Google makes mashups easy, even for me

The search giant's new My Maps feature lets anyone create customizable maps with photos and video, regardless of technical know-how. Photos: Google maps out mashups Video: Mashups for all

Mashups that overlay any kind of data on top of an online map are all the rage. But up until now I didn't know that even I, with no coding experience whatsoever, could make a customized map of my own. I did, and it took less than an hour. And it can even be found in the Google Maps index if I want it to.

Google allowed me to preview a new feature of its maps service that it plans to launch on Thursday called My Maps. It lets anyone create mashups by essentially pointing, clicking, dragging and dropping. I used a temporary log in and password since the feature hadn't publicly launched yet, but normally I would log in using my Google account information.

When the feature is live, the Google maps site will feature a new "My Maps" tab next to the "Search Results" tab. I clicked on the "create new map" link and typed in a title and description. The interface also gave me the choice of whether to keep the map private or make it public.

If I choose to keep my mashup private, I can share it with friends by distributing the Web address. If I make it public, it will be accessible through Google's searchable maps index. It may take several weeks to be included in the index because it takes about that long for Google's Web crawler to notice new Web pages, said Jessica Lee, a product manager for Google Maps. User-generated results created using My Maps will be displayed in Google's map search index directly below the organic results, Lee said. My Maps creations can also be viewed in Google Earth, she said.

I decided to make a mashup of places of interest from a city where I lived for a year, so I typed in "Lisbon, Portugal" in the search box and Portugal's capital city was displayed. I created a marker for my old apartment by clicking on the marker icon at the top and pointing and clicking on the location I wanted. I wrote a title and description for each marker and was able to choose from a variety of marker styles, from upside-down teardrops to pushpins to icons in specific shapes to designate lodging, food, or recreation. I also had a choice of icon colors.

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Video: Google's new mashup feature
My Maps tool makes customized mashups easy

There were also tools that allowed me to draw on the map and outline areas. I basically pointed and clicked to create a shaded section around a section of the city called "Bairro Alto," well-loved for its fun bars and night life.

Lisbon is known for its quaint cobblestone streets and beautiful river views, and I wanted to include my own photos that would be displayed in a bubble that pops up when a marker is clicked. However, My Maps doesn't yet allow people to grab photos off their hard drive. That function is coming, Lee said. I had some photos on Flickr and found others on the Web to use and they were easy to insert by clicking on the image icon in the edit function of an open bubble and cutting and pasting the URL for the photo into it.

I also grabbed a YouTube video of Mariza, a popular contemporary singer of Fado--Portugal's version of the blues--to include on a marker for a Fado restaurant I used to frequent in the historic Alfama district. I did that by cutting and pasting the video's YouTube "embed" code into the marker bubble on my map. It was all incredibly easy and I'm very excited about creating my first mashup, something I figured was out of reach for my lack of skills and time.

The My Maps site features some examples created by Google employees, including a fascinating oral history trail of characters encountered along historic Route 66, which runs from the northern Midwestern states through the Southwest. Another featured map shows the red and blue states from the country's 2004 presidential election and the statistics of voters for each candidate.

"This is the mainstreaming of mashups," said Greg Sterling, principal of consulting firm Sterling Market Intelligence. "It's moving from the realm of developers and (technologically) sophisticated enthusiasts to ordinary people who can use these tools to create maps to share."

There are other similar mashups-for-dummies-type services, notably Platial, dubbed "The Peoples' Atlas," and Microsoft's Live Search Maps Collection Hub. But neither service offers "the same extent and visibility" as Google's My Maps, Sterling said, particularly since My Maps offers inclusion in the Google search index, which millions of people use every day.

Google also unveiled this week an experimental tool for creating a mashup using data from Google Spreadsheets. However, that tool requires some technical or programming know-how and requires that users have their own Web site to host the mashup, and does not allow for insertion of video or photos, said Lee. In addition, those mashups are not included in Google's search index, as the My Maps mashups are.

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