23 Mar Google Maps makes navigation a pleasure
Yes, Google is still a search company. While the Mountain View, California, firm has expanded into Web e-mail, blogging, and myriad other projects, its focus generally stays on making information easier to find.
Now Google is expanding into maps.
Google Maps is a recent offering that blends Google’s intuitive search capabilities with some very dynamic interface design. While other online maps act more like static Web sites, Google’s new tool acts more like an application, updating in real time as you drag the map around and zoom in and out.
Not only that, but Google Maps fits perfectly into the browser window, and the map is nice and big. It’s not tiny and crammed in among a bunch of clutter. Google’s simple design aesthetic has come through again. Strangely, there are no advertisements yet, but I expect this to change.
Simplicity wins out one more time: While most other mapping sites make you fill out a bunch of different text boxes – address, city, state, and so on – Google puts a single search box up at the top. You can type in the name of a city, an address, or a business name. Businesses that match are displayed like pins sticking into the map. Getting directions is sublime: Type in two addresses, and go.
You can also link to a specific location or search result. Here are Madison, Milwaukee, Green Bay and Eau Claire, for example.
Google Maps’ major limitation right now is coverage. While it seems to be expanding into Canada, only the United States has full coverage. Outside of those two countries, the map just stops.
I’ve also seen several complaints around the Web that Google has used an old map, meaning that some parts of it may not be accurate. I haven’t yet found problems myself, but in general major urban areas seem more likely to be accurate than smaller towns. The copyright at the bottom is dated 2005 by a company called Navteq, headquartered in Chicago, which also provides map data to other major map sites online.
Other mapping sites
Three other contenders are Yahoo Maps, MSN Maps and MapQuest.
Of the three, MSN has the best interface by far. It’s not as smooth as Google’s, but it’s actualy not that far off. You can’t drag the map around any way you want, but when you click on the cardinal directions or on the zoom tool, the map updates immediately.
On Yahoo and MapQuest, the entire Web page has to reload every time you move around on the map. That seems incredibly clunky once you’ve tried Google or MSN. And Yahoo puts so much irrelevant header material above the map that I have to scroll down to see any of it on every page reload. Bad idea.
MSN also has pretty good international map coverage, including street maps for much of Europe, Australia and Brazil as well as North America, and a world atlas showing cities and towns. Yahoo covers the United States and Canada, while MapQuest appears to only cover the United States.
As I mentioned before, these sites have forms for you to fill out rather than simple search boxes. You need to fill in the address, city and state or zip code separately. That’s clumsier than Google’s single search box. And because you can’t type a business name into an address box, these sites need separate search tools for finding businesses, adding complexity to their use and slowing you down.
My overall pick: If it’s not obvious already, I prefer Google Maps for its clean, responsive interface. If I wanted to look up a friend in Munich, I’d head over to MSN.