If it aint broke…

Remember the Apple Maps fiasco? Google clearly didn’t.

I’ve previously blogged about how Google has managed to get the colour scheme horribly wrong in the latest redesign, but the latest change plumbs yet new depths of inanity.

You may have seen media reports of how Google managed to rename Basingstoke, but when my Maps were suddenly “upgraded” to the new version I noticed an equally glaring error right here in Evesham. Or, as Google now calls Evesham, “Raphaels”. Here’s a before and after screenshot:

Old Google Maps

New Google Maps

Actually, Evesham itself hasn’t been misnamed (unlike Basingstoke, which really was). What’s happened here is that a local business, Raphael’s Restaurant at Hampton Ferry, has, for some inexplicable reason, been given more prominence than the name of the town. If you zoom further in, or back out, then “Evesham” reappears on the map.

But why do this? I initially thought it might be a bodged attempt at personalisation, as I happen to know the owners of Raphael’s and eat there often. It’s not beyond the bounds of plausibility that, somehow, I’ve created enough of a digital footprint via social media that Google knows that, and is therefore highlighting it to me. But then again, neighbouring Pershore also shows up as “Holy Redeemer RC Primary School”, and I have no connection with that institution at all. In fact, until earlier today, I didn’t even know it existed.

So, what is the connection? My next thought was that it’s because Raphael’s Restaurant has a Google+ page, and a couple of generally positive reviews (currently rated 4/5, which is pretty good, really). But no, the Holy Redeemer RC Primary School doesn’t appear to have a Google+ page of its own yet. (It has an auto-generated Google one, but not a “real” one, if you know what I mean).

So I’m still none the wiser. And, while I’m not going to say anything negative about Raphael’s Restaurant (you should try the Sunday carvery, it’s excellent), I can imagine that other business owners in Evesham are somewhat less than chuffed about this. Why should Raphael’s be the first food outlet to appear on the map as you zoom in to Evesham? And why should the Evesham Pizza and Kebab House, in Port Street, be the second? (Other than the fact that I am a regular customer of theirs as well!). Why do St Richards First School and St Mary’s Catholic Primary School show up on the map of Evesham before the considerably larger Prince Henry’s High School? Why does the Vale of Evesham Christian Centre show up before Evesham Methodist Church? Why is Bonk the first shop to show up in the High Street (which is wrong now, anyway, as Bonk is moving to Port Street), and Phones 4U the first to be visible on Bridge Street?

I could go on. The entire selection of businesses on the new Google maps seems utterly random, and bears very little relationship to what people are likely to be looking for. If you want a primary school, a riverside cafe and a skate shop then it’s not a bad selection. But, realistically, how many people are going to care about these things?

I said in my previous post that Google seems to have stopped considering Google Maps to be first and foremost a map, and instead sees it primarily as a kind of geo-located business directory. That in itself is a bad move, of course. But it’s compounded by the fact that Google Maps is an absolutely atrocious business directory. It’s missing 90% of the businesses and organisations that people actually use, and of those it does include, it ranks them in an entirely arbitrary order of priority.

Anyway, enough ranting. There are three important things you need to know:

1. To opt out of the new Google Maps, click on the question mark icon at the bottom of the screen, and select “Return to classic Google Maps”.

2. Raphael’s Restaurant is definitely worth a visit if you’ve never been there before, particularly the Sunday carvery.

3. Buy your skate stuff from Bonk. Kim does a lot for the town, and needs all the business she can get.

Google Maps, where orange is the new blue (and also the new green, and red)

Google Maps is going through a bit of a makeover at the moment. There will, sooner or later, be an entirely new version of the web-based maps (which you can see in preview if you switch to the beta option), but in the meantime some of the changes that are part of the new version have also been rolled out the the existing system.

One of the things that has been changed is the colour scheme. Previously, Google used standard local mapping conventions for road colours. So, for example, in the UK motorways were blue and trunk roads were green. In France, toll autoroutes were green and non-toll autoroutes were red. That fits with signage, in both countries.

The new colour scheme, though, does away with all that and renders all roads, everywhere, in various shades of orange and grey.

I think that’s a really bad move. So do lots of people. But it’s probably best illustrated with an example. Here’s a screenshot of my local area using the new version:

(Clicking on the map will open it in a lightbox. If you don’t have a large monitor, then right-clicking and choosing “open link in new tab” will probably be better as it will allow you to see it actual size. The same goes for all the maps on this page).

The map shows Evesham at the bottom right, Worcester at the top left and Pershore in the middle. Up the left hand side runs the M5.

The major routes are reasonably easy to see, although there isn’t much of a visible difference between the motorway and other trunk roads. But can you see where the non-trunk A roads are on that map? What about the B roads? Can you tell the difference between them and unclassified roads?

The answer to that, as I’m sure you’ve realised, is that you can’t tell. Here’s the same area in the older version:

It’s immediately obvious at a glance how much clearer that is. Most importantly, Pershore is no longer isolated in a sea of back roads – you can see both the A4104 running north-south through the town, as well as the B roads linking it directly with Evesham and Worcester. Evesham, too, now has the key central spine road showing in a different colour, and, to the west of the M5, you can see the A38 which forms an important local connector in the area.

OK, so you may argue – that’s just the overview, you can see more detail by zooming in closer. Which is true. But the colours still don’t work. Here’s a rather bizarre splash of colour in Droitwich Spa, for example, where the main road is white but the slip roads at a junction are orange:

And here it is in the older, clearer version:

So why the change?

It seems to me that Google has forgotten one of the key principles of cartography: a map is intended as a representation of reality, not a work of art. To be sure, roads aren’t really painted blue, or green (or orange), so the actual colour you use for them is something of an arbitrary choice. But the way that roads are classified and used is not arbitrary, and there is a long-standing convention in map-making that the colours and iconography relate to those use in non-mapping documentation.

Going back to the first map, at the top, if you wanted to get from Wyre Piddle to Upton upon Severn, which way would you go? The map gives no obvious clues – you might assume that the only alternative to negotiating a maze of twisty country lanes is to go via Worcester. In the second map, it’s obvious: follow the A4104 through Pershore and Defford.

But, of course, people don’t use online maps in that way any more. Instead, if you wanted to get from Wyre Piddle to Upton on Severn, you’d use the “show directions” facility of the map. And, yes, it will correctly take you through Pershore. (Here’s a link showing just that, for comparison purposes).

And I think that is the key point here. Google no longer expects users to use its maps as maps. Instead, it expects the maps to be merely a means of conveying other data, such as computer-generated routes, and advertising, and links to other Google products. The idea that someone would look at a map, and, just by looking at it, be able to tell how to get from one place to another seems incredibly old-fashioned. And so there’s no longer any need for the visual clues necessary to make map-reading easy and intuitive.

I think, though, that that’s still a mistaken assumption. Yes, one of the primary uses of Google Maps (and Apple Maps, and Bing Maps) is for computer-generated route-finding. But it isn’t the only one.

It’s telling, too, that many of the positive comments you can find about the new Google Maps (and yes, there are plenty) online are all about how slick it looks and how “cool” the colours are. One review points out that “The redesign brings Maps into sync with the look and feel of the modern Google design aesthetic”, which is certainly true. Others, like this one, talk about how easy it is to use the new maps to search for pizza. As a local search tool, it is pretty good.

I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised that Google wants the new Google Maps to be more about Google than Maps. But building in the new features doesn’t have to mean ditching the best of the old. And I find myself using Google Maps a lot less these days, so all those new features are wasted on me.

So what are the alternatives? Here are some screenshots of the competition, starting with the most obvious, Bing:

I quite like Bing Maps. They get the colours right, and the web interface has the option of using OS maps at closer zoom levels, which is a very, very good option indeed. But, at the wider level, the colours still seem a bit too muted and there isn’t as much detail as there could be.

The other web-based map that most people will probably be familiar with is OpenStreetMap. Here’s the same area, again:

One of the nice things about OSM is that it gives you the option of different tile sets. Here it is with Mapquest Open tiles:

The Mapquest colour scheme is a lot like Bing, except clearer. Purely as a general purpose mapping application, I find OpenStreetMap to be by far the best, with the Mapquest tiles being better at overview levels and the standard OSM tiles being better when zoomed in.

One that has to be mentioned, of course, is the grandaddy of them all as far as UK mapping is concerned: OS Maps. Unlike the others, OS maps don’t have a website of their own, instead, they are incorporated into other mapping sites. And they come into their own at closer zoom levels: there isn’t really anything to be gained from them at wider levels than the classic 1:50,000 series. But here are Evesham and Pershore on the OS map:

At that level of zoom, OS maps are genuinely unbeatable. The colours and iconography have been honed over decades of careful refinement, and, without the distraction of route-finding and advertising to contend with, the cartographers at OS have been able to fully concentrate on the maps themselves. It’s the inclusion of OS maps in Bing which gives Bing the edge over Google for close-up mapping, and their ability to combine OS maps with route-finding is unmatched as well.

One other that’s worth mentioning, though, is a bit of a blast from the past. Veterans of European travel in the 20th century will be familiar with Michelin Maps, but not a lot of people know that they’re online as well. Michelin is the direct opposite to OS in that it’s the wider zoom levels where they excel, so here’s a screenshot of most of Worcestershire:

Once upon a time, before Google got into the mapping act, ViaMichelin was my favourite online mapping application. Unfortunately, their technology hasn’t really moved on much since those early days – just about the only enhancement is that their maps are now “slippy” – so they leave quite a lot to be desired now. But Michelin maps, like OS maps, are maps first and foremost rather than being a vehicle for search and route-finding (although ViaMichelin does do routes), so the quality of the cartograohy is second to none and vastly superior to Google. I only wish they did a useful API so that I could include them on my own websites!

Some facts about Google

Prompted by yet another economically illiterate tweet criticising Google for the relatively small amount of corporation tax paid in the UK, I decided to do a little research myself and find out a bit more about Google’s financial situation here.

Google is, of course, a multiheaded multinational, with a lot of different companies both in the UK and trading in the UK. But we’ll start with the most obvious, Google UK Limited.

You can get a full copy of Google UK’s financial statements as submitted to Companies house from that link, but you have to be registered and logged in to do it. So, for the benefit of those who can’t be bothered, there’s a copy of the most recent here. And here’s a summary of what you’ll find:

Google UK’s income for 2011 was approximately £396 million (£395,757,534 to be precise, but for the rest of this article I’ll stick to rounded numbers as they’re easier to take in at a glance. You can get the details from the linked documents) That’s all gross profit as Google UK doesn’t have any outstanding debts or liabilities.

However, Google UK’s expenditure for the year was £417 million. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that this actually makes Google UK unprofitable in a standalone sense. I’ll come back to that later, as the question of where Google is profitable is relevant. But, for now, here are some of the payments which account for that expenditure:

Payments to the parent company Google Inc: £62 million
Donations to charity: £76 million
Wages and salaries: £214 million
Social security costs: £22 million
Corporation Tax: £6 million

(I can’t be sure, but I suspect that the “social security costs” are things like SSP and Employer’s NIC contributions).

The rest is mostly things like marketing expenditure, pension contributions, rental and lease costs, etc. None of it is exceptional or unusual.

Google does have several other companies registered in the UK, but compared to Google Uk Limited they are all pretty small and, to all intents and purposes, fiscally irrelevant.

It’s pretty clear, therefore, that Google UK’s corporation tax liability is actually more than what would be expected. Any standalone company with these figures wouldn’t be paying corporation tax at all. So where is the money coming from?

The answer to that is Google Ireland Limited, which is the EU base for the majority of Google’s operations. In particular, if you are based in the EU and you use Google Adwords (which is Google’s primary income stream) to advertise your business, then you’re paying Google Ireland to do so.

Unfortunately, data from Irish companies isn’t as easy to get hold of as data from Companies House in the UK, but the Guardian has helpfully put a copy of Google Ireland’s financial statement from 2009 online at Scribd. It isn’t as up to date as the UK version, but it is, nonetheless, interesting. Here are some headline figures (in Euros now):

Turnover in 2009 was €7.9 billion (that’s US billions, ie, thousand millions, as this seems to now be standard in the financial world)

Of that, €2.4 billion was paid out as “cost of sales”, leaving just over €5.5 billion was gross profit.

(Most of that “cost of sales” is money paid out to website operators who display Google Adsense on their sites. Like this website for example. A teeny, tiny little bit of that pile of cash came to me for adverts on this blog. I suspect I spent most of it on beer.)

However, Google Ireland paid out just under €5.4 billion in administrative expenses, leaving a total operating profit of €45 million.

That may not seem a lot left, so where did all that money go?

This, unfortunately, is where the Irish accounts let us down a bit, because they’re nowhere as detailed as those from the UK. But there are a few interesting tidbits:

“Research costs”: €18 million
Wages and salaries: €100 million
Social welfare costs: €10 million
Asset purchases: €118 million
Depreciation: €87 million
Amounts owed to other Google group companies: €1.2 billion

That doesn’t add up to the total amount of expenses, but, again, I’d expect that most of the rest of it is normal corporate expenditure on things like rent, leases, consumables, etc. It’s that €1.2 billion which is interesting. Where is it going, and why?

The accounts don’t say, but media reports suggest that it’s going to Google Bermuda, which, contrary to what you might think, is the real financial HQ of the company. Bermuda’s tax rates are low, and Google has no significant expenses there, which means that practically all of the money which flows into Google Bermuda can flow out again to the shareholders without being taxed on the way. The shareholders will, of course, pay tax on those dividends in their local jurisdiction, but that’s unavoidable and, in any case, is of no interest to Google the company.

What’s also worth noting is Google Ireland’s final corporation tax situation. Initially, the assessed tax for 2009 was €17 million. But not all of that went to the Irish authorities. Further down the document, we see that Google Ireland owed €8 million in foreign withholding tax. Withholding tax is tax paid to the government of a territory in which a company operates, as opposed to the one in which it is based, and what that means is that Google Ireland owed €8 million to various non-Irish governments for that year. Some of that will have been the UK, as Google Ireland sells to UK-based customers. Checking a few other documents suggests that, in 2009, HMRC received £1.8 million.

So how much extra would we have got, had Google Ireland not sent €1.2 billion to Bermuda? Well, assuming it was all taxed at the same rate as the €45 million which was taxed, then Google Ireland would have paid something like €777 million in tax. In reality, it would have been lower, since that makes an effective tax rate of 37% and Ireland’s corporation tax rate is actually 12.5%. So something in the order of €263 million is more plausible. Of that, the UK would have received £59 million. Assume (which is always a dangerous assumption when it comes to finance, but what the heck) that broadly the same proportions applied last year, in 2011, when Google UK paid £6 million in tax, and that means HMRC would, instead have got around £197 million in tax instead.

(Apparently, Google’s own spokesman has said that the actual amount they have saved is around £150 million. That’s a bit less than my guesstimate, but it’s in the same ballpark. I’ll stick with my own figures, since I’ve already done the maths on them and it doesn’t affect the comparisons much, but it’s worth noting that I may be overestimating).

£197 million may sound a lot. And, of course, compared to £6 million, it is. But it’s less than Google UK paid in wages and salaries for the year. It’s also less than half what the government earns from fuel duty every single week of the year. It’s less than the government earns from alcohol duty every week. It’s about the same as a week’s worth of tobacco duty. It’s about eight hour’s worth of VAT.

In overall terms, therefore, the amount of corporation tax foregone by HMRC as a result of Google Ireland shuffling off revenue to Bermuda is trivial. And the same applies to pretty much every multinational. The reality is that Google is putting money into the British economy simply by being here – salaries paid to British workers, rents and leases paid for British properties, council tax, VAT, PAYE and even the money spent on pizza by its staff.

It would be open to the governments of both the UK and Ireland to legislate so as to force Google to retain more of its revenue here. But if that came at the cost of inducing Google to close its London and Dublin offices and, instead, sell to the UK and the rest of the EU directly from the US, then we would lose far more income in total than we are currently foregoing in corporation tax. Which, of course, is precisely why the British and Irish governments haven’t tried it, because they’re not stupid. And why those calling for such actions are.

Googlebombing the government

Moving away from phone hacking and plagiaristic journalists for a minute, there’s an interesting article tucked away on page 4 of today’s Sunday Times. Unfortunately, the Sunday Times’ policy on hiding away their online content means I can’t link to it, so I’ve made a couple of manky scans of it instead.

No 10 circle ‘gets cosy’ with Google

The essence of the article is to report claims by some copyright owners that Google is getting “preferential treatment” by the government. That’s not necessarily surprising, but the article is worded in a way which seems intended to support the anti-Google argument. It notes that the Chancellor, George Osborne, has met representatives of Google five times since the general election last year, and Ed Vaizey, the Business Secretary, has met Google six times.  After spending about four columns wittering on about the meetings, without ever really describing what issues there are about them, it then changes tack to mention the Hargreaves review of copyright. To save you squinting at the scan, I’ll retype that section for you:

When the government commissioned its latest review of intellectual property, Cameron said “The founders of Google have said they could never have started their company in Britain'” He pointed out that America operates a far more flexible copyright regime that does not penalise innovators for adapting original material – such as the creation of a video parody – as long as it is for “fair use”. This is what Google has been calling for in Britain to avoid it getting mired in legal wrangles.

Although the intellectual property (IP) review carried out by Ian Hargreaves, a former editor of The Independent, rejected the fair use concept, many of his recommendations tally with Google’s demands. The Treasury and business department are expected to back many of the Hargreaves findings in a joint government response this summer.

Now, I’d call that good news. Of course Google isn’t perfect, but the Hargreaves review (which I blogged about earlier this year) does look like a very good set of proposals and it’s hardly surprising that a lot of them are fairly close to what Google (and other online innovators) want to see. The Sunday Times article, though, contains no approving comments at all. Instead, we have two quotes from people opposed to the changes. Susie Winter, of the Alliance Against IP Theft, and Pete Wishart, formerly of Runrig but now an SNP MP, are both quoted as claiming that the government is giving Google preferential treatment, while Winter’s comments also include the assertion that the Hargreaves review is biased against UK content creators.

I don’t particularly blame Winters and Wishart for stating their views. They’ve set out their stall in defence of the “big business” model of media distribution, and both have earned their living from it. But the absence of any quotes from the opposite perspective does seem a little strange. The Sunday Times has no legal obligation to be unbiased, but I wouldn’t necessarily expect them to be so blatantly biased either.

In any case, there’s a lot about these claims of preferential treatment that have a bit of a hollow ring. So George Osborne has met Google five times since the last election. How many times, I wonder, has David Cameron met Rebekah Brooks? News International is, of course, a company which has made its money as part of the old-fashioned content distribution system, and its only major investment into the new online world, the acquisition of MySpace, went spectacularly down the pan. And, as I said at the start of this article, the Sunday Times is fundamentally opposed to the idea of allowing Google (or anyone else who isn’t willing to pay for it) to have access to any of its online content.

So the Sunday Times’ bias here has to be taken with a pinch of salt, since it’s clearly in the interests of their proprietor to maintain the status quo. So, too, do the comments of Winter and Wishart, since that’s where they earn their money – Winter directly, and Wishart as part of his ongoing right to royalties from the record labels that distribute Runrig. But, if they’re getting rattled by the possibility of the Hargreaves review proposals being adopted, then that can only be good news for the rest of us.


Google Nuts

Incidentally, and almost as a sidenote, the article also contains a classic example of why the offline media industry just doesn’t get it. Referring back to the Alliance Against IP Theft (which is about as accurately named as if it were called the Alliance Against IP Murder), the article points out that

Members of the Alliance claim that Google sometimes directs users to illegal download sites.

Now, that’s true, but only in the same sense that a satnav will sometimes direct users to Middlesborough – it will if that’s where you want to go. But the implication of the complaint is that Google is somehow deliberately diverting people away from legal download sites and sending them unwillingly to illegal ones. That, of course, is just plain nuts (as opposed to Google nuts), but it’s surprising how widespread this kind of error seems to be. In fact, there was one such report in The Times not so long ago, in which the author also seemed to be taking the side of the clueless. And, of course, if you try to search Google (or Bing) for any of the keywords in the Sunday Times article I’m talking about, guess what – you won’t end up at the Sunday Times’ website. Here, for example, is a link to a Google search for “Google appears to have secured preferential treatment”, the exact wording of the quote from Pete Wishart. The Sunday Times is notable by its absence from the results.

Google Webmaster Tools Oops

Just a heads-up for anyone who uses Google Webmaster Tools. This morning at work, I had an email from the marketing department wondering why a bunch of Merchant Center feeds had failed. It turned out that, for some reason, Google had managed to lose the verification for all the domains to which this applied.

Curious, I logged in to my own Webmaster Tools account (my personal one, which covers this site as well as the others I run), and, lo and behold, the same had happened. It’s not such an issue on my personal domains as it is at work, since I’m not selling anything, but it’s still irritating.

So if anyone else is using Webmaster Tools, I’d suggest checking your site verification. That’s particularly important if you’re using Webmaster Tools for SEO purposes via the Sitemaps facility, or if you’re using Merchant Center or any other Google feed which relies on verification.

I’d be interested to know, too, how many other people have seen the same issue. When my colleague phoned Google about the company sites, they hmm’d a bit and didn’t exactly admit to there being a problem, but it seems too much of a coincidence that it happened on my own account at the same time. Has anyone else seen the same thing?

Friend Connect

I’ve added a Google Friend Connect widget to my blog. Friend Connect is, supposedly, Google’s answer to Facebook, MySpace, etc, as it allows individual blogs to be connected through a similal system of social networking.

I have no idea whether it’s going to be any use or not, but it’s worth a try.