Past, present and future of online maps

Business names and landmarks on Google MapsGoogle announced yesterday that it has added more detail on its maps, highlighting businesses and landmarks. They even solved the Albert Einstein Memorial problem that I wrote about last year.

Businesses and landmarks are important because they make maps more in line with the way people think, instead of the way that computers operate. This change also means that businesses won’t have to resort to painting their rooftops to be easily identifiable.

There are two big challenges with what Google is doing:

We’ve come a long way from the early days of the Web when maps consisted largely of roads and a clunky user interface. We’ve seen the addition of aerial imagery, building outlines, photos, public transit, Street View, neighborhoods, user-generated content and live traffic. Google has driven much of this innovation, although to be fair MapQuest had aerial imagery first and A9 had a version of street view early on.

There is still a lot of work to do to improve maps:

  • College and corporate campuses. Campuses such as Google’s and Microsoft’s buildings have numbers, but these aren’t shown on the map. If you were meeting someone, they’d probably tell you to go to “Building 43”. My friend Adam at Google keeps a custom Google map to show where his building is. (Oddly, Microsoft’s Bing maps show building numbers for the Microsoft campus, but don’t let you search for them.) The same thing applies for airport terminals.
  • Controlled-access facilities. Businesses in controlled-access facilities should be hidden by default — few people are going to park and go through security to eat at an airport restaurant. On the other hand, if I’m in the airport, I want to know what businesses are in my terminal.
  • Handling nonstandard locations. Databases are organized around cities and states in the United States. This works for most places, but is problematic in areas that don’t follow the convention like Hawaii or Las Vegas. Hawaiians talks about islands, but the local databases don’t know the concept of an island. This is made worse by the fact that the same town name is used on multiple islands — there’s a Waimea on Kauai and Hawaii and a Kailua on Oahu and Hawaii. Local constructs such as “North Shore” and “South Shore” aren’t understood either. Navigating using local search on my recent trips to Hawaii was error filled.
    In Vegas, hotels are a primary navigation construct and many of those hotels have more shops and restaurants than do a lot of American towns.
    Given how popular these destinations are, I’m surprised this problem hasn’t been solved.
  • Parking availability. In a big city it’s rare that you can drive up to your destination and park right in front; finding parking can easily add 15-20 minutes to your trip. Companies like Urban Mapping are already collecting this information. I had a book called Park It Here! that showed street parking restrictions for every block in Manhattan. I’d love to see that data online.

More on: google, maps, local search


About Rakesh Agrawal

Rakesh Agrawal is Senior Director of product at Amazon (Audible). Previously, he launched local and mobile products for Microsoft and AOL. He tweets at @rakeshlobster.
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