NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, February 2010
More Helpful Tools from Google
By Ira Wilsker, APCUG Director;
Columnist, The Examiner, Beaumont, TX; Radio & TV Show Host

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It is no secret that Google is one of the most sophisticated, progressive, and successful technology companies. What started as a search engine has become much more, as more technology is incorporated on the web. Google has been very successful by implementing more useful tools and utilities, providing more value to its users. Some of Google’s more interesting features which I have been recently utilizing are its “411” information service, and Google Maps “Street View”.

Many of our local phone companies and wireless carriers charge a fee for using the once free 411 directory assistance service to find phone numbers. In recent years some 411 information competitors have come on the scene offering a variety of directory assistance services either for a fee, or after listening to a mandatory commercial advertisement. Google has entered the fray with its new, free, GOOG-411 service. According to Google’s 411 website (google.com/goog411), “Google's new 411 service is free, fast and easy to use. Give it a try now and see how simple it is to find and connect with local businesses for free. Your telephone company may apply usual charges for making a phone call or receiving an SMS. You will not be charged any additional 411 fee.” The process of getting directory assistance from Google is a very simple three step process: first, dial 1-800-GOOG-411 from any phone; then state the location and business type. Google will then connect you to the business for free. That is all there is. I just tried it by calling the 800 number, giving my city and the name of my favorite restaurant, and Google connected me directly to the restaurant! It was that fast and easy, and it was free. This 411 service could be very useful not just locally, but while traveling, or looking for a distant phone number. A non-local phone number connected in this manner is connected without incurring a long distance charge when 1-800-GOOG-411 is dialed from a home phone.

Google Maps has been a mainstay and leader in the online mapping business. In an earlier column I expounded on how useful Google Maps (maps.google.com) is for generating local and long distance driving directions. Recently, Google Maps released the latest iteration of its “Street View” feature which shows integrated street level photos of almost every street in the United States, as well as most major cities in Europe, Australia and eastern Asia, and is currently generating street level photos in several countries in South America. As an experiment, I entered the street address of The Examiner into Google Maps, and was presented with the traditional street map by default. The street map had buttons on the top to display the same area as a high resolution satellite image, a hybrid with streets overlaid on the satellite image, or as a topographic map. On the top left corner of the image was what Google calls its “Pegman” icon, a small orange image of a man that some users say looks more like a wooden clothes pin. By dragging the Pegman (click on the Pegman icon holding down the left mouse button and moving the cursor) over the chosen location opened a new window on the top half of the image. This top window was an interactive street level image which could be zoomed in or out, rotated in any direction, and dragged up and down the street. The location determined for The Examiner by Google Maps based on the street address was off by about one-half block. Dragging the image a few inches, the Examiner building, parking lot, and cars came into view. An additional photo of the park across the street from the Examiner was also available, as displayed on the map.

For a second experiment I entered my street address, selected the hybrid satellite view, and dragged Pegman over the image of my house. When the top street level image opened, I saw that it was actually one house north of my house. I dragged the image slightly south, and there was a clear image of my house, complete with my white van parked in the driveway.

Google says on its website that these Street View images have a lot of functionality including personal use, business use, and educational use. With Street View the user can easily explore the world visualizing the selected locations. Since these images have been taken by GPS and laser range finding equipped Google vehicles driving up and down the streets, a lot more than just buildings have been captured. Google and several independent websites have posted hundreds of unexpected and interesting Street View images captured by Google including fires, auto wrecks, romantic encounters, crimes, street entertainment, and countless other events captured by Google as they occurred. For those concerned with privacy issues, Google says, “We then apply cutting-edge face blurring technology, which helps make sure that passers-by in the photographs can't be identified. We will also blur legible license plates.”

Users who have smart phones or other mobile internet devices can use Street View to view images of specific destinations, landmarks on street routes, parking lots, and other helpful scenes and integrate these with driving or walking directions. According to Google, these are some of the actual uses that people have posted, including looking for public transit, at a nearby beach, and other points of interest. Many times the Street View can give better and more useful information than just a traditional street map. Businesses can use the service to promote their businesses by showing their building façade, nearby buildings and features, and other attractions. Real estate agents have been using the service to show neighborhoods around their listings, and conduct virtual neighborhood tours. Some teachers have used Street View to conduct virtual field trips, as well as integrate the images into geography and history lessons. News organizations have used the service to show the location of news stories, both local and distant. There are very strong marketing and research capabilities with Street View. Street View images can be incorporated on a web page by using Google Maps API (code.google.com/apis/maps).

Google has a lot of useful features that are also fun to use. The Google 411 service and Street Views are but two of the many benefits of using Google. You should experiment also by entering your street address and dragging Pegman over your house or business, and viewing your location. Try calling 1-800-GOOG-411 and asking for a business, just to become familiar with the service, and also program that number into your cell phone. Have fun with and enjoy these services from Google.

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