information stick out, it said.)

“Our key focus is to build a really good product that works well for end users and advertisers,” Leske said. Asked whether or not this will become a permanent mapping feature—or if it will roll it out to other countries—Google said the feature is currently in an experimental test stage, and future rollout will depend on, well, results.

“In an ideal world, we get [a] formula right and then see where it goes,” Leske said. The search giant will provide metrics such as the number of impressions and unique users to companies that use it, he added. Pricing is on a cost-per-thousand, or CPM, basis, as advertisers pay only when their logos appear. (A participating brand’s logo may not show up sometimes if it’s not deemed relevant to the user’s immediate search.)

David Collins, marketing director at Public Storage, one of sponsored icons’ inaugural advertisers, said his company decided to participate in the launch as “convenience of location is a very important benefit for our consumers.”

“Making it easy to find one of our 2,000+ locations nationwide is just one way Public Storage” can accomplish this, he wrote in an e-mail. “The icons beta [feature] moves us toward this goal of being everywhere a customer may be looking for us in a way that is easy and respectful of their time.”

But Google, which will subsequently introduce the feature to mobile phones, isn’t the only one upping the ante on directions-based searches. In June, AOL-owned Mapquest also rolled out more simplified and enhanced features, including an easier-to-use query box and social networking capabilities.