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Google Maps Has Forsaken Us

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Once upon a time, in the days of yore — meaning, in hyper-fast-forward Silicon Valley, five years ago — there were things you could count on, evident truths on which you could rely, cornerstones on which you could construct your mental model of the world; and high on any such list would have been “Google will provide you with relevant search results.”

Yeah, well, that was then, this is now. I am sorry to report that after exhaustive anecdotal use I have concluded that the new Google Maps is kind of a shit show.

Check this out:

Seriously, Google? I try to find some tasty In-N-Out Burger in the East Bay (because the city in which I live is cruelly deprived of such) and when I search for “in-n-out east bay” you direct me to Gleghorn-South Kilgore, Arizona? (edit: Arkansas. Sorry, I’m Canadian.) If you have developed a sense of humor, it is one with sharp ironic teeth.

But wait, there’s more. Consider this:

sambisa-1

…Well, OK, I guess there’s just no such place, must have misspelled it or something. Unless…let’s just try…what the hell?

sambisa-2

FFS, Google. If I search your maps for “Sambisa Forest” and there is anyplace in the world named, conveniently enough, “Sambisa Forest”, how about you just go ahead and show it to me without me having to first specify the nation in question?

Is it just me? I sure don’t think so:

Alex is quite right. All of the above are searches which, I’m quite confident, would have worked beautifully back in the day. Google Maps used to be absolutely wonderful. It was working, and then they broke it, and now it’s actually pretty bad.

I know, I know, I’m whining about a free service — for the second time in six months — but it’s a free service that provides Google with an immense amount of valuable data, one which is portrayed as convenient and reliable, and one which they presumably want me to keep using. I think it’s reasonable to point out repeated ridiculous-seeming failures in what is arguably its most fundamental feature.

Or, as Matt Haughey puts it, on Medium: “That’s Google trying to be helpful, but not being actually helpful: and in reality, confusing me … Google indexes all of the world’s information … Why doesn’t Google bring any of that additional information into searches and results within the Maps app?”

Good question, Matt.

I suppose one possible culprit is Google’s increasing use of large-scale distributed deep networks. (PDF) Such networks are, by their nature, black boxes whose outcomes cannot be traced to any particular algorithm or line of code. Maybe I’m just unlucky enough to be an outlier who keeps running into anomalous outcomes, which have actually improved for the vast majority of users.

Maybe. But I doubt it. Instead I strongly suspect the answer is strongly related to some kind of byzantine system of feudal silos and fiefdoms within the Google empire. Because when I’m not tooling around the East Bay in search of tasty In-N-Out Burger, I’m busy writing web and smartphone apps for HappyFunCorp, and in that capacity I keep running into kind of astonishing Google-product bug reports like:

  1. Horrible font rendering with Google Web Fonts on Chrome for Windows,” reported July 2012, still active in January 2014;
  2. openFileChooser not called in android 4.4 webview,” something which used to work in previous versions of Android, but suddenly started silently failing in 4.4, despite file-upload inputs being, y’know, not exactly the rarest and most exotic elements in web pages across the world;
  3. and my absolute favorite, which was reported by some poor developer in, get this, 2009 — let me say that again, two thousand and nine, nearly five years ago — and still has not been fixed.

My point? The ways of Google are mysterious. Both its moonshots and its ignoble failings are dictated by criteria and desires as inscrutable and baffling as those of the fabled Bavarian Illuminati. Users? Developers? Don’t make me laugh. Nowadays we are barely worthy of Google’s contempt.

The amazing thing is that Google is so dominant in so many fields, and employs so many smart and capable people (disclaimer/disclosure; some of whom are friends of mine, or at least they were before this post was published) that this actually doesn’t much matter. Not today, at least. But do be careful, Google. They say hubris goeth before a fall; and even the mightiest titan ought to live in perpetual fear of looking down one day to suddenly see feet of clay.