google_insideThe new Google Maps iPhone app has been universally praised for its utility, beauty, speed, and, most importantly, for not being accuracy-addled Apple Maps. It’s got voice navigation for use while driving and it has impressive predictive powers that guess where you want to go after you’ve typed just a few letters. Dynamic updates on traffic and suggested routes make it easier and quicker to get around, and it’s got local business recommendations aplenty, displayed in an elegant hybrid view that merges the map view with the quick-browse convenience of responsive listings.

With these upgrades, Google has elevated its Maps service from useful tool to a stonking juggernaut that forces us to re-do the math on what passes for a discovery and navigation utility in today’s app environment. It’s so good that it threatens the existence of at least three beloved companies that many have taken for granted as being intrinsic to our understanding of the mobile experience: Yelp, Waze, and Foursquare.

Over the weekend, I published a piece about how Google Now will change mobile computing forever. Think of Google Maps part two in a one-two punch that the Mammoth of Mountain View has delivered just in time for Christmas. While Google Now is doing its business on Android, Maps is Google’s Trojan Horse in the fight for mobile mindshare on the iPhone. If we are moving towards a world of fewer apps, as I argued over the weekend, Google is doing its darndest to speed us along the path. And as you might expect, it’s a path that would lead to more consolidation, more power in a Googley grip. That might be good for the clutter-averse consumer in the short-term, but it could well be terminal news for startups.

Consider first the features that threaten Yelp. It’s not just that Google has smartly integrated its Places listings with the map view in one screen; it also uses review data from Zagat to produce a very Yelp-like search experience within the confines of a map app. Looking for brunch places nearby? Type in “brunch” and it will display a list of red dots with suggested eateries in your proximity.

At the bottom of the map, a small bar pops up with the vital details for each of the restaurants that correspond to the dots on the map. To get to the next one, you simply swipe left or right. To get more information – the quick overview of a restaurant listing displays the rating, price, and how long it will take you to get there – you just draw the “curtain” up with another swipe. That brings up contact details, a Street View snapshot, a menu listing provided by Zagat, and then the written reviews. 

Another way that Google hits Yelp where it hurts is that its content from Zagat provides the sort of useful aggregated overview of a business that Yelp clumsily strives for with its hit-or-miss “Review Highlights.” For instance, the review highlights in Yelp’s iPhone app on the listing for Iggie’s Pizza in Baltimore (my local) highlights the words “BYOB,” “Alice” (the name of a pizza), and “crust.” The Zagat “at a glance” review, on the other hand, says: “thin crust pizza,” “byob,” “communal tables,” “dog friendly,” “pizza topped.” It follows that up with an editorial summary that Yelp’s crowd-sourced review can’t match:

“Crisp-crust” pizzas with “inventive toppings” (duck, leeks, squash) and “creative salads” delight the “highfalutin foodies” who visit this affordable Mt. Vernon BYO, whether it’s “before Centerstage” or on a “casual” “night out”; the colorful “warehouse-chic” interior is set up “cafetaria style”, so “you provide most of the service”; P.S. closed Monday and Tuesday.

(Anyone else kind of hungry right now?)

By contrast, after its review highlights, Yelp launches into individual reviews, each of which is flagged by a three-line excerpt, which is mostly useless because these first three lines are rarely stuffed with useful information – unless its settling scores, which Yelp reviewers do with impunity.

Sadly for Yelp, Google Maps also destroys it on a few other fronts, namely:

  • Where Maps combines listings and the map into one view, Yelp only offers a choice between a map view or a listings view
  • Google Maps is one of the most beautiful iPhone apps in existence. Beside it, Yelp looks pedestrian, outdated, and too list-heavy
  • Yelp doesn’t have Street View
  • Because of Apple’s iron-fisted rules, Yelp is forced to use Apple Maps
  • To get directions to a business using Yelp, you have to leave the app

I’ve been a loyal and satisfied user of Yelp for a long time and would take no pleasure from its demise. It has more than 50 million users and is listed on the New York Stock Exchange, where it has had a roller-coaster year. But suddenly it looks old and creaky. To survive, it will have to innovate hard and fast, or perhaps even find a powerful partner who can take on Google in local search. The only ones who have a hope are Foursquare, Facebook, Microsoft, or Apple.

So, let’s move on to Waze, an Israel-based startup that has raised $67 million in three rounds of venture funding and claims 20 million users. Its main selling point is crowdsourced traffic data. Unfortunately for Waze, Google Maps now does traffic info and routing very well based on a similar crowdsourced approach, and again it has used design to its advantage. You can get an overview of available routes and how much time each one would take given the traffic conditions at a glance. And it’s high-quality data that comes from a combination of people using the Maps app on Android smartphones, local highway authorities, and taxi fleets.

Waze goes further than just traffic information and alternative routes. It also draws on community contributions to alert you to police, accidents, and hazards, as well as pointing you to the cheapest gas station. In my limited experience using the app, that has lead to a lot of confusing alerts, but many people clearly value them. Waze’s problem now will be whether or not those extras are compelling enough to draw users away from the comforts of Google Maps, and to catch their attention in the first place. After all, another of Waze’s key features, voice navigation for the iPhone, has also just been neutered by Google.

To add to Waze’s woes, Google has introduced a community feedback feature to Maps. To report a mapping problem, you just need to shake your phone and state the issue using pre-written prompts. Waze must be wondering how long it will be until Google moves further into its space by attempting to add more community-driven elements into the mix.

In June, Waze CEO Noam Bardin told PandoDaily contributor Mick Weinstein that his company addresses a very different use case to Google. “We focus on the daily drive to work – avoiding traffic jams and hazards on a route you know – while Google helps you find places outside of your daily routine. Nobody uses Google Maps to get to work, because it doesn’t bring any particular value there in the way Waze does.” That comment has now become far less relevant.

In the same interview, Bardin acknowledged that partnering up with a larger company wasn’t an option. “The only thing that can really protect us is our brand and our users’ love of the product,” he said. That logic is about to be stretched to breaking point.

So what about Foursquare? Thanks to the new Maps app, it is now in direct competition with Google Places. Since its June redesign, Foursquare has been de-emphasizing check-ins and has refashioned itself into what my colleague Erin Griffith has described as “a discovery engine, a deals vehicle, and a sharing machine all rolled into one.”

Well, on the deals front it will face formidable competition from Google Offers, which can be integrated with Places data in the Maps app. For discovery, it faces similar problems to Yelp, chief among them being Google’s ability to speak to users who are already in their maps; a cornered market.

The sharing element – and the recommendations that can be spun from that sharing – is perhaps Foursquare’s saving grace, despite whatever fantasies Google currently harbors about the virality of Google+ (but then, let’s not write it off just yet – social is a long game, and Google+ is still a new entrant). Foursquare, as my esteemed colleague Erin Griffith pointed out in June, has rich data on human activities thanks to its social graph. “Not only can it surface a place your friends liked,” wrote Erin, “it can find places that people with similar tastes liked.”

Foursquare also beats Google in serving up news about local businesses. For instance, it just informed me that a new pizza shop has opened around the corner, and that my neighborhood was voted best neighborhood in the city by the local alt-weekly. Oh, and there’s a new Dunkin’ Donuts on Biddle Street.

Foursquare, however, has other problems, including tepid growth in user numbers and a worrying drop in engagement. Its overall ranking in the App Store has dropped from the mid 100s to the mid 400s in recent months, according to mobile analytics startup AppAnnie. Whether or not it will have the spirit or the resources to weather an assault from Google Maps will be an area to watch.

And if it ultimately can’t stand the heat? Well, I can think of one very obvious suitor that could be interested in an acquisition. No doubt there are some folks in Mountain View who think Foursquare’s data would look mighty fine in a certain maps app.

People are still raving about the wonders of the Google Maps app for iPhone, but the biggest impact might turn out to be the effect it has on its indirect competitors. One of the reasons Google won search is that it was able to provide a stripped-back and uncluttered user experience that made the Web easy. We may be seeing similar forces at play here for mobile.

So spare a thought for Yelp, Waze, and Foursquare. They might well turn out to be victims of the first true killer app.

[original image courtesy Göran Höglund (Kartläsarn)]