Google Maps needed a serious refresh to remain relevant not just in mapping, but also in reviews as travelers look for fresher content that's visually stimulating and easily navigable.
If Google Maps’ new Local Guides program seems a little familiar, you’re not imagining things.
Compare it side-by-side with, say, Yelp, and the similarities become apparent. Local Guides members can upload photos, share reviews of restaurants and attractions, add new places, fix information and answer users’ questions. None of those features are particularly revolutionary in 2015, but another element of the program seeks to fill a void left by Yelp, and possibly redeem a shortcoming of Google’s: creating a sense of community.
Fully integrated with the Google Plus network and initially launched in January, and as the company bills Local Guides as “a global community of explorers sharing their discoveries on Google Maps,” the program is undeniably a concerted effort to reinvigorate Google’s social networking dreams, and of course improve its mapping functionality to remain relevant in travel.
“[The Local Guides program] is critical to our success as a strong mapping tool,” said Mara Chomsky, Google Local Guides’ community management lead. “When a local guide looks at their contributions tab within [your photos in the program] they can see how many people have viewed their photos, it’s incredible for someone to see that 10,000 people have seen a photo that they’ve uploaded.”
“We do want to celebrate the community that’s contributing to the map but at the end of the day [Google Maps’] primary goal is to make the most useful, accurate and comprehensive map of the world for people anywhere to use. So celebrating this community and hopefully giving them these rewards and incentives is hopefully an incentive to contribute for people to use when they’re traveling or if they’re just looking for a new spot in their neighborhood.”
This week Google Maps began formally promoting the program for the first time and Local Guides now claims 100,000 members around the world as it seeks to attract more contributors to share their insight into destinations with both locals and travelers. The program’s introductory pages assure members that they’re helping businesses by contributing updated and balanced information about their experiences, though Chomsky said Google Maps hasn’t held any conversations with businesses about the program and said it’s “just specifically for the local guides right now” but told Skift involving businesses would be a “great idea perhaps down the line.”
“Reviews on local businesses and places has been the main focus during the last 10 months,” said Chomsky. “We believe in creating content that helps people make their local city more accurate, but we have so many examples of local guides who talk to each other within their communities and say, ‘hey Susan I’m going to be in Mountain View next week and can you let me know what are some good places to go for breakfast, lunch and dinner?'”
The program is live in both the Android and iPhone Google Maps apps, with the app’s most recent updates on-boarding the program’s capabilities while receiving mixed reviews on both device types. The current Google Maps app version, which also introduces offline navigation, has four out of five stars for iPhone and 4.3 out of five for Android. Several Android user reviews praise the offline maps feature, which allows users to download maps when they’re not connected to Wi-Fi.
One iPhone app user said: “[I don’t like the new Google Maps version primarily because] the actual map part has had its total display space reduced in useful map area. Instead, you now get a bar which allows you to accidentally switch to a bus or bike route while you’re trying to navigate a busy downtown interchange on the highway. Who is riding a bike or driving and needs to quickly switch between the two routing options? You’re either doing one or the other.”
The Local Guides Google Plus page for New York City has nearly 5,600 members along with 10 moderators, which Google Maps defines as members who have earned more than 50 points making contributions to the program (each contribution made earns members one point, such as uploading a photo or writing a review). Points add up to rewards like contests to win and receive early access to new Google products.
The vote feature is notable for offering members and users information about a place in a fast and objective fashion. This example asks members if a restaurant in Brooklyn is usually quiet and they can select “Yes,” “No” or “Not Sure.” Google Maps also appears keen to build community through meetups and events where local guides in cities come together for training, meals or game night.
No doubt these are offline continuations of connections the company wants to coddle to further assert its role in travel and social networking as the mapping and reviews space grows more complicated.
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Photo credit: Google Maps' new Local Guides program. Google Maps