With its latest update, Google Maps has added features that make it a more direct competitor to local guide and information apps, like Yelp and Foursquare. Building on its highly regarded mapping service, the app’s latest version for the iPhone -- and now Android devices and the iPad -- adds more content and context to enhance local searches.
One of the main new tools for enriching discovery in Google Maps is the Explore feature, which allows users to just tap the search box without typing to bring up image-backed buttons for categories like Eat, Drink, Shop, Play and Sleep. Each provides lists of related businesses under various headings such as Local Favorites and Popular with Tourists.
Google told New York Times tech columnist David Pogue in an early, rather gushing review of the updated Maps app that these recommendations are not for paid placement. Even so, providing deeper content through Explore gives people more reason to stick with Google Maps than opening a separate app to find a nearby restaurant or bar.
It also serves as the app’s answer to the Explore feature in Foursquare and Yelp’s Nearby button highlighting proximate restaurants, shops, drug stores and other services. The details for places looked up in Google Maps now include a five-star rating system (with decimal points, e.g. 3.6 stars) that gives users a quick take on how friends and others judge local eateries and the like.
The app upgrade also extends Zagat content to search results, displaying the guide’s badge of excellence and curated lists, such as “Best Restaurants to meet for a drink in NYC” to “Best Restaurants in the Mission” in San Francisco. People can already find Zagat reviews for relevant places when they click on their mapped locations in the app.
As a further enticement, Google Offers has also been incorporated into Google Apps, a natural step allowing businesses to serve coupons and special offers to users searching in a given area. Yelp and Foursquare already allow merchants to highlight local deals, and Groupon recently added a search feature to its app to help users sift through deals more quickly.
While catching up on deals and other features, Google’s advantage over local search competitors remains its core strength in maps and directions. After all, you have to be able to navigate easily to a destination once you have picked it out, and that's where Google has excelled. (See iPhone Maps). In that vein, Google Maps now provides more detailed information on traffic incidents, with icons users can tap to get updates on accidents or construction.
The update isn’t all about adding material. Google said that Latitude geolocation service and check-ins have been pulled from the new Google Maps and will be removed from older versions by August 9. Location sharing and check-ins will now be shifted to Google+. That’s one way to differentiate itself from Foursquare,.
While the social location app has shifted away from leaderboards and mayorships, check-ins remain a key part of it offerings and business. The company, for instance, recently debuted a feature that lets users check-in their friends to a location as well as tool that lets people map their check-in history.