Touring Google Maps

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I intended to write about a trio of patent filings involving Google Maps but ended up taking a detour. I might get to the patent applications before the end of this post, but I might run out of gas and not quite make it. The freshly published patent applications describe features Google may add to make Google Maps more interesting.

But if you haven’t been paying much attention, you may have missed many interesting features available already at Google Maps.

I started exploring Google Maps by looking at the journey between where I live and Washington, DC.

A Google Map showing the route between Warrenton, Virginia and Washington, DC.

The fun thing about directions at Google Maps is that you can choose between driving a car, taking public transportation, riding a bike, or hoofing it on foot. Public Transport isn’t available where I’m at, but I checked the options to journey via foot and by bicycle. Each shows a slightly different path to DC, and includes estimations of the time for the journey.

If I drive, I’m shown three different routes, each taking a handful of minutes more than an hour. I can put in a departure time for public transit, but unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a combination of bus, train, and/or boat between here and there. If I walk, directions for a 45-mile journey show up, with an estimated 15 hours and three minutes (odd to include those minutes) from the first step to last. If I pedal, Google offers two options, each 10 miles longer than the walking path, but cutting the travel time down to 5 hours and 15 minutes.

Why is it that I have 10 miles less to travel if I walk rather than a bike? The bicycle map shows a lot less of a straight path:

A Google Map showing the bicycle route between Warrenton and Washinton.

There is no horseback riding option for Google Maps, but one of the most famous journeys between Warrenton and Washington was a 1909 trip by President Teddy Roosevelt who leads an entourage by horseback from Washington to Warrenton for lunch, and back to Washington for dinner.

Driving sounds like the best option, and Google includes traffic information to help someone plan their journey. Not only can you see what traffic is like in real-time, but you can also insert a date and time for the trip and get estimated information about traffic for your journey.

A Google Map showing the live traffic information and a user interface for getting estimated information about the speed of traffic.

The map above does a good job of showing a section of a nearby road where a construction crew is funneling traffic into one lane while they widen a turn into two lanes. Chances are Google is grabbing mobile phone location and acceleration information from people driving down the road.

Like the information overlay that appears over that traffic estimation map that shows a Starbucks and a Cold Stone Creamery location? That’s described in a patent filing that I haven’t gotten to yet and isn’t one of the three I would write about. I need to finish that post and publish it…

I’m a big fan of landmarks and human-friendly driving directions. That’s part of why I like pictures in Google maps. Google will show you pictures from Panoramio on your Map if you select them as an option. Oddly, the image in the map below shows up in Google Maps and is labeled as being from Panoramio, but when I search Panoramio, I don’t see that picture.

A Google Map showing a picture of the local historic courthouse.

If photos aren’t enough, you can select the video option and see available videos along the route, like one that I found for the Library of Congress:

A Google Map embedded with a YouTube Video of the Great Hall in the Library of Congress.

If photos and videos aren’t enough, and you want to read about some of the places you’ll travel through from start to finish, you could go to Wikipedia and try to search for that information, but you’d probably miss some interesting places. The Wikipedia option in Google Maps lets you see locations associated with those Wikipedia entries in a manner that makes it much easier to find them.

A Google Map showing an excerpt from Wikipedia about Warrenton, Virginia.

At this point, you might be thinking that there may be too many features in Google Maps, but I’m not quite sure. Another available choice is the option of seeing webcams that might show some of the places you may see, which can give you an idea of things like weather conditions at your destination. It looked somewhat cloudy and overcast today in the District of Columbia:

A Google Map showing a Webcam overlooking part of Washington, DC

Spokespeople from Google have been mentioning lately that they are seeking new ways to insert social media into as many aspects of Google as they can, so a Google Buzz feature isn’t a surprise. You might find a relevant tweet or buzz as your traveling.

A Google Map with a tweet sent from a point along the route.

If you decide to travel by bicycle, the topography feature in Google Maps can give you an idea of whether your ride will be mostly uphill or downhill:

A Google Map showing the topographic features surrounding Warrenton.

A bicycling feature (different from the “biking route option” in directions), shows specially designated bike paths. The one shown below is a greenway in Warrenton.

A Google Map showing a Warrenton bike path.

It’s not an unusual trip, Warrenton to Washington – many people who live in the area commute into Washington daily. Some nice homes in the area as well, which you can see from the “real estate” feature in Google Maps.

A Google Map showing a Warrenton home for sale. Nice place.

I wouldn’t say I like that Google Maps doesn’t include much in the way of public transit information in the area, including the Metro surrounding Washington DC. I’m showing a map from Manhattan instead of the Washington Metroline, wishing to show the Metro stations instead.

A Google Map showing a Warrenton home for sale. Nice place.

I can get some good views of monuments in Washington, DC, on the Google Satellite view:

A Google Map displaying the Washington Monument from a satellite view.

And an even more interesting look using a Google Earth view:

A Google Map displaying the Washington Monument.

But I have to switch back to showing something from NYC, like the image below of the Empire State Building, when it comes to Google Streetview – it isn’t available in DC. Wonder why.

A Google Map displaying the Washington Monument.

The patent filings are going to have to wait until another day.

How useful do you find all the features available on Google Maps?

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43 thoughts on “Touring Google Maps”

  1. Ahhh my old stomping grounds!! Thanks for the trip down memory lane. I too was familiar with that commute. I even remember a trip to that court house to take care of a traffic ticket. Nice area!

    I am back in Colorado now..

  2. Glad to be aware of these. As an SEO, I am thinking, hmmm, Tweets show up, now that’s interesting. I must tell my clients to be aware of anything they should tweet for travelers.

  3. “Chances are Google is grabbing mobile phone location and acceleration information from people driving down the road.”


    If they indeed have this technology, this just blew my mind.

  4. Hi Sparky,

    Thanks. It is a nice area, but I definitely wouldn’t want to be doing that commute on a daily basis if I could help it. I’ve taken a lot of pictures of that Courthouse myself, but haven’t stepped inside of it yet.

  5. Hi M.J.

    Tweets are showing up, but the feature is labeled “Google Buzz,” so it looks like you need to import your tweets into Google Buzz for them to possibly appear on Google Maps.

  6. Hi Jeremy,

    I am serious about how Google is collecting traffic information. See this article for some details:

    Google Maps Gets Smarter: Crowdsources Live Traffic Data

    In addition to using GPS information, it’s also quite possible that Google is also using cell-phone triangulation to collect that kind of information. See:

    With Google’s My Location, Who Needs a GPS?


    Google Maps with My Location (Beta)

    A snippet from that last one:

    Why the uncertainty? The My Location feature takes information broadcast from mobile towers near you to approximate your current location on the map – it’s not GPS, but it comes pretty close (approximately 1000m close, on average).

  7. I TOTALLY love Google Maps (and I never think there are too many options there). I’m crossing my fingers and praying that the next upgrade is the ability to install a robot in my car to drive me everywhere.

  8. More “neat” than useful – but as with so many technologies that at first seem kind of frivolous and high-sugar content “cheap thrills” who knows this could lead somewhere more globally useful in time as the applications and utility to wider, more industrial processes evolve. Very neat though! 🙂

  9. Thank you Bill, will read those links.

    I can see more and more why Android is benefiting Google in so many ways we can’t imagine.

  10. I didn’t know there are so many useful and fun features in Google maps! Thanks for sharing it to us. These features are truly helpful, it’s like a one-stop shop. You can even look for properties on sale as well as where to eat, where to take a rest. One can really effectively and efficiently plan a trip using Google Maps.

  11. I use Google Maps for just about everything…except for directions! Reason being is that I live in a small Pennsylvania town. When I type in my zip code, it starts me out in a town in Ohio that has the same town name. Isn’t a zip code with a specified address the most accurate starting point? Why is Google ignoring the zip I enter and formulate it’s own idea about where I live simply based on the town name. I have also tried it without entering the town at all and just the zip code. Now this used to happen all of the time and now it happens what seems like every other time I use Google Maps. I have reported the issue without a response. So yes, Google Maps provides a wealth of information as long as I don’t need directions but that’s for me personally. The best answer I got from anyone is that it was possibly going off my IP location (server), which is closer to Ohio than it is the town I live in…hmm.

  12. It’s pretty amazing to see the features you currently have available on Google Maps. You have mentioned that Google Streetview isn’t available in DC. In Israel – most of the features are not available and I guess it will take some time till they are available in our small and far country. Just few days ago I have been wondering if I would be able to use Google Maps on my hebrew website and guess what – In Israel it is only available in English (probably due to some patent filling or trade agreements made by Large israeli companies with Google Israel)

  13. Hi Steve,

    I’m not sure how far away we are from a robotic chauffeur, but Google has been working pretty hard on building a navigation system around Google Maps, and recent local search patents I’ve seen from Google do include web connected automobiles as one of the types of hardware considered in potential uses for Google Maps. 🙂

  14. Hi Matthew,

    I do think that marketers or advertisers who wanted to make their clients more visible on the Web (and in Google Maps) could start doing things with the kinds of features available that might be considered a little ahead of their time right now.

    Google has so much invested into Maps and the directory that goes with it, that I think chances are it will continue to grow in both features offered and popularity.

  15. Hi Jeremy,

    Interesting that you mention Android, and I think you have a very good point. Mobile and local go together so well – geographic based applications are going to grow on the strength of things like the APIs that Google offers for maps and location, and in turn that may help Google Maps grow more useful.

  16. Hi Andrew,

    With the patent filings that I mentioned I wanted to write about, I felt I had to spend some time with Google Maps to make sure that they hadn’t implemented anything those patents were describing. This post came about because I couldn’t find a fairly short description of the things offered in Google Maps right now and I thought it would be a good idea to put one together.

    There are some neat features – I really hadn’t spent anytime using things like the wikipedia function before – now I’ll probably use it a lot more.

  17. Hi Vee

    The problem you’ve been having with the zip code is one that it seems Google should be able to figure out without much difficulty.

    Are you beginning your geographically related searches through Google’s Web search interface, or through the Google Maps homepage?

  18. Hi Eitan,

    Some of the issues involving the implementation of Google Maps in different locations are based upon technical challenges or possibly business agreements, but I’ve also seen political and cultural issues involved as well.

    Google published a patent filing a few years back that addressed some of the issues that they have in China, which I wrote about in Google Local Search in China: Export Restrictions, Filtering Sensitive Keywords, and Limited Data

    One issue that stands out on implementing Google Maps in China, for instance, is that Google can’t use latitude and longitude coordinates because of export restrictions. Another is the use of a number of different languages in some areas with a wide range of synonyms in those languages for places like restaurants. An additional one is a lack of street numbers for many places.

    I don’t know what the issues are in Israel that might be keeping Google from offering all of the features that it could, but I would guess that those of us who do have access to many of these features are often the test subjects being used before those features become available for a wider audience.

  19. Hi Bill,

    Thanks for the response. It used to work fine, but it was about 8-12 months that it started messing up based on zip. I access it directly from Google Maps, not through the search engine. It also works fine for a location look up; it just messes up the starting point of my zip code when gaining directions from my zip code to the destination.

  20. Google Maps is a toy, a very powerful toy, but still a toy… is a really useful project.

    you can simple convert part of OSM map data to many navigation devices and use it without Internet connection. (Ex. Garmin)

    With osm, anyone can just go in and add new information or alter existing information if there are errors in it (like the link between the Calf and the mainland, for example) but you can’t do that on Google Maps

  21. Hi Vee,

    I can’t think of any obvious reasons why you’re seeing that kind of behavior except possible a geocoding error in Google’s location database. It’s possible that they are paying more attention to your IP address than they should be, but zip codes tend to be pretty reliable indications of a location most of the time.

  22. Hi N. Olsen,

    There are aspects of Google’s Maps that are definitely toylike at this point. Looking at photos, videos and wikipedia information aren’t going to get you from point A to Point B, and neither is the ability to see Google Buzz updates.

    But I’m not quite sure that it would be right to characterize Google’s business directory and mapping functions as a toy at this stage. They may still need some work, but there’s some pretty powerful stuff going on behind the scenes, like the ability of Google to find new routes by looking at things like GPS and cell triangulation information from drivers who have mobile devices.

  23. “Google Maps is a toy, a very powerful toy, but still a toy…”
    I don’t know, I think google maps is a great resource. Think of the times when we didn’t have it and today, when you can see anything from the comfort of your own home. It’s like being abroad without living the chair. Besides, it’s nice to know how places look like before you see them, it’s easier to recognize them as well.
    Maybe a toy as you say but I think it’s a resource as well.

  24. All modules already existing in GOOGLE MAPS is really crazy, I think to really allow most users not just residents of the United States to use these tools Google has to work hard to provide global support for its system and not just in DC [view LIVE street].
    For example, I’m sure that in Israel many people prefer individuals and small businesses to stop using all kinds of maps and GPS services to pay an expensive and will be happy to move Google’s free service, but as I said until then must provide as much support.

  25. Hi Eliran,

    I know that many of the features that Google offers in the US aren’t available in other places. I believe that Google also offers some services in places like China, and Africa, and Russia that aren’t available in the US.

    For example, a recent Google Latlong blog post, Refining the Google Maps tiles for Japan demostrates some of the challenges that Google faces in bringing new features to Google Maps in specific places.

  26. Last summer my friend and I biked from Vancouver to Calgary using printed out Google maps, traveling secondary routes (non-TransCanada Hwy.). We noticed that major highway construction was not noted on the maps and desolate detours prevailed. Nevertheless this made the journey quite interesting and longer.

  27. Hi R.Ruth,

    Sounds like an interesting trip. I have seen live-time traffic estimates on Google Maps, showing very minor contruction work being reported/indicated. Offline, folding paper maps wouldn’t have helped you with that road construction either.

  28. Wow google updated google maps, i remember only can see from air, and now can see from car google too 🙂 this cool

  29. Maybe I’m slightly paranoid, but the way that collecting info about us has become so easy is a bit disturbing

  30. It’s amazing- Google Maps.

    In Israel no features are available. may be in the far futere. i hope. thanks a lot

  31. Hi Jason,

    I have to admit that I was surprised by all of the features that are now available in Google Maps when I wrote this post. I’m not sure that all of them are essential or all that useful, but I think it shows that Google is pretty serious about Maps, and the capabilities that they may offer.

  32. Hi Ron,

    The Web is making it easier for us to find information, but it’s also transforming the way we think about privacy. It is a bit disturbing.

  33. Hi Martin,

    That’s a little surprising that Israel doesn’t have any of the features that we see in Google Maps here in the US. You have me wondering if Google has had some limits imposed upon it by outside forces to keep them from showing those.

  34. Bill, there are some limitations that Google is forced to accept, but you also have to keep in mind that they provide their up-to-date features to highly populated countries at first.

  35. Hi Tavit,

    Thanks. That’s understandable. It does seem that Google likes to try new things in places where they can get a lot of data really quickly, and test as much as possible.

  36. This answer is for Eitan yariv,
    Eitan, you can use Google Maps in your Hebrew website, you just need to make small change in the URL, instead of “hl=en” you need to write “hl=iw” and then you get the map in Hebrew…

    Hope it will help you 🙂

  37. “Google Maps is a toy, a very powerful toy, but still a toy…”

    For some people it maybe just a toy, and agreed, i do find myself having a play with street view every now and again. But for us web developers Google maps API is very powerful and we have developed endless applications and websites which utilise Google Maps as a core part of their infrastructure. Google’s Android platform is one of the best businesses decisions they ever made, with many of the location based apps using Google Maps api to draw data. Google have stolen a huge leap on Microsoft by contently listening to its users and making developments. Unlike our friends at Microsoft.

  38. Hi Tom,

    That statement about Google Maps being a toy is something that N. Olsen said in his comment above, not me.

    There are many very useful elements of Google Maps that many people rely upon. I often use it for directions to places that I want to visit, and it Google Maps doesn’t work as it’s supposed to, it can make it pretty confusing to find those places. Streetview can also be useful when you might want to try to find some landmarks around where you want to visit.

    I agree that the API and the applications that people can develop around it for both desktop and mobile applications can make it invaluable. Google did make a wise decision in letting people develop around their data.

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