Critical Section

Google Maps - own goal

Thursday,  05/14/15  11:37 PM

Many of you have been around long enough to remember when Google were just a scappy startup, and Yahoo, Alta Vista, Excite, and others were the kings of search.  (Back in the great "portal" era.)  I was just remembering this time thinking about Verizon's acquisition of AOL.

Google's text search was better right from the start, and that propelled them to early traction.  I would argue that in the entire history of Google, there were two formative events, both acquisitions.  The first was when Yahoo acquired Overture, in 2003 (for $1.6B).  That really established the paid search model, which has led to the lion's share of Google's revenue.  The second was when Google themselves acquired Keyhole, in 2004, which put Google Maps ... on the map, giving them satellite images in addition to road maps. (It was interesting looking back over AOL's acquisitions, to remember they bought Mapquest for $1.1B in 1999; at that time and until Google bought Keyhole, Mapquest were the clear leaders in mapping.)

Mapquest map, circa 2004
Mapquest map, circa 2004

So ... since Google Maps was such a key driver of Google, they're taking good care of it, and making it better and better, right? 

Google map, circa 2004
Google map, circa 2004
less detail, but freely scrolling

Of course ... they've added such amazing features as Street View, and the Moon, and Mars, and Traffic, and even 3D-views of buildings and landmarks.  They've become the standard for map interfaces.  But then again...

Google satellite map
Google satellite map
qualitatively different ... and better

Of course, not.  In March 2014 Google began testing a new interface which was dumbed down, slower, and removes key features like My Places and multi-point routing.  Users were up in arms, and Google decided to keep the new interface as an option, and let people "opt out" and use Classic Maps if they wanted.  A lot of people wanted.  So Google decided to go back to the old interface, right?

new Google Maps, with the 'return to Classic' option
new Google Maps,with the 'return to class' option

Nope.  Google have now made the new interface the default without any obvious way to get back to the Classic Maps.  For a little while people figured out they could use:, but the Google people closed the hole.  As of this writing you can still use this URL:, the fact that a typo works shows that the functionality is still there, and they just patched it out.

I can understand not wanting to support two interfaces, but since people don't seem to want the new interface, why force it down our throats?  There must be a product manager somewhere who doesn't want to admit the new interface is worse, or something weird like that.  But going up to 10,000 feet, this is important.  Google Maps remains a key product for the company.  I'm not sure what their goal is in switching people to a new interface, but it's not their users' goal.  And it could end up opening the door to competition...

Bing satellite map
Bing Satellite Map


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