Close-Up: Google takes virtual advertising to the next level

The search giant can now sell ad space on its Street View mapping service. But will clients buy into it? Sara Kimberley writes.

While Street View has always courted controversy, it is clear it affords Google a wealth of financial opportunities. Following a new patent, the search giant can now carry real-time ads on billboards and posters through its mapping service.

Using software-recognition technology, the patent describes how Google's software could identify an individual poster on the side of a building and replace it with new information, either as a hot link or through an advertising auction model, which would allow clients to bid for space on unclaimed properties. But is this the brave new world of advertising it initially seems to be?

While advertising in virtual worlds isn't new, the benefits of virtual ads on Street View could lead to hyper-local advertisers using the technology to target neighbourhoods, Tom Morton, the executive planning director at TBWA, says. This would allow local advertisers, such as coffee shops, to update their marketing campaigns with a Twitter picture-style real-time message on the side of buildings. And with the auction model of payment, this could also be done very cheaply.

However, it could be used by some of the more aggressive advertisers to stoke controversy or attack a competitor. Morton explains: "I expect we'll see some hijacks where brands try to goad or gatecrash their competitors' territory. I fear we'll see some homepage-takeover-style blanket messaging." Andrew Copson, the chief executive of The British Humanist Association, which was behind the controversial "There is probably no God" outdoor ads, says it would prefer to buy media at a price that could be budgeted for, although it wouldn't deter the charity from using the ad format. He adds: "An auction model is not a particularly useful mechanism. Campaign planners would have to segment your audience on the Street View virtual billboard through postcode analysis. While the disadvantage would be lower impact, the benefits could be the same as real billboards, but it would be essential that it had the same visibility and high volumes of traffic."

With Google Maps, which includes Street View, attracting an average of 507,000 unique visitors a day in 2009, according to Nielsen, audience reach would clearly have to be considered.

However, Charlie McGee, the managing director of Carat Digital, says while virtual billboard ads on Street View are a nice idea, it's innovation for innovation's sake.

The use of such a tool leads to questions about reach, return on investment, tracking and whether it would meet the Internet Advertising Sales House guidelines - none of which can be easily answered.

McGee says: "There are a lot of components for quite a small audience. But does it answer any marketing questions? While it's nice to see the industry moving forward, it's not going to have a search take-up. It will be nice to have in addition to a campaign, but it will never be the backbone of it because it doesn't have enough reach. Is it game-changing for advertisers and agencies? I don't think so."