by Timothy Lee
Tue, Nov 20th 2007 9:57pm
Google comes out with a seemingly unending stream of little enhancements to its stable of excellent online properties. One of the more exciting additions to come along in a while is the fact that users of Google Maps will now be able to move the markers on Google Maps. So if you search for your house and find it points to a point far down your street, you just click "Move Marker," drag the marker to the correct location, and hopefully save future visitors difficulties. A lot of people have pointed out the parallels to Wikipedia, but it seems to me there's a lot of unrealized potential to apply the lessons of Wikipedia to improving Google Maps. For starters, Google Maps is missing a lot of information. For example, there's a sushi restaurant on my block, but a search for "sushi" or "restaurant" won't bring it up. I should be able to click "add marker," enter the relevant information, and drop a pin in the appropriate place. Similarly, I should be able to add tags to existing markers; right now, if I search for "restaurant," a lot of restaurants near me don't show up, even though they're in the database. I should be able to add a "restaurant" tag to existing markers. I should also be able to add other types of tags to the map to mark road construction, historical sites, and other points of interest. And Google might even want to allow users to edit the information in existing markers, which is often incomplete or out of date.
Wouldn't that lead to chaos? Obviously, Google would have to design the editing feature with appropriate safeguards. But Wikipedia has demonstrated that decentralized information editing works better than almost anyone would have expected, provided that users are given the right tools. One absolutely crucial tool would be a "watch this area" function analogous to Wikipedia's watchlist feature. That would allow me to, for example, monitor all changes that are made within three blocks of my house so I can quickly correct vandalism. To cut down on spam, Google might institute a waiting period so that new information wouldn't show up in global searches until it had been in the database for a week, or until it had been confirmed by a certain number of users. One thing they'd have to be especially careful about is not revealing private information; presumably they'd want a strict rule against adding names to the addresses of private residences.
The potential upsides would be enormous. Google Maps is an excellent tool, but the information available on it is still relatively paltry. Not all businesses are listed, and not all relevant information is included in listings that do exist. It would take a tiny fraction of a city's population to correct this. I've already moved half a dozen markers of restaurants near me. I would be happy to add markers for my favorite restaurants that aren't listed yet. The occasional errors introduced by vandalism (which, if Wikipedia is any guide would be quickly reverted anyway) would be a small price to pay for a much more comprehensive and up-to-date information database. Best of all, users may come up with entirely new categories of location-based information that would further enhance the site's value at virtually no cost to Google.
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