Imagine being able to walk into every boutique, salon and bar in Fells Point without leaving your desk. Or, from the comfort of your couch, touring every restaurant in Little Italy before making a reservation.
If Frank Clark has his way, eventually everyone with an Internet connection will be able to virtually visit every business in Baltimore. No, in Maryland.
"Our job is to shoot everything," Clark said recently as he photographed a game shop in the Historic Savage Mill.
Clark is a "Google-trusted photographer," one of three contractors so titled in the state. The Internet giant has trained Clark to shoot business interiors and use those images to create 360-degree virtual tours that are available in search results, on Google Maps and on Google+, the company's social network.
Will Sinex, whose family owns The Family Game Store, was looking forward to seeing Clark's finished product.
"We're not a video game store. We get calls all of the time asking if we carry the Wii," Sinex said. "This will allow people to see what kinds of things we do carry, what … types of games we have."
Clark has already shot 80 businesses. He has photographed day cares, auto dealers, hotels and even a swimming pool. The Gambrills man has created virtual tours of businesses from Selbyville, Del., to Colonial Beach, Va. He recently shot seven Ocean City businesses in one day, he said.
"I'm waiting for a funeral home," Clark declares. "Everybody wants it, it seems."
Last month, the search giant expanded its Google Business Photos service, letting loose photographers like Clark, who are trained to take photos on Google's behalf but run their own photography businesses.
Launched in April 2010, the service had been limited to a handful of cities and a small number of photographers, said Deanna Yick, a spokeswoman for Google.
"Since then, we've been rolling it out little by little" as interest among businesses has grown, she said.
Clark isn't the typical "Google-trusted" photographer. In fact, before April he had never worked as a professional photographer. "I was just a hobbyist. I'm more of a businessman."
Most Google photographers are artists, portrait or commercial photographers who train with Google in order to expand their repertoire, Yick said.
Clark ran a small information technology business, installing computers, networks and the like, until he stumbled upon an article about Google Business Photos.
He contacted a West Coast photographer who was already working with Google to take business photos and asked how he could get certified, he said.
"Like a rabid dog, I went after that opportunity because I could see how big it was going to be," Clark said.
Before long, Clark was pulling his hair out during Google's exacting, two-month online training program, he said.
Google lists just over 100 photographers in the United State who are certified to take business photos.
"If you're certified, you've earned it," said Clark, who is getting his family involved in the business.
Google lists three certified photographers in Maryland — including Clark and his brother. Clark's wife is training for her certification, and his daughter, Crystal Clark, is acting as his business manager while on summer vacation from Towson University.
"We send emails, put up fliers and we go personally and walk around, knocking on doors and telling people what we have to offer," said Crystal Clark, explaining their strategies for encouraging businesses to take part in the program.
But it doesn't take much of a sales pitch to convince store owners that an online virtual tour will be a boon to business, she said.
"This additional information might be an important part of the decision-making process" for customers, said Michael Trusov, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business who researches Internet marketing.
The opportunity to see the interior of a business reduces a consumer's uncertainty, he said. And since it's probable that only businesses with nice interiors will use the service, interior tours may skew consumer decisions in favor of those businesses, he said.
"From a business perspective, it seems like a good idea," he said.
A lot of businesses seem to agree, according to Clark.
"It's like taking candy from babies," Clark said. "It's so easy to sell."
The Google name, plastered across T-shirts the Clarks wear while they're working, gives business owners confidence that the final product will be satisfactory, Frank Clark said.
"Down to that backpack I carry, the doorstops I use — everything is specified," he said. "It keeps that Google quality control."
Clark also takes part in weekly conference calls with Google staff members, and the work he submits is carefully scrutinized, he said. "Google has literally thought this out on every level possible," he said.
A virtual tour consists of "stitching" together up to 360 still images, Clark said.
A user can take up to 30 "steps" in a tour and the photos capture enough detail that users can zoom in on and read signs inside the business. For legal reasons, and to protect privacy, Google blurs some parts of the photos — like faces.
The final product is similar to the search engine's popular Street View product, but with clearer images.
Clark's customers seem happy with the service. The interactive tours he photographs usually are online within 10 days, he said.
"Our online presence is huge for us," said Adam Winer, who runs Internet operations for Artcraft, an art, furniture and gift store that sells on the Web and has locations in the Historic Savage Mill and at National Harbor. "We have many customers online who had never seen how unique and interesting our stores are."
The response from customers has been positive, said Shannon Dalton, Artcraft's visual display coordinator.
A customer who was accustomed to shopping on Artcraft's online store never realized, until she saw the virtual tours, that the business has two brick-and-mortar locations, Dalton said.
And the process was easy on the store's employees and customers, she said. "It definitely wasn't invasive. He wasn't in the way or anything. It was quick, really," she said.
Google does not set the pricing for the service. Its contractors decide how much they want to charge.
"We do it based on the size of the business," said Crystal Clark.
Prices ranges from about $250 for a small business up to around $1,000 for a business with a lot of square footage, she said.
The virtual tours belong to the store owner. Stores can embed them on their websites, but the tours are also licensed for Google's use.
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