These days, more and more people are using the Google search engine as their start page. (For those who aren't in the know, you can change your start page in Internet Explorer, by choosing Tools|Internet options and changing the site next to Home Page.) Google is so popular because the company keeps everything simple. Rather than pages and lists of search choices or categories, the Google home page shows just a stark white background with one large search box.
As the site has grown in popularity and cash flow, Google has added more features that are accessible through the main www.google.com page, although the basic look still remains the same. In addition to Web pages, now you can search for photos or news. You can access headlines for the last hour or find the latest stories about any subject and sort them by how recently they were written.
Google Maps is another new feature that has been added in the last year. It is a comprehensive source for directions, general cartography, geographic features, and even satellite photos. Rather than just giving you access to thousands of simple maps, the Google Maps site lets you type in your desired location by street address or even business name. If you're feeling adventurous, just drag your mouse somewhere on the world and zoom in for a close-up view. Six words come to mind after looking at Google Maps for the first time: "kind of amazing" followed by "kind of disturbing."
It's amazing because of the detail the site allows. Each geographic area has five to ten different levels of magnification. For instance, the satellite image of downtown Seattle let you look a little closer than the satellite view of the Yakima Valley. It's hard to say why Yakima doesn't rate a closer look. Maybe Google figures it's easier to see things in the high desert of Eastern Washington than in the city. Or maybe they just have more satellite images of skyscrapers than cacti.
Google Maps is disturbing for many of the same reasons. The satellite image of my workplace actually shows which cars are in the parking lots. With this level of detail, I was able to guess what day of week and what time of year the photo was taken. (My theory on the photo I saw is that it was probably was taken toward the end of the week in the spring, when people tend to take off a little earlier.)
I also could tell that the photograph of my house must have been taken in the last year because work began on developing a nearby empty lot about a year ago. Google claims it updates its images at least every 3 years.
Interestingly, you are allowed to see areas that are considered restricted, like military bases or federal research labs. The images of buildings and other landmarks are simply blurred, undoubtedly for national security reasons. (This technique is probably better than just blacking the whole thing out.)
More Map Sites
Computer cartography fans know that Google is certainly not the first online map service out there, but it has successfully combined features of several different map programs into one easy-to-use and easy to understand offering.
In the past, other various public and private sites have included maps or directions. Some even have had satellite images you can pull up, but often these were several years old or not very close in. For instance, one photo at www.census.gov showed just a dirt field where my house has been for the last six years.
Mapquest is another map site that mostly is dedicated to giving directions and offering information about nearby businesses and services. Unlike Google Maps, Mapquest is primarily a map service, not a photo service. However, Google Maps combines both photos and maps. It gives you the choice of viewing a map, photo, or both together in what they call a "hybrid." (The hybrid has photos, with printed names for streets, so it sort of has a map overlaying the photo.)
Expedia is primarily a travel site. It also includes a map section, where you can find driving directions through the U.S. and Europe plus topographic maps of the rest of the world. These maps are courtesy of Microsoft's MapPoint, and like Mapquest they offer basic lines for roads and a pushpin icon for the spot you are searching for.
You also can find city guides and general maps through Microsoft's MSN site, but these are more geared to information or directions, and it doesn't have anything as detailed as Google Maps. It seems like Microsoft is trying to work on everything, except a new map program in the next few years. It's testing a new search service to compete with Google's, and of course, eventually, a new version of Windows as well.
Pros and Cons of Google Maps
The Google site does have its shortcomings. One, however, is really a problem with my connection, not the site speed. For those of us still on dial-up connections, things do tend to bog down because of all the images. Google Maps claims to have photos available of the whole world, including a half a dozen different magnifications, so it can take a while to load each requested page.
Of course, on my high-speed connection at work, everything popped in quickly and easily. At home on dial-up, the time seemed to drag on and on. It seems particularly slow when you need to tweak magnification or shift direction a little bit.
The lag time might be fine if you're looking for something specific. It won't be fast, but it might be worth it. However, if you're just browsing and looking at random places just for fun, it will be tiresome on a slow system.
On certain larger U.S. cities, you can zoom in close enough to see traffic and other small details. But in some areas, you get a note saying that you "can't go any closer." This message also can become pretty tedious.
Google has a number of other map features as well. If you're a business, you can get a free listing, hopefully positioned near where your business is located on the map. The idea is that when people search your particular area, in theory, they'll see your information. [Editor's Note: this feature has been problematic in the past; Logical Expressions, Inc got a call from a confused individual who found our business listed in Google Maps under toy stores...no, we are NOT a toy store.]
If Google Maps isn't enough for you, you might try a related product is called Google Earth. This piece of software is a free download from http://earth.google.com that combines satellite images and maps with search technology. Google calls it a "3D interface to the planet." The program gives you all sorts of geographic information, including photos, maps and details about different businesses or locations.
The images can also be tilted, so you can see things from different perspectives, and even some 3-D renderings in some cases. Currently, the standard Google Earth program is free, if you want money, those do cost money. For $20, you can get "Google Earth Plus," which offers GPS device support and other features. The $400 Google Earth Pro is designed more for commercial and professional uses.
With the power of the Internet, these days you really have no excuse for getting lost anymore. Whether you need directions or just want to find out what's over the next hill, the answers are just a click away.