Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Chat with a Pro - Keir Clarke

Keir Clarke is UK based freelance developer and the man behind Google Maps Mania. I have been collaborating and exchanging information on interesting Google Map applications with Keir since mid 2009 so he is an obvious choice for an inaugural post in this series. I have a lot of respect for Keir and truly admire his methodological regularity of daily updates. I visit Google Maps Mania every day as there is always something new and interesting there to discover. I posted a number of questions to Keir and below are his answers which provide interesting insights into the life and activities of this popular blogger.

Mike Pegg started Google Maps Mania in April 2005 and you took over from Mike in February 2008. How did this opportunity come about?

I first submitted a map to Mike in April 2006, hoping he would review it on Google Maps Mania. The map was the first (I think) Google Maps mashup to feature an embedded video actually on the map. Mike was kind enough to review my map. Over the next couple of years I submitted another two or three mashups to Google Maps Mania, which again Mike was good enough to review.

Because of the great work Mike had done with the blog and because of his extensive knowledge of Google Maps he was eventually asked by Google to join the Google Maps team. Mike was keen that Google Maps Mania remained independent from Google so, early in 2007 he started looking for someone to take over the blog.

Mike first asked me if I would be interested sometime in 2007. At the time I was teaching full-time and didn't think I could dedicate enough time to Google Maps Mania, so I turned him down. However, a few months after that I decided to take a career break from teaching and when towards the end of 2007 Mike asked me again, I jumped at the chance.

Can you share some statistics about Google Maps Mania?

Google Maps Mania averages about 5,000 unique visitors a day. There have so far been just over 3,400 posts in nearly five years of blogging. On week days I try and post 4 or 5 times a day (I tend to take it a bit easier at the weekends). That means I review four or five Google Maps mashups a day. This ensures that nearly everyone who submits a Google Map based site to me should get a mention. One of the things that I am keen to do is ensure that Google Maps Mania doesn't only review professionally produced sites. If someone has just started playing with the Google Maps API and has produced a map I want to give them an opportunity to promote their map.

This post looks at the top ten posts on Google Maps Mania in terms of traffic for 2009. If you look at the posts that get the most traffic you can see that I get a lot of traffic during times of natural disasters. This is mostly due to the fact that during emergencies a lot of people are searching Google for maps.

The USA provides by far the biggest readerishp of Google Maps Mania. But I aslo get a lot of traffic from other English speaking countries, e.g Australia, the UK and Canada.

If you don't mind me asking, how are you monetising that traffic?

The only money I get from Google Maps Mania is from the ads on the site. Occasionally I get asked by readers if I can find a map developer for them. Usually I recommend a professional developer who I think would be a good fit for their requirements but from time to time I'll take on the work myself.

How important is search engine traffic to Google Maps Mania and which search engine delivers the most users? Did you notice any impact of Microsoft’s Bing on the traffic?

Google is by far the largest referrer to the site - 62% of my traffic comes from Google searches. Last year I got over a million visitors from Google, compared to 11,998 referrals from Bing (the next highest search engine referrer). I think this is probably average and just reflects Google's dominance in the search engine market.

Bing however did replace Yahoo last year as the second largest referrer to Google Maps Mania.

I'm very interested in the growth of Bing Maps. As you can imagine I spend a lot of time scouring the Internet for maps. In the last six months there seems to have been a huge increase in sites writing about Bing Maps which I think reflects the large strides Bing Maps have been recently making.

How do you see the role of Twitter or Facebook in building/ extending online presence?

I think blogs and websites can use Twitter and Facebook to build a community around their sites. It is an area that I really haven't exploited with Google Maps Mania.

I do have a Twitter account for Google Maps Mania - (with 633 followers). This just automatically Tweets the latest posts to Twitter. I also have a personal Twitter account - I do Tweet about some of the posts that I have written on Google Maps Mania but I also Tweet about non-map related things on this account.

Would you select Google's Blogspot publishing platforms again if you had the opportunity to start from scratch?

I'm not sure. I really like Blogger and think it is a great blogging platform. However, I also think WordPress is very impressive. One thing I would definitely do if I was starting from scratch would be to get a unique domain name for the site.

However since the blog is so well established it is too late so, I am stuck with

Google Maps Mania has a winning formula for content - short descriptions of ever growing number of Google Map applications. Do you have any plans to alter that formula or experiment with additional content?

One thing I am often asked is why don't I include other mapping platforms on the site. I think the clue is in the name. Seriously however, there are already a lot of websites and blogs dedicated to online mapping and I just happen to prefer focusing on one clearly defined area.

The style of the posts is fairly well established. I try to be descriptive rather than judgmental about sites. As I have already said I like to post about maps that have been developed by people who are new to the Google Maps API. Therefore I don't want to be critical about something that someone has spent a lot of time not only in making but in working out how to create.

At the moment I don't really have any plans to experiment with this formula or add additional content. One thing I would love to do is create a database for Google Maps Mania. The Google Maps Directory I created for Google Maps Mania is, to be honest, not very good, and I am very poor at keeping it up-to-date. I would love to have an online searchable database of all the maps that are submitted to Google Maps Mania. I think this would be a great addition to the site.

Writing daily posts can be quite a challenge. What is your secret to keep up with demands of regular posting!?

I am in the fairly enviable position of having paid off the mortgage on my house and need very little money to survive. At the moment that means I am not working full-time (except for Google Maps Mania). However the blog itself doesn't provide me with anywhere near enough income to survive.

At some point I will need to return to full-time salaried work. At that point the number of posts will drop sharply or I will need to get some help with the writing of the posts.

Actually writing the posts for Google Maps Mania isn't that time consuming. I probably spend more time scouring the internet for Google Maps mashups than in actually writing for the blog. However I am lucky in that Mike did such a good job establishing Google Maps Mania that I get a lot of people who contact me directly asking me to feature their map on the blog.

I have found Twitter a hugely important resource. I use a number of sites that provide near real-time search (largely using the Twitter API). These are very good at helping me find the Google Maps mashups that people are talking about at the moment on the internet.

During your time with Google Maps Mania have you spotted any significant trends in terms of visitor interests, type of applications being developed or specific functionality?

This biggest trend I think over the last couple of years has been real-time maps. This is partly due to the rise of micro-blogging sites such as Twitter but also due to developers now having much more access to real-time data from third party API's. I now see a lot of maps that are tracking in real-time the movements of buses, planes, trains and boats etc.

Google Maps Mania is not your only passion. What other projects get the most of your attention?

I still really regard myself as being on sabbatical from full-time work, so I am keen to enjoy the free time I have at the moment. I own a (small) boat and as soon as the weather improves in the UK I plan to spend a lot of time on the water.

I also spend a lot of time playing with the Google Maps API. One personal project I have been working on recently is a map of old photographs and videos called Back in the Day. The map compares old photographs to the same view as can be seen today in Google Maps Street View. The problem with this site is getting access to copyright free photographs and videos.

At the moment I've mapped about 100 photographs and videos but the project has been put on the back burner for a while whilst I search for other sources of historical photographs.

There are many aspiring publishers who would like to make a comfortable living from blogging. What’s your perspective on “living off the web”? Can blogging really offer a viable source of income or does one still need a “day job”?

I get a meager income from blogging. It is definitely not something that I can sustain at the moment as a career. However, that does not mean that there aren't professional bloggers out there. Personally if I wanted a professional career as a writer on the internet I think I would need to look at getting a job with a website with a larger audience.

I think it could be possible to use blogging as a platform to break into a career in journalism. Running Google Maps Mania has given me some opportunities in this area. I have written for The Guardian website and have been interviewed by the BBC because of my work with Google Maps Mania. These experiences would obviously help in putting together a resume for a career in journalism.

Thinking about it - perhaps that should be my next career move :-)

That is certainly worth exploring! Good luck with your endeavors Keir and thanks for your time and for openly sharing your thoughts!

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