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Feature

Jesse Vig

Jesse Vig's Web site GeoGreeting.com has received more than 800,000 visits since he launched it in November.

Saying it with rooftops

Grad student's Web site offers greetings with a twist

By Rick Moore

May 25, 2007; updated June 6, 2007

Never underestimate how hip it is to be geeky these days.

Not that Jesse Vig would necessarily apply that tag to himself. But the tagline on his oddly popular Web site--GeoGreeting.com--contains a nod to many of its users: "How geeks show they care."

GeoGreeting is a free site that allows users to send any electronic message to their friends, loved ones, or casual acquaintances. But the message comes across in a unique way---spelled out with the images of the tops of buildings (or other landmarks) shaped like letters. The message also shows where each building is located, be it in downtown Minneapolis or Hainburg, Austria.

Part geography lesson and part novelty Web site, Vig's creation has been popular beyond his imagination. Since it was launched in November of 2006, GeoGreeting has had more than 800,000 visits from users all around the world. And it was nominated as a finalist for the Best NetArt Web site for the 2007 Webby Awards competition.

"I've gotten e-mails from all over the world, like India and Japan," Vig says. "It's been interesting how international the response has been."

"It did a lot better than I expected," says Vig, a 34-year-old graduate student in computer science at the U. "I had no idea if anyone would use it."

The site came about almost by accident, he admits. In spring 2006 he took John Riedl's Advanced Internet Programming course, which got him interested in Google Maps and Web development. And while working on a different project using Google Maps, Vig noticed that "there were a few key buildings that stuck out as being shaped like letters." After searching some more he was struck by how many buildings were letter-shaped. "And that's how it got started."

He estimates that it took him about 100 hours to find enough buildings and landmarks to fill out the alphabet, and "to find the last five took probably half the time."

Vig's also been open to help from others. "I didn't have the question mark originally, because I couldn't find one, but then a user found one and I'm using that," he says. The question mark comes courtesy of a building in Omaha.

GeoGreeting.com has found a substantial worldwide audience, too. Vig points out that there were two articles about his site that appeared in the Netherlands, and that triggered a spike in usage from Dutch map geeks. "I got like 20 e-mails in one day [from Dutch users]," he notes. "There are several letters I've used from Holland because of that." In April, he had twice as many visitors from Holland and Belgium each as from the United States.

"I've gotten e-mails from all over the world, like India and Japan," Vig says. "It's been interesting how international the response has been."

As for his recognition in America, the Webby nomination was a big surprise. The Webby Awards (meant to be "the Oscars of the Internet," he says) have grown in scope and stature, and this year's awards gala was held June 5 in New York City. And while Vig did not claim Best NetArt Web site award and didn't attend the event, he did finish second for the online people's choice award.

The initial screen of GeoGreeting.com begins with an intriguing statement: "The surface of the earth holds a message for you. You just need to look a little closer..." Vig apparently took that advice to heart, and he's gotten a birds-eye view of success along the way.