When a friend and I took a day trip to D.C., we found ourselves famished after a morning spent in the Smithsonians. She asked me, the navigator among my friends, “Where should we go for lunch?” I pulled out my phone to look at a map, but instead of opening up Google Maps, as my parents might have, I turned to Snap Maps. Snapchat’s map feature was created to share your location with friends, so it’s conveniently equipped with labels of nearby businesses and restaurants. We quickly found a place to eat.
That experience came to mind when I read a Google executive complain that the company is threatened by the way young users are turning to newer platforms. According to TechCrunch, senior vice president Prabhakar Raghavan told the audience at Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech, “In our studies, something like almost 40% of young people, when they’re looking for a place for lunch, they don’t go to Google Maps or Search. They go to TikTok or Instagram.”
I’m sure that idea sounds wild to older readers who are deeply enmeshed with Google’s simplistic search engines. But Raghavan’s research is spot-on. It all comes down to the fact that teenagers don’t just want straightforward information. We want a richer experience, one that is more visually appealing, and one informed by our friends and people who are like us.
To be clear: I use Google products regularly. But I use them for only the most straightforward tasks: checking the spelling of something, looking for a quick fact, finding directions. If I’m looking for a place for lunch, or a cool new pop-up, or an activity my friends would enjoy, I’m not going to bother with Google.
Raghavan mentions Instagram, which I don’t use this way. It doesn’t have a map feature, and I’ve found the algorithm doesn’t work quite as well for discovery purposes. But I do use TikTok, even if it doesn’t have a map component. When the algorithm brings you to a certain video, it can be like finding a gold mine. I recently saw a video from a woman in my area sampling a new doughnut shop, complete with details on menu items, the best flavors, and a quick tour of the interior. Just after watching it, I made plans with my friends to go next week. Finding that shop on Google search would have probably required wading deep into results crammed with chain and established stores.
I love recommendations I find on TikTok, because I get so much more information from a video than I would from perusing a restaurant’s menu or looking through Yelp reviews. For a technology-addicted generation with short attention spans, there is little incentive to go out of our way to find new restaurant openings, or click beyond the first page of a Google search for nearby activities. TikTok videos with recommendations are quick, informative, and visually immersive—factors that easily convince us to try something new.
Snapchat, too, is convenient and interactive, though in a different manner. It is my favorite map to use because it is both easy to navigate and full of information. Most teenagers I know use the map feature to find their friends; Snapchat allows you to share your location with friends you’ve added, so you can see what they’re up to. (This comes in handy for making last-minute plans.) When the feature first launched in 2017, there were complaints about privacy: to use the map, you had to opt-in to location sharing, which meant anyone you had added could see where you were. However, an update added the option to only share with select friends or turn off location entirely, while still retaining access to the map.
Now, without any concerns of sharing unwanted information, it is easy to take full advantage of Snap Maps’ creative take on a traditional map. From a design standpoint, it is fun and easy to use: It appears as a traditional paper map (which Raghavan notes many younger people have never used–guilty as charged). But when you zoom in enough, the format automatically switches over to a satellite view, which adds detail and helps the user understand how an area may appear in real life. Once zoomed in, business names pop up helpfully in a small tag over their location. Unlike Google Maps’ design, where business names are not immediately shown and moving around to see different labels feels clunky, on Snap the names of all nearby stores immediately appear, and it is much easier to move around the map. With the addition of small icons next to their names—a shirt next to a boutique, or sandwich next to a Subway—Snap Maps makes it quick and easy to discover new destinations in the area.
And Snap does not fall behind Google Maps on the information front. Like with Google, when a user clicks on one of the business labels on Snap Maps, the app immediately pulls up relevant information such as hours, ratings, address, and websites. But Snap goes a step further by recommending places popular with your friends. The names of often-visited businesses will be displayed, connecting you with friends. It lets you get a recommendation from the people you trust without having to bug them about it.
I’m not saying I never use Google products. Google Maps works for navigation, Google search for daily queries.
But those functions are, well, perfunctory. They’re lackluster. I prefer a more interactive experience, one that offers richer ways to discover new restaurants, shops, and experiences.
The good news for Google is that Raghavan seems to get this. “We keep learning, over and over again, that new internet users don’t have the expectations and the mindset that we have become accustomed to,” he said, according to TechCrunch. He’s right that we want “visually rich” experiences and that the company needs “to conjure up completely new expectations and that takes altogether new … technology underpinnings.”
I think this growing desire for interactive experiences is exciting. It signals an opportunity for tech giants and social apps to revitalize their tired designs, and take simple search bars a step further. Although these new search habits may be difficult for older generations to understand, they offer many new possibilities for the future of social media, discovery, and interaction.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.