At first glance, the news that Google has added the United Kingdom’s public transport system to its Maps app does not sound like a huge step forward. Other applications offer similar functions to varying degrees, after all, while Google Maps has long shown train routes and stations. First glances are deceiving in this case, however, and the search engine giant’s newest changes are a huge step forwards for both the company and its users.
The updates have, in some senses, been a long time coming. London’s recently launched and hugely popular Citymapper app is a comprehensive map of public transport networks, taxi routes, walking paths and plenty of other useful details. Another app named Rome2Rio has already taken a similar principle to a UK-wide level. Google and other mapping services are under pressure to provide an ever increasingly comprehensive set of search data or risk losing customers to more dedicated apps and startup mapping companies who are prepared to offer more.
There is another sense in which Google’s latest set of updates marks an important fork in the road, and that is the more fundamental question of the future of search apps. Traditional searches have become far, far more varied and users demand more all the time. However impressive, clean and comprehensive Google’s searches are, specialist apps searching for map data can offer more in a more custom-designed way.
This is a trend that has already emerged in several areas, with some successes and some losses for Google. The rise and rise of the video sharing website YouTube presented a clear competition for Google’s video search engine, with the result that many YouTube users searched straight through that site. Google’s response – namely, to buy YouTube – has by and large been a success for the company, if perhaps a slight loss for users. Very different results were reaped by Google’s attempt to corner the online shopping market. This has largely fallen flat, with a more diverse market, various price comparison websites and relatively little traffic going through Google’s Shopping service.
The company will be eager to avoid a repeat of its shopping experience, and keen to emulate its retention of the video market. With the diversity that has emerged in the mapping sector, that looks set to be quite a challenge.