Review of Google Maps (in 2021)

Undoubtedly Google Maps is the most successful product Google ever built alongside its search engine. Since its launch in 2005, Google maps reinvented maps on the internet, changed the idea of how maps are shown, served, and used on various devices through the internet. Today Google maps evolved from a single-page web application to a full-featured platform including many products such as mobile app and APIs. Here I will give my comments about google maps from 3 aspects from a perspective of a map enthusiast and map developer: Data, Functionalities, Interoperability & Extensibility. and I will emphasize the web version.

  1. Data

The strength of Google maps mostly comes from the completeness, currentness, consistency, and efficiency of the geographic data Google collected and managed. Any other advantages such as simple UI, aesthetic quality, and performance optimization can not substitute the importance of data. here is a list of the categories of these data:
1. High spatial resolution satellite imagery(in Global coverages, with time series archive which can be viewed in Google earth pro)
2. Vector data (including road networks, water bodies, building outlines, administrative boundaries, and POIs, etc.)
3. Terrain data(rendered in contour lines or color relief)
4. Street views
5. 3D models
6. Transit routes
7. Place reviews.
Some of those data are exclusive and expensive that only paid clients such as the government or military departments can use before Google brings those to the general public. I believe that Google maintains the largest geospatial databases in the world although, in some subcategories, others could beyond it, such as OpenStreetMap’s geo-feature database has the potential to surpass that of Google’s. Google maps are the only choice sometimes when there is no other data source available in the market especially when you focus on the satellite imageries. However, Google didn’t take the full power of these data, I will discuss it in the section “What google maps could have done but didn’t”.
Let’s close this section with an answer to a simple question: Is google maps’ data good enough for a user? The answer will be: Absolutely, Google maps define the upper bound of a map service’s data capability. A map user even didn’t know what mean good data for maps if there is no such product.

2. functionalities

Google maps are so versatile in functionalities that it is no longer a simple map. Traditionally, a map is a print of drawings or graphics of geographic things. To read it, you can get the locations, extents, distributions, and distances of something on Earth. But as a software, Google maps are interactive, searchable, and able to give navigation instructions with details. here is a summary of the main functionalities:

  1. Map interactions such as panning, zooming in/out 
  2. Place searching 
  3. Route planning and turn-by-turn navigation
  4. Geocoding and reverse geocoding
  5. Map creating and sharing
  6. Map style customization by layers control and customized map import
  7. Print, and save

The functions of map interactions by arranging map tiles were first created by the Google maps team using AJAX in 2005, an innovational design then and a de facto solution now. Searching, route planning, and navigation are really good because Google is the expert in answering queries at its birth. However, comparing with OpenStreetMap, Map creating, sharing, customization are not good enough. Even considering the Google Map Maker, The data user created is not well integrated into the underlying data. We will close this section with an answer to another simple question: Do Google maps have good functionalities? The answer is: yes, It does for most scenarios except you are obsessed with map creation and curation. 

3. Interoperability & Extensibility
To some extend, Google is so focused on the end user’s experience in their product that many products did not encourage developers to extend it. Or Google may think the extension will hinder its original design or damage the perfection. For Google maps, JavaScript API v3 is available for developers who want to create their maps and applications. Developers can integrate their homebrew data on top of Google maps’ data, there are more than 150 Google Maps JavaScript Samples on the docs page for people to learn from. You can take a look at here if you are interested. But when I was asked a question: Are the Google maps good enough concerning interoperability & extensibility? I will answer: Not really. Because you have little control over the data google maps offered. The granularity of the control of data is so coarse that you can only have the option to topple on/off a layer. You can not select a subset of geo-features such as roads, waterways, or buildings, let alone the vertices of the features.

After all, Google maps are great but not perfect. It is still in evolution for a better future. There are many weaknesses of it to be improved. For example, Do you ever wonder when search “Amazon River” or “Congo River” on google maps, why you can’t get a highlighted outline of the Result like your searched U.S.A.?

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