Google Maps update decides which areas are ”of interest” for users


If we didn’t have Google Maps, we’d either never leave our homes for fear of getting lost or we’d have to find our physical maps again – neither of which, clearly, are options, so we have to make do with what we have.

Roughly 41% of internet users use Google Maps to get directions, check out traffic patterns, and, more realistically, find out how long it takes to walk to the nearest Starbucks.

google maps stats

And thanks to Google’s new update, its algorithm can now tell its users where to spend their money.

According to Google’s blog, the company released a statement covering the new Google Map’s features affecting desktop, Android and iOS. The update changed some of the app’s visual elements, getting rid of road outlines, improving typography, and improving its aesthetics.

It now has a more subtle and balanced color scheme to help differentiate between various structures. Water is blue, vegetation is green and school, naturally, is a gloomy shade of gray.

One new addition to the platform, though, is particularly interesting, and could have a serious impact on small businesses…

Areas of interest

Google now highlights “areas of interest” in an orangesicle-like color on the map. All you have to do to access “areas of interest” is to open Google Maps and look around. When you find an “area of interest,” simply zoom in to learn more about the area and tap one to find specific information.

area of interest google maps

“Whether you’re looking for a hotel in a hot spot or just trying to determine which way to go after exiting the subway in a new place, ‘areas of interest’ will help you find what you’re looking for with just a couple swipes and a zoom,” reads Google’s Maps blog post.

Popular areas (or at least those deemed popular by Google) are shaded orange to differentiate between the lame, whitish-gray buildings. Google determines these “areas of interest” with “an algorithmic process that allows us to highlight the areas with the highest concentration of restaurants, bars and shops.”

For instance, New York City looks like a giant cantaloupe of condensed popularity, while the intersection of Canam Highway and Dillon Road in Northeast South Dakota is pretty lacking.

The “areas of interest” feature, which can’t be turned off, doesn’t seem too objective when it comes to selecting some of these popular areas. According to City Lab, socioeconomic factors could be influencing Google’s decision over which areas are “of interest.”

By taking a look at a select few cities around the US, a few problems with the update become evident.

Westlake, California

Located right in the center of Los Angeles, this dense, low-income and predominantly Latino area has restaurants, bars, schools and businesses covering the streets of LA. Yet it’s nearly colorless. There are only a few shaded “areas of interest.”

Head over to the west side of LA, to the wealthier and white neighborhood of Sawtelle, and you’ll find much more orange. Although the famed Santa Monica Boulevard cuts through Sawtelle, the rest of the area is all residential homes, yet the entire area is shaded orange.

“Starburst” Intersection, Washington, D.C.

In Northeast D.C., where H Street, Benning Road and Maryland Avenue makeup one of the most successful commercial areas the District has seen in the last 10 years, the “of interest” perimeter is completely one-sided.

The left side of the intersection has a long strip of orange and then abruptly ends when it reaches the lower-income, predominantly black area of Benning Road. Although there are plenty of dining areas and businesses along the strip, Benning Road is not “of interest” on Google Maps.

Dorchester, Massachusetts

Dorchester Avenue, a commercial strip lined with businesses, shops and other services, is virtually blank, aside from a small orange lego every few blocks. Immigrant families from Vietnam and the Caribbean own the majority of these colorless businesses.

All three “non-interest” areas are much poorer than cities that surround them. In Westlake, which is heavily Spanish-Speaking, and Dorchester, which has a lot of Vietnamese, Jamaican and Haitian creoles, English isn’t the most spoken language.

“‘Areas of interest’ appear in a variety of different neighborhoods throughout the world, regardless of socioeconomic factors or local language preferences,” said Elizabeth Davidoff, Google Maps spokesperson.

There are plenty of examples of lower-income and non-English-speaking areas of the US that are shaded with orange and, as Davidoff adds, a key metric for selecting “areas of interest” is the density of commercial activity. Even if a street is full of successful businesses, if they aren’t as condensed, they won’t be labeled as “of interest.”

What does this mean for small businesses that aren’t located in the highlighted areas?

As is the case with many Google updates, only time will tell. But with more than 1 billion monthly users, Google has the ability to shape the “interests” of all of its users.

If you get off the bus in Northeast D.C. for the first time and you’re craving a pizza, you can either go left toward H Street or take a right on Benning Road. If you open your Google Maps app, though, that decision has basically been made for you.

Google is still fine-tuning the “areas of interest” algorithm, but if they leave off certain areas for too long, it could result in some serious issues.

Surely some low-income areas can have lower economic activity, so it might be expected that there aren’t too many “of interest” locations.

However, that doesn’t mean the opposite can’t be true.

Westlake is a perfect example of being a poorer area with plenty of economic activity. But if people believe Westlake, or any other financially struggling community, is not “of interest,” there’s a chance they could stop spending money at these businesses. Consequently the economic divide could grow even further.

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