Other than Google Glass, the standout launch at Google’s I/O conference has been a major update of Maps, with much of the new functionality drawing on Google’s increasing social intelligence.
The overhauled user experience eliminates the white space on the Maps page, putting more information onto the maps themselves. It brings in ratings and reviews and makes Google Earth available in the browser. It also displays thumbnails of user photos of common landmarks beneath the map, when available.
Google draws the local ratings and social context for Maps from Google+.
When Bernhard Seefeld demonstrated the new maps during the conference keynote presentation, he didn’t mention Google+, but the so-called “social spine” of Google’s services powers many of its new features.
“They were definitely adding social context in quite a few places, but they weren’t making a big deal about it, which means it’s becoming a lot more pervasive inside of Google, that Google’s taking advantage of social despite the fact that their Google+ audience is small,” said Brian Blau, director of research at Gartner.
Yatin Chawathe, the engineering director for Google Maps, agreed.
“It’s definitely one of the key fruitions of that vision” of Google+ as a social spine, he said. “When you think of maps and how you experience the world, so much of that is social, so having that be kind of a core part of the new experience was really critical to us.”
The new interface, which isn’t yet live on the Web, allows users to set home and work locations. Searches of other locations automatically display travel times from the user’s set locations. And clicking on a particular location subtly highlights the names of streets commonly used to get there.
Whenever the user is logged in, businesses s/he has rated in Google+ Local automatically display on the map interface. And any search – say, “sushi” — can be limited, using an option in the search bar, to locations rated by people in user’s Google+ circles.
A snippet from those social contacts’ reviews appears on the map near the venues. Clicking on the information brings it up on the side of the screen, beneath the search bar, rather than in a window that blocks part of the map as in the previous interface.
Maps also pulls user photos of major landmarks in from publicly shared photos on Google+, Picassa and Panoramio.com, Chawathe said.
“There’s some location information that you have to upload, but it can be very coarse. You could say, ‘Here are my photos of Rome’ and our algorithms can go in and say this photo looks very much like the interior of St Peter’s,” he said.
The same impressive photographic algorithms senior vice president Vic Gundotra described as working within Google+ sort through the photos to find the best ones to display with Maps, Chawathe said.
The overhauled interface provides ideal real estate for advertising, though Google staff wouldn’t discuss the company’s future advertising plans. They did confirm that Google pays for satellite data to provide one of the “wow” touches of the new Maps — real-time cloud imagery in the zoomed-out Earth view — making it likely the company will seek advertising revenue to offset the cost.
Google may also be leveraging the social geography of Maps to drive traffic to Google+, by prompting users of the Web and Android App interfaces to review businesses. Google Maps appear on over a million websites and are visited by a billion users every month, the company says — far more than use Google+.
“Social’s really getting pushed down and out. Now Google doesn’t have to build infrastructure, they can do these massive integrations, connecting all their services,” said Gartner’s Blau.