Google’s bread and butter is traditional online advertising but that
doesn’t mean that the search giant isn’t thinking of new and sometimes
unconventional online ad models.

One possibility the search giant may be considering: allowing advertisers to display their ads in Google Street View. As reported by ReadWriteWeb, Google has been granted a new patent by the US Patent and Trademark Office that could open the company’s popular (and sometimes controversial) Street View functionality to advertisers.

The patent, which makes for an interesting read, covers a system in which Google technology identifies points of interest in images and then allows advertisers to bid for advertising related to them. The ads can be text links associated with a point of interest, or Google can even enable the advertiser to replace part of the real image with an image provided by the advertiser.

ReadWriteWeb’s Frederic Lardinois puts two and two together and writes “it looks like Google could potentially identify some billboards and banners in Street View images and then replace these real-life billboards with virtual ads from the highest bidders“.

In essence, if Google ever implements the technology described in its patent, it could set itself up to become the Clear Channel of online billboards. Even though, of course, unlike Clear Channel, it doesn’t actually own any of them.

Needless to say, Google has the potential to open a can of worms with this kind of technology. Some owners of the physical properties Google sells ads against may not be very happy about the virtual ads Google places on them in Street View, or about the possibility of paying to protect images of their properties. Companies like Clear Channel and their advertisers might also object to the possibility that their real-life billboards are ‘hijacked’ and replaced with virtual billboards. And as Lardinois points out, there are always thorny competition issues lurking. If you thought a competitor bidding on your company name in AdWords is bad, wait until they spend $5 per click plastering their virtual billboard over a real-life billboard you’re paying tens of thousands of dollars each month for.

Of course, Google’s patent is just that — a patent. It’s unlikely that artificial billboards will appear in Street View overnight. But Google is clearly thinking about ways it can take advantage of assets like Street View imagery to grow its online ad dominance. And it should. But if Google does implement something like this, the company should probably avoid stepping on too many toes.

Photo credit: PEEJ0E via Flickr.