Katherine Boehret

Revamped Google Maps App Aims to Give Users More Content

The revamped Google Maps app still gets you from point A to point B, but now it is aiming to give people much more along the way.

The company overhauled its app in a way that focuses more intuitively on categories of what you want to do, like Eat, Drink, Shop, Play and Sleep. It has a smart way of encouraging discoveries within these categories that made even me — someone who avoided the discovery features in Google Maps — want to use them. And, yes, it still plots your journey, but now it looks ahead for traffic so it can reroute you mid-trip.

As I tested an early version of the Google Maps app on Android and Apple’s iOS operating system, its striking visual images drew me in. I found there are some real brains behind this beauty, in particular, its Explore feature, which helps you discover spots near to your destination you may not have known about. In fact, it’s designed more for use when you have a few minutes to dig into reviews. I can see myself using this app even when I’m not just getting directions.

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Google Maps app now focuses on Eat, Drink, Shop, Play and Sleep categories. The Android and Apple iOS versions will offer nearly the same features.

This Maps app could be real competition for Yelp and other sites like it, especially given its built-in discovery and reviews, which would save people the step of going out to use another website or app.

The new version of Google Maps already started slowly rolling out as an update on the company’s own Android operating system, and it will be available in Apple’s App Store starting Wednesday morning. Unlike previous iterations of Google Maps, which worked differently on Android and iOS, this new version will offer nearly all of the same features on both operating systems, and it will work on smartphones and in a version that is optimized for tablets.

One feature that won’t work on iOS is the rerouting of a trip as you go. Though iOS users will be able to see traffic incidents on their upcoming route, they won’t be able to tap a button for an alternate route to avoid traffic. A spokesman for Google said this will be coming to iOS soon.

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The app’s new review system allows for more specific number ratings and shows rich photos of a location.

Google Maps for desktops — found at Maps.Google.com — is also being revamped to tie in with this new app. The two have a similar look and feel, though aren’t the same.

I’ve been using a preview (not final) version of this on my desktop computer for the past few weeks and it’s a little rough around the edges. It crashed several times during my first couple of weeks of use. And it doesn’t include a way to easily share directions with someone, nor does it enable adding more destinations to a route other than the start and end points. Sometime in the next week, Google plans to make this desktop version available to people who choose to opt in and use it.

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The reroute feature, currently only for Android users, suggests alternate routes.

Not long ago, Google and its software were better known for their utilitarian designs that simply did a job. The maps in this app look sharper and better labeled. A swipe at the bottom of the map shifts through various search results as the map above shows these results in numbered locations that dynamically change with each swipe.

The app’s Explore cards, which appear when you tap on the magnifying glass icon to start searching for something on a map, are richly colored photos representing the category you’re searching. They even change according to city, rather than offering the same general image for all cities.

I skeptically selected the “Local favorites” category under “Eat” in Explore and was surprised to find several restaurants in Washington, D.C., where I live, that I would gladly recommend to friends — not the tourist traps. The app’s new rating system now uses a more specific number rating, like 3.1 out of five, as well as stars. Zagat reviews are built into many reviews of restaurants and other spots, and brief summaries help you figure out what a place is like in just a few sentences.

If you’ve ever starred or reviewed a place on Google, the app incorporates it into the information displayed in Explore when you start searching a map. If you use Google+, you can see a category called “From your circles” to narrow down search results on a map to show places your friends have visited or reviewed.

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The Eat Explore card shows restaurants near a destination.

People who frequent highways will probably get more use out of the new Google Maps app’s rerouting feature than someone like me, who lives and works in a city and doesn’t drive often. In several trips driving through Washington, I never got any suggestions for rerouting. But I was dealing with normal city traffic and I usually found an alternate street to avoid backups on my own.

The reroute feature works by anticipating traffic and displaying a message on a map that says “Faster route now available,” along with the estimated time you’ll save and the route you’ll take. Users can tap “Reroute” or “No thanks.”

I especially liked the tablet version of Google Maps, which makes good use of the wider screen in landscape view. I tested it on an iPad and an Android tablet, and both worked well. I swiped through Explore cards and found several new places I hadn’t thought of visiting, even though I’ve lived in Washington for 11 years.

Google Maps is richer and more engaging than its predecessor. Its content is enough to suck you in so much that it might make you arrive late at your destination, so be sure to add a few minutes to your estimated trip time.

Write to Katie at katie.boehret@wsj.com.


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