HOMER (AP) -- For small town businesses trying to lure customers from near and far, the trick always has been to get noticed. Good service, a good product, advertising and a good location have all been strategies used.
In the web world where you can get lost in a sea of search terms, Katya Kean, owner of Stray Kat Studio, wants to help businesses stand out.
Literally. Pop. Flash. A shining structure on a flat map -- that's Kean's strategy.
"Location, location, location is important," Bryan Zak, the local director of the Small Business Development Center advised Kean on her business. "It's also important on the Internet."
A self-confessed computer geek, Kean, 30, was born and raised in Anchorage. Her dad is a surveyor, so she connected with maps even as a child.
"I love maps," she said. "I felt like I was meant to do this."
Kean developed Stray Kat Studio after recovering from a serious illness and surgery that put her in the hospital several years ago. She needed something to do that wouldn't tax her energy and give her a way to make a living given her health limitations. Kean came across the skill of 3-dimensional computer modeling, and with college classes, Internet tutorials and books, taught herself how to build virtual buildings using the Google Sketch-up program.
Using Google Maps, Google Places and Google Earth, three features of the Google search engine, Kean creates 3-D models of businesses. The Monster Milk Truck link on her website, www.straykatstudio.com, shows how this works.
Type in "Homer, Alaska" on the Monster Milk Truck search link, and the program takes the truck to Homer. As in Google Earth, a view of the area shows up. Streets and structures are flattened, but where businesses and other organizations have built virtual models, they rise up from the horizon.
"It's like a 3-D phone book," Kean said last month "If a picture is worth a thousand words, a 3-d model is a million words."
With a 3-D model, visitors don't see a dot on a map -- if the dot is in the right place to begin with -- but what the building looks like. Kean's models have the same paint job and features as the actual buildings. A model of the Salty Dawg Saloon, for example, shows the familiar tower, but also the sign, yard ornaments, even a buoy hanging from a corner. A model of the Seafarers Memorial has the memorial statue.
"If they preview Homer and see your building, they may not remember the name of your business, but they'll recognize the building," Kean said.
Stray Kat doesn't just make 3-D models and put them on the map. Kean helps businesses get noticed and move up on Google searches.
"I thought I was just in marketing," Kean said. "But a more accurate description would be 'navigational hospitality' -- helping your customers find you as comfortably and conveniently as possible in local search results."
Google Maps uses geographic information system -- GIS -- data to build maps and locate addresses. Sometimes the pins -- the dots showing an address on a map -- are off. A Google Map pin for Homer Seaside Properties, one of Kean's clients, puts the business on Bunnell Avenue instead of Ohlson Lane to the south.
Some places don't even have street addresses, like the slip in the Homer Harbor for Captain B's Alaska C's Adventures. Kean had to work with Google Maps to allow it to place the pin on an aerial photo of the harbor float. With the Salty Dawg model as a prominent landmark, visitors using Google Maps can see that the charter boat, the Ashtakan, is near the Salty Dawg ramp.
Donna Bondioli, owner with her husband Bryan of Captain B's, said Kean worked with her to get a better web presence.
"She sure did get me on the map," Bondioli said. "We moved up fast in terms of search."
Kean walked her through setting up a Google Places account and getting reviews. Bondioli put up photos and videos.
Bondioli chose not to get a 3-D model, but Kean has helped put up about 15 buildings on the Homer virtual map.
Her first project was the Homer Bookstore. She approached Lee Post, one of the partners, and offered to make him a model for $50.
"I kind of jumped off the cliff and built wings on the way down," she said. "I said 'I don't know how to do this yet, but I'm going to learn."'
Another early client was the Homer Theatre. Owner Jamie Sutton hadn't heard of Google 3-d models, but he was willing to let Kean try.
"I'm very impressed," Sutton said of the final effort. "I was surprised at the beginning. I'm delighted."
Kean also has done buildings for the Homer Chamber of Commerce, Zak's Alaska Adventure Cabins, Cosmic Kitchen, the Homer Public Library and the SVT Health Center.
The difficulty in making models comes with complicated angles, corners and features -- or facets, as Kean calls it. The more facets, the longer it takes to do and the more expensive the project. Kean also works with other Alaska modelers. Models can be upgraded as a business' budget allows -- or the building changes.
Google wants modelers to map the terrain of its virtual world and add map content. The more 3-d buildings, the better the maps look. Kean said some cities like New York are almost completely modeled.
Google recently announced it's made 3-d modeling available for tablet computers using the Android Honeycomb tablet operating system. Once 3-d models are available on mobile computers like the iPad and the iPhone, people won't be searching on home computers or laptops. They'll hold the virtual world in their hands as they walk down the street.
"Once that comes, that's how people are going to be checking places in Homer," Kean said.
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