Google wants to build maps that customize themselves based on what they know about you

Two of the senior designers working on Google Maps told the Roadmap 2013 conference in San Francisco on Tuesday that maps are just a “canvas for the stuff we know about the world,” and the search and web-content giant is trying to build as much knowledge into its maps as possible. Soon, they said, every map will be customized for a specific person and a specific location — and the more context it has about you, the more useful it can be.

Jonah Jones, a user experience designer at Google, said much of the past decade has been spent on simply digitizing all of the existing paper maps and information so that they can be accessed more easily on the web and on mobile devices. But now that this foundation has been created, he said, map designers can add more and more detail that customizes the experience based on location and other signals about a user.

“When we combine the location with the other data we have, we can actually build a new map for every purpose or every location — a very specific map that no one has ever seen and won’t be there again because it was just created for this one purpose.”

To take one example, Jones said that when users zoom out on a map, the labels for locations and businesses collide, and the service has to decide which ones to highlight on a zoomed-out view — so Google used to just make a choice about which business or feature was more important. But by considering the locations a user has either checked into or searched for, Google could change or re-rank the labels so that users would see the ones that are most interesting or important to them.

Bernhard Seefeld, a product manager for Google Maps, said that in some cases, Google may know enough about you that it doesn’t even need to show you a map — it may know that you are at the airport, and so it can show you flight times without even requiring you to search. Your location actually becomes almost like a search query, he said. “A map is just one way of interpreting the data” that a service knows about you, he said.

Check out the rest of our Roadmap 2013 coverage here, and a video embed of the session follows below:

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A transcription of the video follows on the next page