With Data and Local Guides, Google Maps Stays Ahead of the Rest

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I’m not the first to point out the impressive research coming from cartographer and software developer Justin O’Beirne, previously a member of the Apple Maps team. O’Beirne’s comparison study published in May, “A Year of Google and Apple Maps,” reveals in minute detail the discrepancy in accuracy and richness of detail between Google and Apple, borne of Google’s investment in technologies but also due to its iterative approach to maps development, where tiny tweaks to map styling and progressive introduction of more and more place data over time lead to remarkable long term improvements.

This month O’Beirne is back with “Google Maps’s Moat,” in which he focuses on some impressive work Google has done to identify areas of interest (AOIs) in various cities by combining Maps and Places data. These AOIs tend to be sections in a city with particularly dense concentrations of restaurants and shops – that is, the parts of a city that Maps users who are traveling will naturally want to see highlighted.

Google has been able to capture and color-code AOIs in thousands of cities due to its fine-grained understanding of building shapes acquired through the algorithmic modeling of satellite imagery, combined with its knowledge of business entities themselves — based as O’Beirne says on Google’s ability to extract business names from storefront images in Street View, but also, of course, on the mass of data coming directly from business owners via Google My Business.

O’Beirne marvels that, with the AOI initiative, Google has figured out how to “create data out of data,” meaning that AOIs are a mashup of 3D modeling and data extraction from images.

Looked at more broadly, this is not the only example where Google has built features on top of features within the Maps universe.

Take the Local Guides project, launched in late 2014. Google phased in Local Guides as it was phasing out Mapmaker, the portal by which many local SEOs and mapping enthusiasts sought for years to correct basic errors in Maps such as labeling of streets and landmarks. Mapmaker had persistent spam issues and Google eventually felt the need to shut it down.

As a replacement, Local Guides has leaned heavily in the direction of social networking and gamification, to create a massive collaborative project by which contributors earn points and badges for adding information about places, auditing existing data, reviewing businesses, sharing photos, and the like.

As mentioned in my recent interview with Aditya Tendulkar, there are now 50 million Local Guides around the world, who make over 20 million additions a day to Maps and add more than 700,000 new places every month.

I’m a Local Guide myself and I’ve found the program engaging for as dry a topic as improving a map, but perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising. After all, Open Street Map is an entirely crowdsourced map built by means of enthusiastic and dedicated contributors from around the world. Making maps turns out to be pretty fun. And Local Guides get the satisfaction of knowing that their contributions will become part of the most widely used mapping service in the world.

There have been initiatives over the years to treat on-the-ground contributors as paid microtaskers, such as Locationary (acquired by Apple in 2013 only to seemingly disappear). But as Nir Eyal has written, social capital can often be perceived by users as more valuable than cash rewards. Google seems to have taken this view to heart.

Indeed, aside from the points and badges, Google in its marketing around the program has sought to position Local Guides as a corps of volunteers dedicated to improving the world for others. In a series of YouTube videos, Google has profiled Local Guides around the world who are helping disabled people find wheelchair accessible places, as well as Guides who are mapping medical facilities in Calcutta and ensuring hospitals and police stations are properly labeled in Nigeria, “because in some cases it can save lives.”

Local Guides are also prolific writers of reviews. Reviews written by Guides display the author’s Guide status, number of reviews written, and number of photos shared. Similar to Yelp’s Elite program, these indicators help to make reviews in general seem more like a social networking activity, lend legitimacy to Local Guide reviews, and help to ensure that reviews are written responsibly.

At Brandify, we’ve noted an impressive uptick in volume of Google reviews over the last two years, such that many of our clients now see close to half of all reviews coming from Google. As an example, one retailer saw Google review volume increase from 32% to 46% of all reviews in 2017 as compared to 2015. No doubt Local Guide reviews contributed to the volume increase. Over the same period for this retailer, Facebook reviews decreased from 31% to 24% of the total and Yelp reviews decreased from 18% to 14%. Such trends indicate that Google’s share of voice in the reviews space is now dominant when measured by volume.

Lately though, to judge from the prompts on my phone, Google is focusing most of its attention on crowdsourcing as much long tail data on local businesses as it can get – things like wheelchair accessibility, free WiFi, restaurant ambience, and presence of a drive-through. It’s the type of information Google also asks business owners to provide, which suggests that Google feels it can only achieve its data acquisition goals if it approaches the task from both sides. Businesses will, of course, do well to pay attention to their Google My Business accounts, where any attributes suggested by Local Guides are available for review.

Damian Rollison is Director of Market Insights at SOCi.