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Google service a way to boost their business

Photos offer virtual tour to consumers

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Jonathan Glass knows his customers aren't letting their fingers do the walking much anymore, so he's hoping they'll do some clicking instead.

The owner of three Party Stuff stores in Winnipeg said the Yellow Pages book isn't the magic advertising bullet that it used to be, so he took what he believes is an obvious leap of faith -- he signed on for Google Maps Business Photos.

The service from the world's largest search engine is an extension to Google Street View.

Interested businesses can bring in a Google-approved photographer to shoot a series of panoramic shots -- called spheres -- which can be connected together so an online visitor can take an inside tour, including looking up or down or zooming in and out, either on a computer or mobile device.

"When people are looking for anything these days, where do they go? In my mind, they go to Google. Anything I can do to increase my presence on Google would increase the chances of people finding us," he said.

Glass said he knows his stores are unique-looking but potential customers don't. Enabling them to take a virtual tour increases the chances that they'll think it's worth it to get in their car when it's -35 C outside.

The service has been launched across Canada, part of Google's $2-billion plan to work with local businesses around the world.

Hart Macklin, owner of Macklin Business Photography, was contacted by Google last spring and asked to handle the business side of things in Winnipeg. He'll also take a new Street View picture and help businesses set up their Google+ local page.

"I take the Google Business photos, stitch them right into Street View, and they become an inside Street View tour," he said.

Macklin said more than 120 Winnipeg businesses have signed on since last June, including florists, hotels, restaurants, optometrists, funeral homes and athletic clubs.

A virtual tour isn't replacing the Yellow Pages; it's increasingly doing what a company's own website used to, Macklin said.

The charge is between $400 and $800, depending on the size of the location. There is no additional fee based on the number of clicks a business's virtual tour gets.

It's also possible to use Google Business Photos to enhance other forms of advertising, Macklin said. For example, a company could embed a QR code in a newspaper ad, which could be read by a consumer's cellphone and launch him or her on a virtual tour, all at no extra cost.

Business owners who want to update their business photos, such as operators with various seasonal offerings, have to pay the photo fee again.

Glass is one such entrepreneur, but he justifies the expense as being part of his advertising budget.

"In this day and age, it's hard to figure out how to best reach people. With Google being the pre-eminent search engine, it's another way of ensuring we have a presence," he said.

All of the pictures taken are stills -- there is no video -- so it's important to realize that just because a certain product is on the shelf when the shot was taken doesn't guarantee it will be there weeks or months later, Glass said.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 4, 2013 A4

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