A recent addition to its online services, Google Maps has vaulted to the front of the pack with cool offerings such as satellite imagery
In a rush to offer just about every online service imaginable, Google often struggles to duplicate the popularity of its Internet search service. Indeed, most of its extracurricular endeavors -- from its commerce-search product Froogle to its social-networking site Orkut -- have gained little momentum among users.
A major exception is Google Maps, the subject of the fifth in a series of reviews of Google tools (see BW Online, 11/14/05, "Google's Glitchy Picasa"). Launched in February, the service vaulted past MSN and RandMcNally.com this summer and is now threatening to overtake Yahoo! (YHOO) as the No. 2 destination for online maps (Mapquest remains the leader). With good reason: Google (GOOG) has introduced a handful of new, eye-popping features, such as satellite imagery and draggable maps.
Perhaps more important, Google is ahead of the pack in its efforts to integrate maps and local search -- a hugely important step for search companies seeking to tailor results to users' needs. It's a good bet that maps will be the future starting point for a whole slew of online searches that contain a local bias.
EYE IN THE SKY.
Consider queries like "Boston seafood" or "locksmith Detroit." A page of typical, dry-as-dust search results can only convey so much. But when those results are flagged on a map, offering reviews or pricing information at the scroll of a cursor, they become much more appealing.
Google's fledgling map offering, however, isn't without its flaws. Google serves up massive map images, which can take several minutes to load over a dial-up connection. And the default zoom of the map is often too large. It takes only one click to tighten the map's zoom, but dial-up users may rightfully grouse about the minute or two it takes for the image to gel.
Google's map product was thrust into the spotlight by the company's foray into satellite imagery. In April, Google integrated its nascent maps offering with a satellite-imaging service acquired in 2004. Users can toggle between traditional maps and a satellite picture. Search for your apartment building, for instance, and you can zoom in close enough to see the chimney or a car parked outside.
KIND OF A DRAG.
Even after the cool-factor wears off, the satellite images still boast utility, beyond being an additional lens for geographic info. Landmarks that don't turn up on regular maps, such as a massive apartment complex or a parking lot, can be pivotal markers for users finding their way around town. These come through loud and clear on a satellite map.
Google also one-upped competitors with its so-called draggable maps. Press down your mouse button over a map and simply drag it in any direction you choose. Most competitors use arrows to move the map in a particular direction, often requiring a flurry of clicks. The recently launched beta of Yahoo's new mapping product (maps.yahoo.com/beta) also includes a dragging feature, but other competitors, including Mapquest, have yet to catch up.
Perhaps most core to Google maps is its tight integration with local search. Type in a query like "sushi 94121" or "pizza Fergus Falls, MN," and Google will return a map dotted with red flags. Search results next to the map correspond to each flags. Simply scroll over the flag to get information about the establishment, including driving directions, a link to reviews, and possibly a Web site.
SINGLE SEARCH CAPABILITY.
Competitors, such as Yahoo and Mapquest, also intertwine maps with local results. But Google has a slight edge on both. Mapquest does a lot of things very well and offers almost everything that Google does. Type in a query that includes a location and a keyword, and it will give you a map with markers indicating relevant businesses, as well as links to driving directions.
But Mapquest falters by not offering that next level of local information. You can't click on the names of the businesses, for example, to find out details such as hours of operation, a link to the company's Web site, or reviews submitted by other users. Google offers a lot of this info.
Yahoo's new beta serves up even more information. But getting there requires an extra step. With Google and Mapquest, you need only type in a piece of geographic info and a keyword -- such as "sushi Palo Alto" -- and you're off to the races. With Yahoo's beta product, however, first you need to type in the location you wish to search ("Palo Alto") and then wait for the map to load. Then you type in "sushi." The lack of a single search box is both confusing and annoying. It took me several queries before I realized that I couldn't type "San Mateo coffee" when the map presently shows San Francisco.
Although Google may have a lead on the capabilities of its competitors, it still has plenty of flaws to sort through. One biggie is the sheer size of its maps. Google's maps measure roughly 8.5 inches by 5.5 inches, nearly double the size of those served up by competitors such as Rand McNally or Mapquest. Over a dial-up connection, these hulking graphics become unwieldy. Simply calling up a satellite map of San Francisco, for instance, took over two minutes from my dial-up connection at home.
Even when the graphics finish loading, the end result isn't always impressive. Sometimes, the default zoom of Google maps can be far too broad. Take, for instance, my recent search for a sushi restaurant in Palo Alto. I typed "sushi Palo Alto" into Google Maps and got a sprawling map that went from Morgan Hill to San Francisco -- a span of 70 miles. Sure, all the right restaurants were flagged in the middle of the map, but 80% of the map was useless, and I couldn't make out the main thoroughfares at that distance. A similar search on Mapquest returned an easy-to-digest map that spanned just a few miles.
Sure, it only takes one click on the zoom button to get Google's map at the right level of focus. But the prospect of reloading yet another hefty image was a bit daunting -- unless I could justify it with a two-minute bathroom break.
Google could certainly benefit from continued design work, rethinking both the speed of its pages and the scope of its images. Less is often more for people hunting for the right information fast. But the sheer innovation of its mapping features set Google at the front of the pack. Moreover, it gives Google hope that it can innovate well beyond its stronghold of Web search.