Google Maps Engine Lite (beta) Review: It can use a lot of improvements

The newly launched Google Maps Engine Lite (beta) is touted as an upgrade to the popular My Maps, but it is not a data journalism tool I want to recommend for digital news reporting and classroom teaching – at least not for now. It has a good concept, but lacks interactive features, has a buggy workflow, and doesn’t function well.

The popular My Maps is functional with a few issues

Here’s a sample map showing five universities in Pennsylvania that have a digital journalism program. Each university is marked on the map with a placemark; clicking on a placemark you will see a brief introduction of the program, links to the program web page, as well as a related image or video. (See a separate post for more about digital journalism programs in U.S.)

Although satisfied with its overall functions, I have had some complaints about My Maps: 1). by default, the placemark window has labels such as “Directions,” “Search nearby,” “Save to map,” etc; they look too amateurish and I want the window to be “cleaner.” 2). data entering/managing can be improved; you need to manually enter information for each placemark.


Maps Engine Lite has a good concept but lacks in feature and execution

Words were spreading this week about the new Google Maps Engine Lite which, according to Google, will replace My Maps. Two features of the new tool caught my eyes: a neat placemark window without those My Maps-style labels; data entry is done with a spreadsheet, and data management makes use of a table.

I took the plunge and tried to replicate the above My Maps map using Maps Engine Lite. After a few hours of going through the tutorial and learning by trial and error, I finally put together a Maps Engine Lite, but I was both frustrated and disappointed:

  • The embedded map does not work properly. In the embedded map below, when clicking on a placemark, only the top portion of the pop-up window is visible. I couldn’t figure out how to fix it.
  • In the actual, standalone map, there is not any support for interactive features: I was not able to embed image or video, and I could not add a link either.
  • It would skip entries with an address that it has trouble with – without letting you know of the omission. The address for Messiah College, the one I found on their website, is “1 College Ave, Mechanicsburg, PA 17055”. In the Excel spreadsheet, I entered this address in the Location column for Messiah College. When the spreadsheet was imported to the map, Messiah College simply disappeared (That’s why you only see four schools in the map below). Turns out Google Maps has trouble locating this address on the map.
  • The workflow is buggy. When I make changes to the titles, the map does not refresh to show the change/edits, I need to reload the page to see titles updated. There is not a “save” button, and I was always in doubt if the edits are saved. There are a few other minor but annoying bugs with the interface.

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About Mu Lin

Dr. Mu Lin is a digital journalism professional and educator in New Jersey, United States. Dr. Lin manages an online marketing company. He also manages MulinBlog Online J-School (www.mulinblog.com/mooc), a free online journalism training program, which offers courses such as Audio Slideshow Storytelling; Introduction to Social Media Marketing; Writing for the Web; Google Mapping for Communicators; Introduction to Data Visualization; Introduction to Web Metrics and Google Analytics.
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7 Responses to Google Maps Engine Lite (beta) Review: It can use a lot of improvements

  1. mulinblog says:

    [per request by a Google engineer, I removed the comment he left for this post; but I’m keeping my response to his comments, as my response expands/clarifies a few issues mentioned in the review]

    Wow, I was not expecting a response from the Google team. I hope and believe Engine Lite will get better.

    For the geocoding address, I already tried manually adding the address in the table view, but it still fails to show in the map view. You can try the said address yourself to see what happens. Turns out the given address is not properly recognized by Google Maps to begin with. But, as I said, Engine Lite automatically omits unrecognizable address without a warning or reminder. So what if I have dozens or hundreds of addresses in the table, do I need to go over each one after the map is generated, just to make sure all entries are there?

    The “saved” button: I saw it. But from a user interface perspective, it is counter-intuitive, because it always shows “saved” – I guess a common experience and expectation is to see a “save” button, which turns to “saved” when I manually click it. That is a common user experience for most other applications.

    When I tried changing map title, it doesn’t automatically refresh. For instance, previously the map title was “digital journalism programs in PA”; in replying to your comments, I changed it to “digital journalism programs in Pa.”, but when I closed off the editing window, there was no change in the map title. I reloaded the page, and the change shows up.

  2. Shirley says:

    Can you print the map.

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  4. Lincoln says:

    Does anyone know how to view the amount of people that have visited a map you’ve made? The old google maps maker used to just have it displayed at the top left.

  5. Dana says:

    Hi, is there any way to have the map function the way Google maps usually do, where a user can get directions to these locations? I don’t see any “get directions” functionality on the Test Map.

    • Mu Lin says:

      No, there is no directions feature like the one we see in regular Google Maps. However, it allows you to add a directions layer where you specify two (or more) locations and the actual direction route will be displayed on the map, but this feature usually is not something we need.

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