Vacationing with Google Maps

June 2005

For years my annual trip to see family in South Dakota entailed stopping at Southridge Mall in Des Moines — a convenient stop for a lunch of Chinese food a couple hours into my trip.

But one year, dang it, Highway 5 was suddenly different — didn’t go anywhere near Southridge Mall. The good news was that it skirted the south side of Des Moines and saved time. The bad news — I missed lunch and had to stop at a fast-food place off Highway 80.

So for a couple of years I wondered how to get from Highway 5 to Southridge mall. I once tried using an Internet map feature, but couldn’t conveniently figure it out.

Enter Google maps. Somehow Google just always does things better.

Navigating with Google maps, I zoomed in on that area of Des Moines, and adjusting the level of detail, could see Southridge Mall on the map. Then I zoomed back out and could see exactly how to get there from Highway 5. And also, how to conveniently get back to Highway 5 while still heading in the direction I want to go.

What made this easy was a unique feature of Google Maps: the ability to seamlessly scroll around in the map with having to wait for it to refresh. It’s like having one giant map.

The first view you see when you go to the site is a map of the U.S. To zoom in, you simply press the “+” key, and to zoom out you press the “-“ key.

When you zoom, the map zooms to the location that’s in the center of your screen. To put a different location in the center of the screen, you double click the location you want to be centered. Or you can simply click and drag to move the map around and see new areas.

OK, right here let me tell you that this can be addicting. Why? Because Google has done something that no other map site has done: it recently added satellite photos. At any point as you’re looking at a map, you can click the link in the upper right corner to change to satellite view — and see actual aerial photos of the area that you were just looking at on the map.

The detail of the satellite photos varies somewhat. For most cities, you can even see individual houses. For a town like Fairfield, only a less detailed resolution is available, such that individual houses aren’t discernable.

There’s even a web site called Google Sightseeing, which takes you to various points of interest via the satellite feature of Google Maps. You can, for example, see geometric patterns in the deserts of Nevada, with accompanying discussion speculating on what the cause is.

You can not only navigate Google Maps as described above, moving the map around and zooming in to particular locations, but also you can simply go to the Map field at the top and type in a street address or the name of a city (and state), and you’ll immediately get a map for that area.

The Local Search feature is also very useful. When I was trying to figure out how to get to Southridge Mall, I couldn’t remember the name of the mall. So I first used Local Search, typing in “mall” in the “What” field and “Des Moines” in the “Where” field. Google Maps then showed a map of Des Moines with little red tacks where malls were located. Clicking on a tack pops up a window with the name of the establishment, street address, phone number, and web site.

Similarly, if you want, for example, Chinese restaurants in Iowa City, you can type in “Chinese food” in the “What” field and “Iowa City” in the “Where” field, and it will return a map with the locations of the Chinese restaurants. Once you find a desired establishment, Google will then give you directions to it if you type in your current location.

The Directions feature of Google Maps is similar to map services that you may already have used online, in which you type your origin and destination and receive step-by-step directions as well as a road map with the path of your trip highlighted.

In sum, much of this is the same as existing services, but the satellite images and the ability to scroll around in a huge map without waiting for it to refresh make Google stand out.

© 2005 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D

E-mail Jim Karpen