Google Isn't Really Stalking You, But It Will Soon

The search king still has a long way to go when it comes to tracking users.

Jan 9, 2014 at 2:30PM

Google Maps View Of Ces

Google's view of where I'm writing this post, at the press room in the Mandalay Bay resort. Source: Google.

Navigation software has been in the news ever since Apple dropped Google's (NASDAQ:GOOGL) Maps. Revelations of NSA-managed digital spying also have us, as consumers, obsessed with location privacy. We figure there's no place to hide. That digital technology is so frightfully precise as to give birth to Skynet any day.

Poppycock. An afternoon stroll along the Las Vegas Strip proves that, when it comes to walking, mapping and location technology still has a long way to go.

Shortly after arriving at the MGM Grand Hotel for this year's Consumer Electronics Show, I switched on navigation on my new Moto X -- I recently switched from an iPhone -- and set out on foot for the In-N-Out Burger about a mile away. A walk that should have taken 25 minutes took more than an hour.

Mind the gaps
Why? Instead of actually looking up to get my bearings, I trusted Maps to guide me, never figuring that the search king wouldn't account for Las Vegas' clever city planners and their twisting sidewalks and well-placed barriers designed to prevent suckers -- I mean, tourists -- from walking anywhere directly, but instead through the nearest casino.

Google isn't entirely to blame here. GPS satellites aren't designed to track us by the footfall, but rather by the mile or (at best) the block. I'd end up walking a half-mile or more before the Moto X would remind me of the silly, circuitous route I was taking. Larry and Sergey aren't looking over my shoulder; they're watching me from space, and that leaves plenty of hiding places.

And yet Maps is improving. A new interface accessible in Chrome makes it easier to switch back and forth between available Street Views, a straight map, and Google Earth photos. The goal? Give urban explorers more intel when they land in a foreign town.

Google this week also unveiled plans to work with hotel chains to store photos that would allow travelers to take a visual tour, of sorts, before booking. The idea is to create a panoramic experience similar to that in Street View. Best Western and Carlson Rezidor Hotel Group have both signed on to the program, though Rezidor plans to go further and enable guests to view floor plans of some of its hotels directly in Google Maps, the Associated Press reported.

Here's a closer look at the new Maps in action, this time using 221B Baker Street -- home of the Sherlock Holmes Museum in central London --  as our template.

Google Maps View Of Central London

The blue lines denote clickable Street Views, which makes switching back and forth easy. Source: Google.

Still, with so many gaps it's hardly surprising that this year's CES offers a smorgasbord of new wearable technology. Give us sensors to wear, the the thinking goes, and we'll get to know more about how we conduct our day and interact with our surrounding environment. And that's good, especially if your aim is to live a longer, healthier life. But those same sensors -- gap fillers, we might call them -- could also be used to more precisely pinpoint where we are at any given time.

Google needs them. So do Apple, Microsoft, and every other device maker intent on building a "platform" for location-aware, ad-supported apps. My bet? 2014 will be the year these companies begin building (and buying) smarter sensor technology.

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Fool contributor Tim Beyers is a member of the Motley Fool Rule Breakers stock-picking team and the Motley Fool Supernova Odyssey I mission. He owned shares of Apple, Google, and Netflix at the time of publication. Check out Tim's web home and portfolio holdings or connect with him on Google+Tumblr, or Twitter, where he goes by @milehighfool. You can also get his insights delivered directly to your RSS reader.

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