From Novelty To Foundational Product: The Evolution Of Google Maps


Until Android came along Google’s most important product after search undoubtedly was Google Maps. I know it sounds heretical to say this but in some ways Maps is more strategic to Google than search today.

That’s because Google Maps bridge the physical and digital worlds and because Maps are more “useful” to mobile users than Google search. It’s harder to live without Maps than it is traditional search in a mobile context.

Google makes comparatively little revenue directly from Maps. However it’s a highly utilitarian even “foundational” product, together with Street View, that helps support the company in myriad and often unseen ways. That increasingly extends to tracking offline store visits by users exposed to online or mobile ads.

In 2012 The Atlantic wrote a flattering, almost fawning, piece about Google Maps and the Herculean effort behind their creation and maintenance:

I came away convinced that the geographic data Google has assembled is not likely to be matched by any other company. The secret to this success isn’t, as you might expect, Google’s facility with data, but rather its willingness to commit humans to combining and cleaning data about the physical world. Google’s map offerings build in the human intelligence on the front end, and that’s what allows its computers to tell you the best route from San Francisco to Boston.

Indeed the “ground operation” is very impressive. Part of that is the data yielded by Street View.

Launched in 2007, Google was not the first major internet company to market with street-level photography — that was Amazon believe it or not. But Google stuck with it and took it to its ultimate global conclusion.

Although Google reaps many benefits from Street View it has also paid a significant price. The company has been assailed all over the world for violating privacy with the images and related WiFi “payload” data it captured. Part of the animus toward Google in Europe can be traced to the earlier controversy surrounding Street View.

Wired has now written a nearly identical article to that published by The Atlantic, portraying the complexity and many layers behind the scenes of Google Maps’ operation. The Wired article explains Google Maps and its various processes as a marriage of humans, machines and crowdsourcing:

Yet satellites and algorithms only get you so far. Google employs a small army of human operators (they won’t say exactly how many) to manually check and correct the maps using an in-house program called Atlas. Few people outside the company have seen it in use, but one of the most prolific operators on the map team, Nick Volmar, demonstrated the program during my visit. (There’s also a fascinating demo in this video from Google’s 2013 developers conference).

The Wired and Atlantic articles reinforce how impressive the global scale and ambition of Google Maps and Street View efforts are. Because people don’t see these efforts — perhaps that’s the point of The Atlantic and Wired articles from Google’s perspective — they don’t know their extent or depth vs. Microsoft, Apple, Nokia/Here, OpenStreetMap, MapQuest or Scout/Telenav and others.

And while a considerable number of people still hold the view that Google Maps are “much better” than Apple Maps that’s no longer true for a large number of iPhone users.

As mentioned Maps and Street View help support a range of products and projects at Google, including search, autonomous cars and (in the future) analytics. So it may be ironic that what started out as a differentiated consumer product may now be most differentiated for Google in ways that the public cannot see.

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