Businesses get virtual tour option on Google maps

New street view tool allows customers to take online look inside shops, restaurants

Google map's inside view of Novo Pizzeria and Wine Bar, by Ronald Lee

Businesses looking for new ways to market their storefronts or ramp up SEO have another tool to add to their belts. Google Business Photos have made their way to Vancouver, and businesses are eager to be part of the scene.

Working like Google's street view tool, the business photos give viewers a 360-degree view of the interior of a business. They allow the viewer to check out merchandise on a store shelf, the ambience in a restaurant or the view from a hotel room.

Local photographer and marketing consultant Ronald Lee, owner of Elevated Marketing, heard about the service last year and contacted the web giant to get his foot in the door as a photographer for the service as soon as it was released in Canada.

After passing theoretical and practical tests, Lee earned the label of "Google trusted independent photographer." That allows him to sell the service to businesses, process the information and upload it to Google (Nasdaq:GOOG).

He is already struggling to keep up with demand.

"I ask clients if they've ever used Google street view," said Lee of his sales pitch. "When they say 'yes,' I say, 'Imagine a Google street view in your business.' Once they understand the walk-through experience, they're interested.

"Our biggest challenge is in terms of capacity," he said, adding that he's already looking to subcontract to help him pick up the slack.

Carmine Paradiso, owner of Novo Pizzeria and Wine Bar on Burrard Street, was one of the first to take advantage of the service.

"We get people asking all the time if there are pictures of the restaurant," said Paradiso. "They'll say, 'We're having an engagement party and someone told us about you. We'd like to know what you look like.'

As with many business owners, Paradiso found his online photos limited what he could convey about the venue.

"On the website, photos are not normally that good if you do it yourself," he said. "And people coming from out of town can take a full tour of the inside before they even get to the city."

With Google Business Photos, the interior images are so detailed, viewers can read Novo's daily specials scrawled in chalk above the counter.

A typical photoshoot might take a few hours for a moderate-sized space, according to Lee. After that, the photos are stitched together and can be up on Google within a week; faster if they have a Google+ page.

The client works out the pay rate with Lee, who says he might charge between $350 and $400 for a one-room shoot, but adds it depends entirely on the complexity of the space. No money is exchanged with Google, which hosts the photo for free.

Not only does the image give people more information on the venue, the service also enables businesses to get more Google "juice" for search engine optimization. The fact that the images are published on Google Place pages, Google Maps and other Google locations, and customers can embed the images in their own websites, raises the quality score Google uses to rank websites.

While retail and hospitality outlets seem like the perfect client for image views, Kevin Penstock saw the value for his office-sharing space Water Street Profile Services in Gastown.

Penstock had connected with Lee through a variety of Meetup activities and jumped on the opportunity as soon as Lee told him about it.

"Our business is all about our space," said Penstock, who admits he likes to explore anything that is leading-edge. "For us to use the breaking technology that Google released, it's a natural fit for us.

"We're a co-working shared office space, so for someone to tour our space from the comfort of their home, for them to spin around in our boardroom or spin around in the office, it's great."

The shoot at Water Street took about an hour, and the image was up within a few days.

Viewers can now see how the desks are set up, what the private offices look like and even what the view out the window is from each desk area.

"I bought it right away as soon as Ronald told me about," Penstock said. "I said, 'Get your camera right now, we're going to do it.'" •

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