Google Maps doesn’t fit the long tail

At Startup School 2007, Chris Anderson (Editor in Chief, Wired magazine) delivered a dynamic message (summary) on the now-familiar long tail, a concept he has defined on his blog:

“The theory of the Long Tail is that our culture and economy is increasingly shifting away from a focus on a relatively small number of “hits” (mainstream products and markets) at the head of the demand curve and toward a huge number of niches in the tail. As the costs of production and distribution fall, especially online, there is now less need to lump products and consumers into one-size-fits-all containers. In an era without the constraints of physical shelf space and other bottlenecks of distribution, narrowly-target goods and services can be as economically attractive as mainstream fare” (emphasis added)

His speech resonated with me insofar as it underscored my reason for avoiding the Google Maps API when developing Stormpulse. Simply put, today’s mapping API’s don’t jive with the long tail.

The way to appeal to the long tail is not simply to provide manifold opportunities for input (user-generated content). Google is doing this with their My Maps feature, as are many mashup that depend on Google’s API.

Instead, the key to jiving with the long tail is providing a meaningful context for user-generated content. To many this probably implies the social network. Indeed, that’s a part. But what about display? I’m sure it goes without saying, but a little red balloon can only represent so many things well (carnivals, whoopie cushion factories, et al.). In fact, at this point I am downright numb to that ubiquitous icon of all things geospatial.

Before you say that I am only being negative, I will say this: many Google Maps mashups are impressive (this one plotting Chicago gangs even left such a strong impression that I vividly dreamt about it). And I’m sure that these thoughts of mine aren’t very inspiring or original. So, allow me to quote Chris Anderson one more time, this time regarding a recent review of the long tail theory written by Bear Sterns:

[…] in a world of infinite choice, content is only as valuable as your ability to find it. They call that “context and aggregation”, and it’s what both Google [Search] and your favorite blogger do when they filter the web according to a narrow lens, be it your expressed search term or their own sensibility. (read the post)

So, mashup engineers: are you displaying your data through a narrow lens? Are you being sufficiently narrow (and vertical)? Again, one-size-fits-all doesn’t do this. To me, Google Maps is a very normal lens, and many of the decisions about what to display and not to display have been made for you. This isn’t all good. For example, I couldn’t *not* call out the Cape Verde islands at a hurricane-tracking website and still feel that I’d made a site truly devoted to tropical cyclones. And yet this kind of control is missing from the one-size-fits-all solution.

And what is your visitor’s sensibility? I take this to mean their entire sense for the universe your data lives in. Is it really filled with balloons and green arrows, yellow streets and . . . well, you get the idea. Or is it something else?

Google Maps opened the floodgates for mapping street-level phenomena, but the real long tail solution will be a platform for creating niche mapping applications, not a generic mapping application with a finite ability to customize.


3 comments so far

  1. […] keeping with the same do-it-yourself spirit that caused us to write our own Flash application code instead of co-opting Google Maps, we’re going to flip open our phones and make the calls and make the advertising connections […]

  2. Matthew on


    Will do! Thanks for the taking the time to comment. :)


  3. Gregor J. Rothfuss on

    Hi, interesting post you got there :)

    If you have any feedback how we could change the Google Maps API to meet your needs, let me know.

    Gregor, Google Maps Team

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