Caitlin Fitzsimmons Online editor

Caitlin covers social media, marketing and technology and is BRW's social media editor. She has worked as a journalist in Sydney, London and San Francisco, writing for titles including The Guardian and The Australian Financial Review.

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Local businesses highlighted in new Google Maps

Published 16 May 2013 07:31, Updated 21 May 2013 14:01

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Local businesses highlighted in new Google Maps

The latest update to Google Maps brings search results onto the map Image: Google

Google has given its popular map product a major design overhaul that includes giving greater prominence to search results for local businesses.

The updates to Google Maps were announced globally at 5am on Thursday, Australian east coast time. Google users can apply to use a preview version and give feedback on the changes.

Google Maps software engineering lead Yatin Chawathe says there were a few main philosophies behind the new user interface.

“We really wanted to make the map be the central user experience that the user interacts with rather than getting distracted by other aspects,” Chawathe told BRW in a pre-briefing. “We also really wanted to create a map that is unique for each user so you, the user, defines what the map looks like for you.

“Thirdly, we wanted to take advantage of all the rich photography and imagery content that we have at Google, like Street View, photos uploaded by our users, our satellite imagery and so on.”

Previously if you searched for, say, sushi restaurants in Sydney, Google Maps would display the listings to the side of the map. In the new version, the listings appear on the map itself with a short description of each business.

The user can also read reviews written by sites like Zagat or people in circles on Google Plus. Three thumbnails next to the listing allow users to see Street View of the location, look at the interior of the business, or view photos uploaded by other people.

User interaction

The changes highlight the benefits of local businesses claiming their Google Places page and enhancing it with imagery and useful information.

“They don’t have to be on Google Places for it to show up on the map – our index is incredibly comprehensive so we try to list businesses whether they sign up for Google Places or not,” Chawathe says.

“If they do sign up for Google Places, they can interact with our users in richer ways, so for example upload photos of their business and that will show up on the map, and they can upload offers to entice users to come visit those places and we’ll surface those offers when they’re relevant.”

The locations and reviews are not due to a commercial relationship, but Google is looking at ways to expand some of its paid products to the maps platform.

“We are exploring various ways of allowing restaurants to, for example, show offers on the map if they’re working with the Google Offers product,” Chawathe says. “We also have a wide variety of advertising relationships with restaurants and other businesses and we’re exploring various ways of surfacing that advertising, when it will be useful to the user, onto the map.”

If businesses want interior imagery with their listing, they can sign up to the Business Photos program. Google trains “trusted photographers” locally to take the imagery and feed it into Google Maps – the photographers are independent contractors hired by the businesses and not employed by Google.

Pushing the envelope

Advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi in Sydney is one example of an Australian business with the interior imagery. This allows users to zoom into a building and look inside with 3D rendering that lets you pan and tilt for a realistic 360-degree view.

“This is all possible because we are really pushing the envelope of what is possible in browsers today and taking advantage of the latest and greatest in 3D technology that modern browsers support to create an experience that feels smooth and integrated,” Chawathe says.

The map is redrawn within the browser using HTML5 rather than presenting new images as the user zooms in and out, which makes the experience more seamless. Things like Street View, Google Earth and interior 3D imagery no longer feel like separate modes, but are integrated into the main map product.

Personalisation includes displaying landmarks that the user has previously rated on Google before any search takes place. If you click on a landmark such as a museum, the map will automatically highlight the main transport routes to get to the location and similar listings around the city, such as another museum.

The transport directions are more predictive and don’t require the user to enter the time of arrival or departure or preferred mode of travel.

Cosmetic changes include making the water darker closer to the coastline so the land pops out visually and creating subtle shading on one side of the map to show the position and angle of the sun.

Like most online maps, Google Maps uses the Mercator projection, which has the distortive effect of making land mass appear bigger near the poles than the equator, so Greenland looks a similar size to Africa. Chawathe says there are technical challenges associated with other projections that mean users can lose their place when they try to zoom in. He adds that Google is committed to trying to display a realistic view of the planet and had added modes that let you zoom out to see the planet as a sphere, with real-time vision of clouds, night and day and eclipses.

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