What Apple Should Do to Improve Search in iOS Maps for 2013

Apple iOS 6 MapsA lot of bits and ink were spilled on critiquing Apple iOS 6 Maps and also the return of Google Maps to iOS in 2012. Most focused on the perceived “stumble” Apple map in introducing a solution that may not have been fully ready. Subsequent events, such as the firing by Apple of the iOS chief Scott Forstall and the head of the maps effort, Richard Williamson didn’t help public perception.

Smartphone Maps Apps and Consumer Search
For our customers, location based services on smartphones is a critical matter. Ensuring that a business or location is found and properly marked on a map is essential. In our own experience here at Torsion Mobile, we’ve found Apple Maps to be a mixed bag. Some of the technical underpinnings were – for example the introduction of turn-by-turn directions –  a much-welcomed upgrade over the old Google-derived maps application. However, our success of using Apple iOS 6 Maps to find a location or business was truly a hit-or-miss.

And that is one of the truly challenging aspects for Apple and one where they could do more to improve. Google has a massive advantage (some might even say monopolist position) in having knowledge of where things are. No other single entity save perhaps UPS or FedEx, is likely to have as rich a database of locations.

Many consumers use their maps app on a smartphone as the starting point for discovery. The map app provider which has a rich, accurate database of locations and information associated with them has the lead. It is also a seemingly ignored fact that Google has by far and away the most dominant position in mobile-based search in the US – more than 90% of all searches by most estimates. Their knowledge of places, what happens there, how to contact them – and most important – how consumers interact with them – is massive.

Apple as Underdog
It’s not obvious, but Apple does provide a list of data sources in the iOS 6 Maps acknowledgement page. While comprehensive, business and organization litsings seems to be derived primarily from database-marketing giant Acxiom and ratings-provider Yelp, it is not as wide-reaching as Google’s. How can it be? Google has had years to not only refine listings though products like Google Places, but to also observe consumer behavior and layer in other data sources. This lack of depth is the true Achilles heel of the Apple map application. Since Apple is the clear underdog in this area, we think it’s past time for them to take some aggressive steps to remedy the situation.

Time for Boldness
Apple needs to provide a mechanism for developers and others to submit location based data directly to Apple. Google already has this in the Google Places product. Organizations can submit information directly to Google to enhance or correct all manner of information about their location. This then feeds into all of Google’s search applications – including those on their own smartphone OS as well as their Map app on Apple iOS.

Apple should immediately put up, through their developer network or directly to the public or both, a structured and easy to use mechanism to submit location-based information. This will help fill in the holes in the listings. Apple should not rely solely on location gatekeepers (Acxiom, Yelp, etc.) whose business model acts as a hurdle to building a comprehensive location listing. Engage those partners – yes. Make them the only path – no.

Time for Transparency
Apple should also immediately become more transparent and accessible for those who wish to correct erroneous listings in Apple Maps. The in-app solution is not enough in this regard. We’ve personally submitted corrections to Apple weeks ago for listings that show businesses in the wrong place. As of today, they still are still inaccurate. There is no clear indication from Apple how long (if ever) it takes from reporting to publishing those corrections. For an underdog, this is a mistake. Secrecy and keeping the solution within the family was a hallmark of Steve Jobs. With Tim Cook as leader, it’s not clear that secrecy in all things is necessary or even works.

Mr. Cue Holds the Keys
Undoubtedly, there are those who can list all sorts of reasons why openly engaging the public is difficult for Apple to accomplish. So what? While Eddie Cue is reputed to be Apple’s Mr. Fixit, not all roads to making Apple Maps a premier product lead solely through quietly holding “partners” feet to the fire, as is Mr. Cue’s reputations. It’s time for Apple to engage the developer community and the public, provide wider submission mechanisms and be more transparent about the inner workings to truly bring the competitive heat to Google.