Saturday, March 1, 2014

Google's Sneaky New Map Trick

Google maps stopped showing you addresses. Huh?

One of my calendar productivity hacks is to open Google Maps, start typing the name of the venue, and when the search bar auto-completed the full address, copy and paste it into the location field of the invite. When I'm on the run and I need to quickly pull up directions to my next appointment, I just open the calendar event on my phone, tap on the location, and walla: directions!

Imagine my excitement when Google Calendar started autocompleting addresses inline in the location field. I could do my hack without opening another browser tab!

Wait a second. That's just the street name and the city. Where's the address? Where's the zip code? Wtf Google?

It turns out you have to type the entire venue name, street number, and the first letter of the street name before google will autocomplete that for you. In this case (closing brunch for NYC Beer Week, natch), that was 19 characters. Not to mention you have to already know the address.

Anything less and Google gives you really strange results:

As it turns out, Google Maps now works the same way, so when you tap/click on a location with venue name, street, and city but no street number, it shows you the right location (presumably that combination of data is not a perfect primary key, but is sufficiently unique that the occasional collision can be managed on the UI side of things with a "Did you mean ___?" popup).

How nice of Google to simplify location information for us. But in the non-Google world, people use addresses and zip codes. Maybe they don't know where 1500 Main St is, but they know it's between 1400 and 1600. Zip codes matter. Google has just locked us one step deeper into their world.

You can still get the full address. When you complete the search, it's right there above the map pin:

But now you have to take another step. You have to complete the search. You have to move your attention to where Google wants you to put it. 

Google had the opportunity to give us the information faster, but not only have they locked our cognitive patterns in to theirs, they've created an new ad unit. Brilliant.

I will grant that there are probably some engineers and UI experts at Google who genuinely think they've done us a favor by relieving us of the need to track two unnecessary, outdated pieces of data: street number and zip code. Personally I feel that that's a slippery slope of condescension that reminds me of I, Robot (inspired by Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics), in which altruistic robots relieve humans of their freedom in order to protect them from themselves.

Definitely not where I was expecting this rant to lead, but it sums up my concerns about Google pretty nicely.

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