I’ve always liked online mapping services, especially for getting directions and checking distances between points. Until very recently, I most often used Yahoo! Maps. Probably out of force of habit more than anything else, since there’s not a lot of difference between Yahoo!’s product and that offered by one of the other leading sites, Mapquest. Also, Google has always returned Yahoo! and Mapquest results when you look up place names.
A couple of weeks ago, I noted that there was a third map listing: Google Maps. I took a look. There are a couple significant differences from the others: In appearance, Google appears to be trying to deliver a graphically more finished or tasteful look — clearer labeling and muted grays, blues, yellows and greens. But the big change is in functionality: Google, which is delivering map data from Navtech (the same company that supplies maps to Yahoo!), has implemented a “scrolling” map function. So when you want to take a look at something that’s outside the frame of the map you’re looking at, you hit an arrow and move the map up or down, left or right, instead of hitting a link — as you need to do on Yahoo!, Mapquest or other sites — and waiting for a new map to download. This is a huge advantage when you want to do something like trace a route and allows you to use the online map much the way you’re accustomed to usiing a paper one.
Where the mainstream online mapping sites are wanting is in providing contextual data. When you drill down to a certain level, especially outside urban areas, the mapping service turn roads into simple lines flung across blank landscapes. That’s true to a large extent with paper maps, too, of course; but one thing that comes with a paper map is a representation of how all the roads and towns relate to each other, even if there’s lots of blank space (take a look at maps of western Kansas or Nebraska). The ideal online map would combine some of the detail you find on topographic maps — like those available online at TopoZone — with the user-friendliness of Google Maps.
For now — well, I guess there’s plenty of cartographic stuff to noodle around with — and I’m sure there’s all sorts of stuff going on out there that I have no idea about.