Google Map Maker opened up to U.S. users today, allowing anyone to submit updates, revisions and additional information to the company's online mapping service. The tool was originally designed for users in other countries without access to the mapping resources we have stateside. Says Google, prior to the launch of Map Maker, only 15% of the world's population had detailed access to online maps of their neighborhoods, but now, citizen cartographers in 183 countries and regions have created maps of the places they live. Today, 30% of users people worldwide have access to online maps, thanks to Map Maker.
Given the extensive mapping services available here in the U.S., why would Google open up this tool here? Google is crowdsourcing corrections and additions, the company says, by allowing its users to add more detail about the places they know best. But there may be more to it than that.
With the Map Maker, Google says you can fix the name of local businesses or add improved descriptions. You can also add more information about an area, like bike lanes or the names of buildings on college campuses, for example. To prevent any high jinx from occurring, Google notes that it will review the user-created submissions before they go live.
While on the surface, the launch of Map Maker in the U.S. appears to just be another useful feature to differentiate Google's mapping service from its competitors, there may be some additional motives behind this launch.
One motive may have to do with the expansion of Google Places, the search company's Yelp-like business locator service. In April, Google merged its socially-infused local business recommendation service called Hotpot into Google Places, the larger business database which provides reviews and venue information. Now Google is crowdsourcing edits to that same database via this U.S. launch of Google Map Maker.
Building a Better Location Database, Thanks to You
One of the primary assets of companies involved in providing location-based services is their database of venues. On this front, Facebook is a tough Google competitor, with its own database of locations called Facebook Places. In September 2010, a company spokesperson said the goal for Facebook Places was to be the "central platform for location data" across the Web. And in February 2011, Facebook made some under-the-hood changes to the way it houses venues listed on its site, a move that enables the network to have an accurate, universally standardized database of locations.
Location-based check-in service Foursquare also has its own venue database, and, like Google will now as well, uses crowdsourcing to help keep that database accurate. In theory, select superusers on Foursquare's service are enlisted to clean up duplicate venues and make sure each pushpin is accurately placed. The job of crowdsourcing this cleanup is not going well in my local area - nearly every major venue has at least 2 or 3 clones, if not more. In fact, last I checked, my gym was listed four or five times! (I'd love to hear more about your experience with this problem, or if you don't have one.) This may or may not be an across-the-board complaint, but it does highlight the challenges of creating a location database where users themselves are permitted to enter venues of their own, with no direct company oversight.
It should also be noted that another Google competitor, Microsoft's Bing, has also gone the crowdsourcing route to some extent, partnering with Open Street Map (OSM) back in August 2010, to make it available as an additional layer on top of Bing Maps. The company has donated aerial imagery to the Open Street Maps community too, and, in November, hired OSM founder Steve Coast to come work at Bing Maps.
To put it simply, today's announcement from Google has a deeper impact to the company's overall strategic initiatives than simply a case of "oh look, new tools!" Clean, accurate, robust, detailed and up-to-date maps and databases of locations will be key to growing any business that leverages location data in the future, which today includes a number of mobile services, and their online counterparts.