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Google Maps Make Korean Debut

Google is becoming serious in approaching the Korean market and expects mapping services to be an integral part of its local business plans, company executives said.

In a news conference in Seoul, Google Korea (www.google.co.kr) announced the release of the local version of “Google Maps,” a free location service based on interactive Web maps and photographic imagery, which company officials hope will help drive more traffic to its search engine.

The debut of the mapping service had been delayed due to Korean export restrictions on mapping data. The problem was solved after Google eventually agreed to operate the services on a Korean server.

Cho Won-gyu, the engineering site director at Google Korea, said the location-based information used by consumers and corporate clients through Google Maps will be very diverse.

The company has created an open API (application programming interface) for the mapping service to allow third-party developers and corporate clients to create and share applications.

Companies like Samsung Everland, which plans to use Google Maps to strengthen its “BeMeal” restaurant search services; REVU (www.revu.com), a consumer review site; and Korea Railroad are already developing future services by using the API.

Google is also planning to introduce “Street View,” a related product that allows viewers a panoramic, ground-level view of the search area, soon, Lee said.

“We believe Google Maps will play an integral part in strengthening our market position here,” Cho said, adding that it is the search engine’s only service to be operated on a local server.

“We will continue to upgrade the quality of services through user feedback,” he said.

Google Maps is likely to face tough competition in Korea, with local Internet companies rushing to roll out similar services with better quality.

Daum (www.daum.net) and Paran (www.paran.com) are the most ambitious, as they are preparing mapping services with image resolutions of 50 centimeters per pixel, better than the Korean version of Google Maps that range between 50 centimeters to 1 meter per pixel.

The Korean portals say they are ready to enhance picture qualities up to 25 centimeters per pixel, once the government eases its regulations on the resolution of aerial photography that is current limited to 50 centimeters per pixel.

NHN, the operator of top portal and search engine, Naver (www.naver.com), is also planning to launch mapping services and has recently agreed to purchase satellite imagery from a company in Taiwan.

“We believe Google Maps has a competitive advantage in that the usage of its API will not be limited to the Korean market, unlike the rival services of local portals,” said Cho.

“We will continue to customize Google Maps to the needs of local users,” he said.

Google has been struggling to cope with Naver’s dominance in the past years, but its localization efforts are slowing starting to be manifested in traffic, company officials said.

Lee Won-jin, the director of business and operations at Google Korea, said Google Korea’s search traffic has increased by more than 40 percent compared to last year.

Google Korea had been focusing on customizing the Internet giant’s global services for Korean customers, but Lee said the company will introduce more products that have been developed for Korean users in 2009.