February 10, 2005
Review: Google Online Maps Need Work
NEW YORK (AP) -- Leave it to Google Inc. (GOOG) to innovate. Its new online mapping service produces impressive U.S. maps that please the eye and are fun to navigate. And unlike competing services, you can put all your search terms into one box. But as a product still in "beta," or test phase, Google Maps clearly needs fine-tuning. I wouldn't abandon Yahoo, Mapquest or MSN quite yet.
So which to use in the meantime? I took a systematic look at them all.
First off, all the services get their data from the same sources, primarily Navteq Corp. (NVT) and Tele Atlas N.V. They differ in how they analyze and present the data.
America Online Inc.'s Mapquest and Microsoft Corp. (MSFT)'s MSN Maps and Directions had much to like.
MSN offers maps in all or parts of 20 countries, mostly in North America and Europe. Mapquest covers most of the world, though most countries have only city maps not street-level maps or driving directions. By contrast, Yahoo Inc. (YHOO)'s map service covers the United States and Canada only, and Google only includes parts of Canada.
For driving directions, MSN lets you choose the quickest or shortest route while Mapquest sometimes gives you the option of avoiding major highways.
MSN also has a "LineDrive" feature that removes clutter. You see only the relevant cross streets, and because the map isn't drawn to scale long highway stretches don't take up much room. MSN is also the only service to show arrows denoting one-way streets.
But Yahoo wins hands down when it comes to ease of use and functionality.
It's the only service with public transit information. I can find out the closest subway station - an important feature for someone who doesn't own a car.
For motorists, Yahoo's maps incorporate real-time traffic reports. You can find out about construction and other delays along a planned route. Unfortunately, Yahoo won't produce directions to bypass any bottlenecks; you'd have to do that manually.
Yahoo is also the best at finding the nearest restaurants, cash machines, Wi-Fi wireless hotspots and other services. My only complaint is you must choose among preset categories. To type in keywords such as "haircut," you'd have to use Yahoo Local. Why couldn't Yahoo integrate the two?
Yahoo and Google let you easily find directions to and from airports by typing in the airport code, such as "LGA" for LaGuardia Airport in New York. It's an extra click with MSN, a few more with Mapquest.
If you don't know the code, Yahoo has a list.
If I leave "Street" or "Avenue" out of an address, Mapquest and MSN will prompt me, while Yahoo and Google will just give me the map when there is only one logical choice - no need for an extra click to confirm.
Yahoo also knows "Mass." means Massachusetts; I'm not forced to use the two-letter postal service abbreviation, as Mapquest and Google sometimes require. And Yahoo is best at guessing a state if you leave it out.
But most importantly, Yahoo got me to my parents' home in the suburbs with the fewest segments: 21, compared with 24 for Google and MSN and 27 for Mapquest. If only I had a car, I'd visit more.
So if Yahoo's so good, why consider Google at all?
As I mentioned, Google's maps are aesthetically appealing.
The others jam visual information into a small box to leave more room for ads. So far, Google's map page doesn't have any ads, so maps can be bigger, and streets and landmarks don't feel boxed in.
The colors on Google's maps appear brighter. Pop-up balloons and pushpins employed to denote a specific address even cast shadows.
And to get beyond the edge of the displayed map, I only need to click and drag the map. The adjacent areas fill in quickly and automatically. With rivals, I must click on one of several buttons to have the map crawl over, and I have to wait for the entire map to reload each time.
Furthermore, Google lets you put your entire query into a single box: To get from LaGuardia Airport to my office, "LGA to 33rd and 10th, New York" does the trick. All the others make you separate origin and destination, street from city.
Google also remembers where you are, so just type "pizza" for pizzerias in the city.
But it would have been nice to get pizzerias near my origin or destination, not in the middle.
Google could also use some of Yahoo's shortcuts - such as the ability to find subway stops and use state abbreviations that don't conform to postal standards (with Google, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't).
One more request: Google's search engine already lets you get someone's address simply by typing a name and city. Shouldn't I be able to get maps or directions that way, too?
Instead, I get weird results based upon associations in Google's Web page index. So when I looked up a friend in my running club, I got a bar where the club once met.
That said, I do have mixed feelings about such a feature. I can imagine concerns about stalking, even though the information is already available elsewhere on Google.
Either way, I'll stick with Yahoo for now.
Once Google refines its service, I can see it mapping my way around.