U.S. Markets open in 9 hrs 7 mins

Google Maps goes beyond directions

Frederic Lardinois

Google today announced a new version of Google Maps that will launch later this summer. All of the core Google Maps features for getting directions aren't going away, of course, but on top of that, the team has now built a new set of features that are all about exploration.

"About a year ago, when we started to talk to users, one of the things we asked them was: how can we really help you? What else do you want Google Maps to do? And one of the overwhelming answers that we got back was just really a lot of requests around helping users explore an area, help me decide where to go," Sophia Lin, Google's senior product manager on the Google Maps team, told me. "So we really started digging in to thinking about what we can really do here from Google that would really help people."

Right now, Google Maps is obviously best known for helping people get where they want to go, but for a while now, Google has featured all kinds of additional content in the service. Many users never touch those features, though, it seems. While I couldn't get Lin to tell me about the percentage of users who currently use the existing Google Maps exploration tools, this new initiative is also part of an attempt to get users to move beyond directions when they think about Maps.

And because this is Google, that new experience is all about personalization with the help of AI.

So in the new Maps, you'll find the new "For you" tab that's basically a newsfeed-like experience with recommendations for you. You'll be able to "follow" certain neighborhoods and cities (or maybe a place you plan to visit soon), similar to a social networking experience. When Google Maps finds interesting updates in that area -- maybe a restaurant that's trending or a new coffee shop that opens -- it'll tell you about that in your feed.

"People had problems finding out what's new," Lin told me. "Sometimes you are really lucky and you're walking down the street and stumble across something, but oftentimes that's not the case and you find out about something six months after it opened, so what we started looking into was can we understand, from anonymized population dynamics, what places are trending, what are the places that people are going."

There are also algorithmically designed "Foodie List" and "Trending this week" lists that show you what's new and interesting and where the trendmakers in an area are hanging out. As Lin told me, the Foodie List is based on an anonymized cohort analysis that looks at where people who go out a lot gather. Because those are often the first to try new places, too, their movements often tend to presage trends. Similarly, the "Trending" list looks at the overall population, so that list can change based on season, with an ice cream parlor trending in the summer, for example.

For other items in the "For you" feed, Google Maps will actually analyze articles about local news to see what's new, too.

Lin stressed that the feed isn't so much about the volume of information but about presenting the right information at the right time and for the right person.

In addition to the "For you" feed, there are also a number of new basic exploration features, which are all powered by AI, too. Maps will generate lists of Michelin-starred restaurants, for example, or popular brunch spots depending on your context and the time of day.

Another major new feature that's coming to Maps soon is "your match." If you regularly peruse the star ratings of various restaurants before you decide where to go, then you know that those ratings can only tell you so much. Now, with "your match," Maps will present you with a personalized score that tells you how closely a restaurant matches your own preferences.

Google Maps learns about those preferences based on how you have rated this and other places and your own preferences, which you can actually set manually in the Google Maps settings once this update goes live. Interestingly, Google does not try to base these scores on how other people like you have rated a place.

The third major new feature of the new app is group planning. Based on the demo I saw, the team actually did a really nice job with this. The general idea here is to allow you to easily create a list of suggestions for a group outing (or just a dinner with your significant other) by long-pressing on a place listing. Google Maps will then pop up a chat head-like bubble that follows you around as you browse for other places. Once you have compiled your list, you can share it with your friends, who can then vote for their favorites.

Google will launch this new Google Maps experience later this summer. It will come to both iOS and Android, though the team hasn't decided which one will come first yet. For now, all of these new features will only come to the app, not the web.