It seems I accidentally tripped over something new at Google Maps this morning: I happened to be looking at the houses for sale in our area — a recreational pursuit of mine — and when I mapped an address using Google Maps, all of a sudden thumbnail photos started popping up here and there. Then a little while later I saw a Twitter message from Steve Rubel about Google Maps adding photos, and it all made sense. The site is apparently integrating both Picasa and Panoramio photos, as well as videos from YouTube and user-created maps.
Adding geo-tagged or otherwise location-oriented photos to Google Maps has been an option for some time under the “My Maps” tab — which also allows you to do things like calculate distances between two points, or see the weather for a specific location. But now Google is apparently adding the photo feature as a default. It’s not clear to me whether it’s only photos that have been geo-tagged, or whether it also includes photos that have specific keywords in them.
I think this is an interesting feature (although there’s obviously lots of potential for abuse as well, which I’m sure Google is aware of). And it also seems as though this could be either a competitive issue or a potential partnership opportunity for companies like PlanetEye.com, where my friend and fellow mesh organizer Mark Evans works. If Panoramio is already integrated into Google Maps, then presumably other companies could as well. (Note: I didn’t realize that Panoramio was owned by Google until I read MG Siegler’s post; I agree that it would be good if Google Maps could integrate photos from other services as well).
It’s not a huge deal, really — as Greg Sterling notes over at Screenwerk — but the news that Google has added social features to Google Maps is just another piece of the puzzle that is (or at least could be) the Web company’s emerging social net. The features aren’t rocket science, of course: user profiles that link to maps a person has created, reviews they’ve written of local businesses, etc. But it ties some things together in ways they weren’t before.
As many people have noted — including me in this post — Google has been working on what appears to be a unified social-networking approach that would bring together many of its existing services such as GTalk, Orkut, Maps, Picasa, etc. and let people create what amount to “activity streams” that others could subscribe to, hints of which first appeared in a post at Google Blogoscoped.
According to a recent speech by Google Earth’s chief technology officer Michael Jones — which Brady Forrest describes at the O’Reilly blog — the site is using “crowdsourcing” techniques to generate detailed maps of India — using a package that the company has put together with a GPS transmitter and some software that it hasn’t publicly released yet. There’s a transcription of the talk and some more details at Dan Karran’s blog, and the Google Earth blog notes that this approach is very similar to the Open Street Map project — except of course that OSM is, well… open. More thoughts at FortiusOne. We all work for Google in one way or another, don’t we? Whether we know it or not 🙂
Well, it happened again. I was going to write a blog post about the new Google Maps feature that lets users write reviews of businesses, but I left it too late and had to go off to a dinner thing, and by the time I got back that bugger Scott Karp had said the exact same thing that I was going to. I swear, if it isn’t him doing that then it’s Mike Masnick from Techdirt.com. If they weren’t such nice guys I would push them in front of a bus or something.
In any case, the point is well made by Scott: adding user reviews to Google Maps makes sense from a certain standpoint, since it adds value to the map info and adds another layer of content to (hopefully) provide stickiness. But it is also lacking any kind of social element, which is something that Yelp.com — or a similar Toronto service called OurFaves.com, which was started by my friend Candice Faktor — have in spades.
Why would someone want to contribute a review to Google Maps when there’s no community? And how is anyone supposed to judge the believability of the review when there’s no social context the way there is with Yelp and OurFaves.com? Someone said they didn’t like the “If you build it, they will come” mentality — they much preferred the “if they come, you should build it” approach.
Google seems to be leaning more towards the former than the latter, and Scott is right — building community and using social tools is not something they have proven to be particularly good at.
Obviously, the death of CNet editor James Kim — who had spent days trying to find help for his family, stranded in deep snow in a remote valley in Oregon — is a tragedy. But it shouldn’t be blamed on the use of Google Maps. I’ve seen a few sites where that issue has been raised, including the Lost Remote blog and a Wired blog.
This is apparently based on the fact that the Kims took a forest-service road through the Oregon wilderness — called Bear Camp road — that is not plowed or maintained in the winter, took a wrong turn and got lost. According to a local news report, authorities speculated that the Kims might have used Google Maps, since both Yahoo Maps and MapQuest suggest other routes but Google recommends Bear Camp road.
On the Lost Remote blog, one commenter even asks whether a mapping service can be found legally responsible for leading people astray. A CNN story, however, notes that even some printed maps don’t specify that the Bear Camp route is not suitable for winter driving. According to the story, the 2005-2007 state highway map has a warning in red print that says “This route closed in winter,” but a Rand-McNally map doesn’t.
State troopers said the family had been using a printed map, but it wasn’t clear which one. This story says someone warned the Kims that the road was not maintained in winter (Shelley has also written about it). The bottom line is that the Kims could easily have found themselves where they were without being lured there by an online map. Whenever a tragedy occurs, the tendency is to want to find someone to blame, but Google is the wrong target.
More info on the mapping issue can be found here, here and here (thanks to Mike Pegg of Google Maps Mania for those links). And please read the comments here for some other perspectives and clarification. And according to this story, while the surviving members of the family were rescued by a helicopter hired by the family, they were first spotted by a recreational helicopter pilot who knows the area well.
James Kim’s father Spencer Kim has written an op-ed piece for the Washington Post about his son’s death and the problems that led up to it — from road warning signs being removed and gates left unlocked to media helicopters disrupting the search.