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Is Google Maps Falling Behind Bing?

Microsoft's (MSFT) Bing search engine is inching upwards in the comScore rankings while Google (GOOG) and Yahoo (YHOO) slip. Bing now has 11.3% of the U.S. search market, thanks in no small part, I'm sure, to the fabulous, mind-bending progress of Bing Maps. To see what Bing is up to, check out this TED Talk by Microsoft's mapping architect, Blaise Aguera y Arcas.

Bing engineers are going way beyond Google's once-impressive Street View technology, using backpack cameras to capture pedestrian spaces, Flickr integration to provide a more diverse picture of a place over time, telescope data to include celestial bodies, and live video to show what's happening in a place right this moment. As Aguera y Arcas told me back in December: "If you want to explore, if you want to really understand more about a place, you really need to be able to get right down in there, and see if from the point of view that people actually experience it. As great as it is to use cameras on top of cars for building that visual trellis, that's not the actual human perspective."

Google is trying to catch up by adding some of Bing's trademark features -- like swiveling bird's eye views -- in its Google Labs section. But Bing, by most measures, is light-years ahead. (Below, some of Google Maps' late-in-coming add-ons.)

That said, Google is eating its vegetables on the backend: it's done great things with geospatial searching and its fantastic Google Maps tools for developers, also called its API. That's one of the reasons that so many people use Google Maps to make "mashups," or niche tools based on Google's mapping data. Users and organizations have made free-parking maps, user-controlled lighting sculptures, political canvassing maps, virtual journeys across the Siberian railroad, blizzard cleanup maps for Washington, DC, Olympic video maps, and so on. It's the People's Maps tool.

Bing has been trying to build the same kind of grassroots user-base by hosting "mashup challenges," among other things, but most of the organizations that make use of Bing's APIs seem to be large corporate entities like Bank of America (BAC), Marriott (MAR) and Ford (F).

This is troubling for Bing considering that its staking much of its fancier functionality -- the stuff you saw in that video above -- on user-generated 3-D photo maps called "Photosynths." Back in December, Aguera y Arcas admitted that creating Photosynths is a substantial task for any user (and their computer) and that Bing was still in the process of enfranchising users.Google, for its part, is taking a more crowd-sourced approach, having ditched map data provider TeleAtlas to rely entirely on its own map data, U.S. census data, and data from its users. Bing's is the riskier bet.

If Bing Maps is going to dethrone Google Maps -- and it can -- it will need to convince users that creating a Photosynth is the most valuable thing they can do with their vacation photos. Microsoft is already spending $80-$100 million in advertising per year on Bing, according to BusinessWeek, while Google's advertising spending is limited, essentially, to a handful of TV commercials that cost a few million bucks. Microsoft's pockets are deep enough that it can continue to be persuasive, but it can't spend like that forever.

Check out this chart of Microsoft's operating profit from Silicon Valley Insider, and you'll see that most of its money is coming from legacy technologies like Windows and Office. The futures of those products isn't entirely bankable, as they're being faced with a bevvy of competent challenges from Google and Apple (AAPL). Redmond would do well to diversify their money-making and squeeze a few bucks out of their Web services, and Bing Maps may be their best toe-hold.

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