Got a thirst for one of Saranac's brews? Type in your zip code on the Saranac website, and up pops a map with all the locations near you that sell the beer from the historic Matt Brewing Company. Interested in exploring a trail in Florida? The trails feature for VISITFLORIDA.com lets you choose trails by location, activity or trail name, then you can ask the map to display nearby outdoors activities, lodging, sightseeing, and art and history attractions.

The last time people were this obsessed with maps, explorers were still charting the New World. Thanks to the evolution of online mapping through Google Maps API (application programming interface) and other relatively easy to use open source plug-ins, the use of mapping to deliver information and to promote businesses and organizations is exploding.

'If you have something you think could be mapped, there are tons of resources that make it easier than ever,' says Joel Sutherland, a partner with Carrboro, N.C.-based New Media Campaigns and the developer of a popular plug-in other developers use to create custom maps for websites.

Mapping your way

For businesses with location-based services, using a map to help customers find you is a no-brainer. First, in this age of location-driven applications, your customers expect mapping information to be readily available. Second, adding a map shouldn't be a complex or costly process, says Rob Tulman, a Los Angeles area developer who puts together interactive maps for business websites.

The first step is to evaluate what will serve your business best. Sutherland says maps generally fall into these categories:

  • Do-it-yourself -- 'It makes sense for any company with a contact page and lots of clients who visit their business to put up an embedded map,' Sutherland says. If you're able to update your website, you should be able to visit Google Maps and Mapquest, look up your business and click on the link for embedded code, then drop it onto your contact page. 'That's a good basic starting place,' Sutherland says. Best of all, it's free.
  • Plotting points -- If you want an embedded map with a pin for each of a number of locations, you'll likely need to work with a developer. However, it shouldn't take more than a couple of hours of development time, notes Sutherland.
  • A rich, interactive experience -- A more complex project, such as searching a big database of zip codes, might cost a couple of thousand dollars, Sutherland estimates. You'll pay more for custom design rather than using available APIs and plug-ins. A particularly complex, unique Web application might cost as much as $10,000, says Tulman.

If you use Google Maps, there is a limit to the number of queries on a map in a day, notes Tulman. If your map receives above 2,500 queries a day, you'll need to subscribe to the premier service level. However, this shouldn't be a factor for small to mid-sized businesses. 'We haven't come close to those query levels yet,' he says of the maps he has developed.

What a good map does

'The best maps are ones that are easier to use and display information that would be harder to understand otherwise,' Sutherland advises. Your map should make it easier for your customer to either find you, to discover relative, timely information or to spend time learning more about an aspect of your business.

One of Tulman's customers is a company that franchises gourmet ice cream treat trucks. The trucks are connected to a GPS system, and customers can use the map to track where trucks are located. Another customer makes sports watches and wants to reach surfers, fishing enthusiastic and casual boaters. The watch company's map incorporates databases forecasting information such as tides for 277 locations across the globe. 'You can scroll across the map or look specifically for one location,' Tulman says.

Sutherland is working with the University of North Carolina on a map project that will feature live data on the energy usage in each of the university's 150 buildings. The energy-conscious institution works to drive down consumption, and the map will allow the public and stakeholders to also see historic energy-use data, Sutherland says. The map will be designed to match the look and feel of UNC's other Web material.

Rich maps that work well appeal to your customers' curiosity. 'You've plugged into that natural desire to discover things,' Sutherland says.