Is Google finally dipping toe in our waters?

As reported on CNN’s website:

As part of a partnership to be announced Wednesday, the online search leader will dispense driving directions at thousands of gasoline pumps across the country beginning early next month.

The pumps, made by Gilbarco Veeder-Root, include an Internet connection and will display Google‘s mapping service in color on a small screen.

Motorists will be able to scroll through several categories to find local landmarks, hotels, restaurants and hospitals selected by the gas station’s owner. After the driver selects a destination, the pump will print out directions.

Eventually, Gilbarco Veeder-Root hopes to enable motorists to type in a specific address and get directions.

“We think the service will create more customer loyalty for retailers,” said Gilbarco Veeder-Root spokeswoman Lucy Sackett.

Greensboro, North Carolina-based Gilbarco Veeder-Root will initially offer the Google service in about 3,500 gas pumps and expand based on retailer demand.

Unlike most of Google’s services, this one will not include ads bringing the company income. But participating retailers will be able to make extra money from other merchants that offer coupons on the service.

You can believe, if you want, that Google is indeed just licensing access to their mapping servers. But the Internet connection allows these pumps to be targeted with advertising, and I struggle to imagine all the affected parties not at least thinking about ad spots, even if it is just a five second interstitial before the maps kick in.

Even if it is just a little screen, it has a user’s attention.

A quick zip through the Gilbarco website tells a visitor pretty quickly that this is part of the SMART merchandising platform Gilbarco already has in place, and that ads and promo messages are already very much in the mix. It’s even called the Applause Media System. The screens appeared to be 10.4 inch, which is not all that small. The screens are also right at eye-level, which is a big deal.

Google could easily pull off the necessary scripting to serve ads based on station location, demographics and on and on. My guess is they want to see how this goes over first, and also wait until the installed base is much bigger than 3,500 — a number that translates to likely well shy of 1,000 stations.

I’ve never been all that enthused about the screens over gas pumps things because of the cost and complexity, and the “Hey buddy, look up here!” viewing angles. While I’m not sure there’s a real media model around these mapping screens, this is at least something people will not only see, but probably want to use.

I’m also thinking this is the first glimpse of Google getting into the digital screen business … no matter what the official line may be.

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