I find a little bit ironic that Google released their new “Places” page at the same time that National Geographic Traveler celebrates their 25th anniversary with a collector’s edition featuring “50 Places of Lifetime”. My opinion in this matter is likely very biased as this is what I do for a living: try to figure out how to best convey the qualities that make a particular destination desirable to the traveler and build websites that attempt to organize such knowledge. But it is a very tough problem and the attempt from Google, while strategic is perfect proof of how far we are from capturing the essence of travel.
Call it the “curse of memorable places”: you’ve just spent a couple of weeks at what you believe has been the greatest journey of your lifetime only to come back and try to articulate into a “travel blog” how great it was or create a slideshow of your obviously less than stellar photography. Perhaps the only satisfaction that results from these failed attempts to convey the grandiosity of a trip is that your boring interpretation will keep this treasure safe from others “discovering” it.
This is exactly what it feels to browse through the amazing catalogue of places that Google has assembled from millions of random geolocated snippets of content: business listings, photos, videos, articles. The result is a fairly useful “Yellow Pages” of the world, unable to do justice to the qualities that have impregnated each of those places into our collective memory. It is unfortunate that Google’s blog post to announce their product says: “there are places we remember”, as we remember them too and they are not much like Google says they are.
But an even more worrisome trend is that many travel guides out there will end up looking very much like this “Place” pages: a collection of attractions depicted by a low-resolution thumbnail along with a 50-word summary. Clearly those travel guides are out of the race as there is a computer somewhere that can accomplish the same thing.
For the last little while I’ve been writing about our attempt to create a very special travel guide. One that falls short of covering every place on the planet, but that is able to capture the personality of very unique places, not by aggregating dozens of photos taken by different photographers, but carefully composing our interpretation of a place and tasking a great photographer to capture it with a hint of his own passion for the location. Perhaps avoiding factual information such as addresses, business hours and prices (as all of these are now just one query away) and crafting a narrative that makes the place a coherent part of a bigger story that dares you to make it your own.
Having just finished the first photo-shoot for the St. Lawrence Market in Toronto, I’m confident our story will be far more beautiful, entertaining and informative than what Google tells us about it.