Has Google Maps Lost Its Way?

Did you know you can book tickets, vote with your friends on where to go for dinner and send messages to businesses, all within Google Maps? It’s not just about directions anymore….

With over 1 billion downloads, Google Maps is one of the most widespread apps in the world. Standard issue on Android devices, it’s also the favoured map solution for many iPhone users ahead of Apple’s own Maps app.

Now known as “Maps — Navigate and Explore”, when you open Google Maps, that title feels like a misnomer — it’s hard to know what the app is trying to be. Gone are the simple days of it helping you get from A to B. In fact, given the extent of features it now tries to provide, one could be forgiven for needing a map to find your way around the app!

Beyond Maps

An increasing portion of the screen no longer displays mapping or navigation information. While you can still switch to satellite or terrain layers, the focus now is on where you might want to go rather than an already known destination.

At its core, Google Maps still offers excellent driving, transit, walking and cycling navigation services. In most cities you can also see ride hailing options including wait times and estimated cost. With turn by turn directions (or stop by stop for transit — including accessibility information), and links to Street View previews, it’s a supremely useful app for getting around. But the focus is turning to exploring.

The Explore Tab is full of restaurants, ranked not only by how near they are, but how much of a “match” Google Maps thinks they’ll be for your tastes. There’s also endless lists of things to do or see, places to shop and local amenities. Each list is full of photos, user reviews, opening hours and of course, directions. There are lists for your saved places, places you’d like to visit, places you plan to visit and places you have already visited. You can even book tickets directly for some places. If you’ve got an electric car, Google Maps now includes locations of chargers.

Sharing & Messaging

“Sharing & Messaging” might sound more at home in a social network than a map app. I bet very few people who use Google Maps even know about its fancy feature to help decide where to go with your friends, let alone be able to find it in the app. You can create a shared shortlist of places and each person can vote on which option they like best. While you’re driving, Maps can also share your current location and ETA with your contacts, as well as your phone battery level.

There’s a saying in technology circles (known as Zawinski’s Law of Software Envelopment) that “Every program attempts to expand until it can read mail.” So it shouldn’t be a surprise that Google announced the latest addition to Map’s features is in fact messaging. You can send messages to businesses from within Google Maps (as long as the business keeps their information up to date via the Google My Business app). You can also follow the business in the Maps app to get updates, such as promotions, just like you would on Facebook.

Crowd Cartographers

While Google creates much of the map information, it relies on contributions from users for much of the other data. In a few hours this morning, I got several notifications from Google Maps, with varying degrees of usefulness — it wanted me to upload my photos to “help other travellers”, it wanted me to rate a coffee shop I stopped into, and it wanted me to know that there was moderate traffic in my area. Google Maps has also started asking transit passengers in some cities to rate how crowded the service is.

Ever Growing?

Google Maps is clearly trying very hard to innovate as it adds new features. It’s fighting off challenges from navigation apps like CityMapper, while encroaching on TripAdvisor and even the core Google search product for reviews and information about places. And we’re still waiting for the enhanced AR directions feature promised at the Google IO event back in May; more situational features like crash and speed-trap reporting are expected soon, drawn from Google’s acquisition of social navigation solution, Waze. Strangely, though, much travel functionality that would be at home in Maps is instead found in the separate Google Trips app.

The End of Apps?

Google Maps feels like a microcosm of the challenges facing many app developers. Of course apps will evolve — it’s the way of technology. Phones become more capable, users become more demanding and/or monetisation opportunities arise. But as you decide what functionality to add, where do you put your new features? Add them to the main app and you’re accused of bloating the app or cluttering the interface. Put them in a separate app and people won’t download it. So as apps expand in order to be more useful (to better pass the Google toothbrush test), they ironically become less useful as users become overwhelmed and features go unnoticed among the clutter.

It’s not immediately obvious that you should use Google Maps to find if a nearby business is open or received your message, but luckily the days of discrete apps are fading away. As voice becomes a primary interface, we will take the more natural route of asking Google (or Alexa or Siri) for what we want and let it decide what app or service can provide the best answer. We won’t need to know to open Google Maps instead of Google Trips to enter our query. And AI assistants will also introduce rapid improvements in intelligently predicting what we want and surfacing the information we need, regardless of the source app, before we ask for it.

Back on Track

Google Maps started life in 2005 from a basic premise that you knew where you wanted to go, but not how you could get there. Now it still does that but also tries insistently to influence where you might want to go, and even with whom. Has it lost its way? It depends on what you want from it. It has evolved from a simple interactive map into a broad provider of answers about places. It now offers a huge variety of features and if you make the most of them, it is exceptionally useful. And there’s always the cut-down version called “Google Maps Go” if you want to go back to basics, but you’d be missing out.