Word-of-Mouth and Referral Marketing Blog

When Seth Godin Helped Save Google Maps


So I was watching a video of a talk that Seth Godin gave at Google in 2007.

Here’s something that really stood out for me from the Q&A segment. At 00:42:45, a Googler asks Seth about why Google Maps was failing.

I’m geeking out over this little interaction. Engineer asks marketer why his product isn’t successful. Marketer makes a suggestion. Suggestion seems to have been implemented… to great success.

This is my interpretation of what Seth said:

Maps was entertaining, but didn’t solve a problem:

Google Maps started out as a novelty, something that was cool and interesting. It was dynamic and scrollable.

People were saying, “Have you seen Google Maps? Wow, it can scroll and zoom in and you can see your house from a sattelite image in the sky!”

That gets old.

What people should have been saying, according to Seth, is: “Oh, you need directions? Just type the address into Google Maps.” 

The challenge was to build something that improved the way people interacted with the world.

Once they fixed that, everything fell beautifully into place.

I doubt Seth would go so far as to claim responsbility for what happened next, and I’m sure the Maps team might’ve come up with it themselves sooner or later, but it’s still cool to think about.

What’s even more interesting is to watch the natural evolution of this idea, to go past what Seth originally suggested (easily printable maps with directions).

Once the Googlers figured out how to make Maps something that’s genuinely useful to people, they’ve just kept upping the ante. Here’s a beautifully mapped (heh) history of Google Maps.


Now that’s truly remarkable.

Here’s the video (with the transcript below):

GOOGLER: I wonder if you have an opinion on what we’ve done wrong with Google Maps. It was really amazing when it came out two years ago or something, and has like, spread among all of nerdom. But my sister visited me over the weekend, and had MapQuest maps. And it’s just a dagger through my heart. And now, Yahoo has scrollable maps, Microsoft has scrollable maps, And we’ve got this cool thing. But it seems like nobody really knows about it.

SETH GODIN: OK. So I have an opinion on everything. And I don’t know what I’m talking about. Those are just two caveats. 

Problem number one is when you launched Google Maps, for most people who need to get to their hotel, they didn’t have a map problem. Digerati had an Ajax problem. There wasn’t one. But I didn’t have a directions map problem. And the amazing thing about Google Maps, when you first looked at it after you realized how cool it was, is it was really hard to print and really hard to get the driving directions so I could take ’em with me when I went. 

So it was really cool and fun to do and to look at my backyard with the satellite, and so the Digerati, the Boing Boing people, we all went crazy. And it made it to The Times yesterday with The Sopranos. Really cool gimmick. And it’s worth talking about, but not aggressively. Because I’m not solving anyone’s problem. It’s an entertainment vehicle. 

And so the challenge there is, if it’s going to grow, it’s going to grow because lots of people put in their sig, “Here’s how to get to my office”. They put in their Squidoo lens, here’s my Google Map, ready to go. They put on their company website, follow us Google Map.

GOOGLER: Well, also Yahoo advertises. And there are TV ads for Yahoo.

SETH GODIN: There are TV ads for Yahoo. They don’t pay for themselves, but they exist. And so, if you want to measure traffic, they’re always going to win if they’re willing to lose money on getting the traffic. You could also get more traffic if you used your homepage and put a big Maps button there. But it would cost you a lot. It’s not worth it.

So again, back to my challenge. If I’m looking at Google 10 years from now, Google wins because 50 million or 500 million people all around the world would have said, watch me search. Watch my life, make it better. And if that was happening, then all of a sudden, you know that I’m staying at the Artisan Hotel in Las Vegas. I don’t have to go to Google Maps and type it in. It just shows up in my RSS feed ready to go, directions from the airport to my hotel. That’s what I want. Not Ajax. Thank you. 


Random Geek Footnote: It’s interesting to hear Seth talk about printing out driving instructions. Even Seth didn’t predict that nobody would be printing driving instructions today. (The video was uploaded on the 16th of July, just 3 weeks after the first generation iPhone was released.)

How far technology has come in 6 years!


Visakan Veerasamy

Visa is ReferralCandy's Blog Editor. He also co-founded Statement.sg, a fashion ecommerce label selling witty t-shirts. He's been thrice named a Top Writer on Quora. He hopes to enjoy a glass of whiskey onboard a commercial space flight someday.

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