Eight years later, Google reinvents its Maps for a data rich web

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In February 2005, when Google released the earliest version of its Google Maps product, the company changed the way the world views online maps. Almost overnight, Google made incumbents like Mapquest look antiquated. And with the passage of time, the Mountain View, Calif.-based search and information giant has been quietly making incremental yet important upgrades to its the maps product. But on Wednesday, the company launched the first substantial and major overhaul of Google Maps, and created a product that is finely tuned to today’s modern, data rich web.

Jonah Jones

Jonah Jones, Lead Designer, Google Maps

When compared side by side with early versions of Google Maps, the difference between the maps of 2006 and 2013 is the equivalent to the difference between a Rio MP3 player and an iPod. “We originally created the draggable maps and now we sat down and basically wondered how were we going to reinvent the mapping experience,” said Jonah Jones, lead designer for Google Maps, who has spent the past seven years at Google working on maps. “It wasn’t as much dissatisfaction with the current maps, but more about how we can do this better.”

The new Google Maps marries data, social and the concept of hyper-personalization, tastefully layering those principles on top of beautiful and detail-rich maps. Google used the popular Google Earth app to enhance the Google Maps experience itself.

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In doing so, Google is acknowledging that today we live on a much faster internet; we work on personal computers that have a lot more muscle and as consumers we have an expectation that everything should be personal to us. “There was more and more information which was being layered on the maps and we wanted to simplify and personalize that,” Jones said. “We think this is what next generation of what mapping looks like.”

Instead of delivering graphic tiles that have traditionally made up the base layer of a map, Google now uses vector maps and is using data as a stream, processing it on the graphical processing unit (GPU) of the new fangled computers and creating a brand new map, which is personalized not just based on a Google account. Like a chameleon, it changes personality and redraws itself based on what you want to focus on — venues, driving directions or recommendations.

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It’s about the data stupid

And though it will be sometime before the new maps offering finds its way from the desktop and Google’s Chrome browser to the mobile devices, it really is the sign of the times and where mapping is headed. Since the introduction of Google Maps, Microsoft, Nokia and Apple have all introduced maps and mapping products. The enthusiasm of these technology giants for mapping is best described by Foursquare’s Dennis Crowley when he says maps are the bridge between our physical and digital worlds.

He is right. While Crowley has always wanted to build Harry Potter’s magical map, it seems Google has built something for today. “Maps is the interface,” said Bernhard Seefeld, Google Maps Product Management Director, who pointed out that the passive information alone makes the new maps richer and deeper.

Bernhard Seefeld

Bernhard Seefeld, Google Maps Product Management Director

It takes a few seconds to realize that the key to these new maps is interweaving various disparate streams of data — from restaurant reviews to places of interest to transit maps. The usage of the maps — especially when logged into Google — is going to make the experience of the maps better.

It is pretty obvious that data is going to be a key part of building user experience in tomorrow’s apps and the new Google Maps is a good early example of that. For instance, when plotting a route, the new Maps shows you all options — walking/biking, public transit and driving — and highlights the time it will take you to get there using different routes. It also tells you when the next bus or subway is going to come.

You can do all of that on Google Maps today, but this is now just a simple, one click experience. It seems after years and years of collecting data, Google is finally putting that data to work.

Little things that matter

Search is front and center of this new product. The big, bold graphical interface is inviting and attractive. The new Google Maps web app is packed with dozens of minute but important design improvements that are meant to make using maps immersive and simple. In its official blog post announcing the new product, the company’s spokesperson writes:

In addition to a customized map, we’ve also made it easier to find and discover the best local places. Search results are labeled directly on the map with brief descriptions and icons that highlight business categories and other useful information like restaurants that are recommended by your Google+ friends. Info cards provide helpful information such as business hours, ratings and reviews so you can quickly decide where to eat, drink and play.

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I got a chance to take a closer look at Google Maps before today’s launch and was impressed by the subtle design touches. For instance, the new maps takes a lot of inspiration from old print maps (in an atlas) where the changing landscape and different bodies of water (lakes, rivers, seas and oceans) had different hues. The colors of the mountains, deserts, plains and grasslands were different in those maps. Google has taken some of those elements and incorporated them in their new maps.

There are more subtle changes: the fonts are different, cleaner and more legible. When you plot a route, the roads taken become more prominent while the rest of the map fades into the background. Smaller bylanes that are unmarked become more prominent and their names legible. Yes, these are little things, but when you are lost, these little things matter. (We’ll be diving into the little design things that matter at our RoadMap event in November in San Francisco — sign up here to get first access to our tickets that will go on sale this Summer).

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For instance, there is a carousel at the bottom of the screen that brings together all sorts of images — Street View, Business Photos and Photo Tours — and gives you an easy view into the venue or location you might be visiting. These stitched together photo tours are pretty awe-inspiring and in some cases you feel like you are almost there. This stitching together is based on proprietary Google technology. And then there is the whole Google Earth 3D app packed right into the Google Maps (as long as you are using a WebGL compliant browser.) Just play with it and you will know what I am saying.

Of course, this is Google, so it has to be about the ads. Even the ads are native and tightly integrated into the overall offering — not offensive, intrusive or out of place. The focus is on more action-oriented advertising such as making hotel reservations. Even in a few minutes it became obvious that there is a certain blurring of the lines between what is actual information and what is advertising. I guess, that suits Google’s mercantile goals.

Privacy nightmare?

While Google likes to say that it will have our “friend’s recommendations” and social signals in the new apps, in all honesty they are unlikely to have that information. I don’t use Google+ and neither do others who are happily poking away on Facebook.

What Google will do, however is use brute force machine power to make best guesses about our likes and favorites, and in doing so, they will make the same mistake others make: they will have built a product that lacks empathy.

Google, for instance will know where we live and where we work — after all, we are going to mark those spots and use those markers to find things to do and roads to drive on. It will also know where we are going, how we are going there and when we are going. And this brings up the same privacy issues I have with Facebook and its Home (and other mobile apps.)  And just like my ongoing skepticism of Facebook’s ability to do the right thing, I am pretty sure Google is going to put profit before people. That conversation is for another day, perhaps.

So what do I think?

Ever since Google search was integrated into the browser, I have lost a reason to go to do search on Google.com. But I am very likely to make the new Google Maps as my starting point on Google.com. While a 15-minute demo doesn’t mean a hit product, it is safe to say that this is a worthy upgrade and it showcases Google’s core competencies: putting its big infrastructure and data to work. It also highlights that when it comes to mapping, Apple is not even close to catching up.

What is more disappointing is that the new Google mapping experience isn’t available on the mobile devices as maps are more useful when on the go. Let’s just hope we don’t have to wait eight years for the mobile version of these new Maps.

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