Google makes being a tourist in SA simpler

Google has just made the business of being a tourist in South Africa a whole lot simpler. The internet giant on Wednesday unveiled a more functional version of Google Maps, a product that allows users to access maps and contextual information, for the country.

‘If you were using Google Maps up to a day or two days ago, and you’re using it today [Wednesday], you’re going to see a greatly different product. We’re launching some of the new functionality,” said Stephen Newton, head of Google, South Africa.

Although Maps has been available in South Africa for some time, it has until now functioned more like a digital atlas, allowing you to look up and find an address on a street map. But with the new functionality, users can access point-to-point driving or walking directions, search for local businesses in an area or pull up user-generated content such as pictures or live webcam feeds of a certain place.

In addition, users are now able to create and share personalised maps, known as My Maps, where they can mark and comment on their favourite spots. ‘That’s where it gets more and more interesting because you have user content and our content blended together,” said Google business product manager Jaroslav Bengl.

So a tourist visiting the country would be able to check a friend’s personal map, choose a recommended restaurant from his friend’s list of favourites, then get walking directions from his hotel to the eatery, and view a picture of the storefront so he knows what to look for before setting out. He could do this from his laptop or from his smartphone.

The company is also collecting data for Google Street View, a component that displays street-level images of a location, which will be up and running before the World Cup. South Africa is only the second country in Africa where Google Maps is available and will be the first African country with access to Google Street View.

“About 80% of searches have geographical content, and about half of all searches are local in nature, so when you’re looking for something [online], you’re usually looking for something close to you,” said Newton.

To help users find that something, Google is hoping local businesses will embrace its Local Business Centre. This free service allows businesses to create an online profile that can be found through Google Maps. So if you’re using Google Maps to look for say a dry-cleaner in Sandton, the results would show the location of the business on a map along with a business profile detailing contact information, opening times, prices, payment options, reviews or even pictures and video.

This functionality could be especially useful to tourists arriving for the soccer World Cup, but also for locals who want to find nearby services without having to thumb through a tomb of business listings.

Newton said it would be remiss of small business owners not to take advantage of the Local Business Centre. ‘It’s a free way to engage with people who are here now and who are coming in, and it doesn’t take much time. If you have access to a computer or someone who has a computer, you could input the information in five minutes,” said Newton.

‘People from all around the world are going to be coming into the South African market and they’ll have all sorts of needs. They’ll have needs from where can I get my shoes repaired to where can I eat. It’s a great opportunity for local businesses to fulfill those needs,” he said.

Faranaaz Parker

Faranaaz Parker

Faranaaz Parker is a reporter for the Mail & Guardian. She writes on everything from pop science to public health, and believes South Africa needs carbon taxes and more raging feminists. When she isn't instagramming pictures of her toddler or obsessively checking her Twitter, she plays third-person shooters on Xbox Live. Read more from Faranaaz Parker

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