Can Google Maps work indoors, and what are the alternatives?

Since launching in 2005, Google Maps has become the world’s most popular piece of mapping software. More than one billion people now use the app per month - little surprise, given it has long surpassed its original mapping remit. As well as accurate road maps, terrain and satellite images, Google Maps is now capable of intuitive GPS navigation with a multitude of options, search functionality, local business reviews, Street View, and much more. Certain navigation requests, such as "food near me" receive tens of millions of monthly searches in the US alone.

With all this in mind, it’s natural that Google Maps would be one of the first ports of call for businesses looking to invest in indoor maps. In this post, we’ll examine everything you need to know about Google Maps’ indoor functionality - how it works, what it’s capable of, and what its limitations when it comes to modern indoor positioning and navigation systems are.

How do indoor maps in Google Maps work?

As anyone who has previously tried to use Google Maps in an indoor environment will know, only a limited number of buildings have indoor maps. This is because, unlike the world map that Google is constantly working to keep updated, indoor maps operate more like the local business listings you see frequently on the Maps interface. 

The business listings rely upon the business owner to keep them updated and make any changes, such as opening hours or new menus. Indoor maps are very similar; it is down to the individual business owner to submit their floor plans in order for Google to then turn them into an indoor map and feature them on Google Maps. Naturally, it's much easier for a business to submit an image of their logo or add their open hours via the Google Business Profile manager than it is to submit a detailed floor plan file, for the simple reason that most businesses don't have their floor plan available digitally.

While every business has the ability to submit their floor plans, Google’s own documentation makes it clear that the areas they’re most interested in presenting indoor maps for are large venues that see a lot of foot traffic - buildings that a user is most likely to want and need a map for when inside. Google specifies venues such as transportation hubs (particularly airports), shopping malls, and stadiums as ideal use cases for their indoor maps.

Once a business has submitted their floor plans, Google is able to convert these plans into a large-scale indoor map, with key points of interest included. Users are also able to toggle which floor or level they’re looking at. 

How can I use Google Maps to see inside buildings?

  1. Locate the building you wish to view the indoor maps of in Google Maps (N.B. this building must have submitted maps to Google and been deemed eligible for indoor maps in the process outline in the previous section)
  2. Simply zoom into that building - there's no separate interface you need to access or different app you need to use. If the building is eligible for indoor maps and has submitted them, you will be able to zoom in until you've gone inside the building
  3. Scroll and zoom in and out as you normally would an outdoor Google Map in order to explore the indoor map
  4. You'll notice that in certain buildings, in the bottom right of the screen, a numbered menu will appear. Using this, you can control the different levels of the building you see, with each floor acting as a layer
  5. Navigation functions exactly as it does when used in outdoor environments. To access indoor navigation, simply select your desired destination within the indoor location and click 'Directions' as you would on a normal outdoor map (N.B. For reasons explained below related to the limitations of GPS, the indoor navigation experience is likely to be notably inferior compared to the outdoor experience)
  6. To leave the indoor map, simply zoom back out

What can you see on an indoor Google Map?

As Google largely relies upon floor plan files in order to generate indoor maps, the main features of the maps once they’re live and available to the public via Google Maps are fixed, structural points of interest that are unlikely to change. Features such as elevators, escalators, stairs and individual businesses within a building are marked clearly, as these are the most important destinations and features for users. Other smaller, fixed objects such as drinking fountains may also be included.

In buildings such as airports with multiple floors, users are also able to alternate between different floors to see the different points of interest on each level.

Examples of indoor maps on Google

Because Google have to have a floor plan file submitted to them and then must process the file in order to create the map, it can take some searching to find buildings that have indoor maps in Google Maps.

However, there are thousands out there. A couple of particularly good examples are Madison Square Garden and San Francisco International Airport. If you zoom in on the example below, you'll see not only the location of different concessions, retail outlets and restaurants within Madison Square Garden, but also stairs and elevators.

What are the benefits of using Google Maps for your indoor maps?

The key benefit when using Google Maps for your business’s indoor map is the ubiquity of the service. As previously discussed, Google Maps has a gigantic user base, one that no other maps-based app can rival currently. Featuring your indoor maps within Google Maps means that a vast number of potential visitors or customers can benefit from the maps without needing to download a new app or piece of software. Simply telling your customers to Google your maps certainly has a nice ring to it.

Indoor maps within Google Maps are also free. As long as you have an accurate and up-to-date floor plan for Google to work from, there’s no cost to have these floor plans converted into an indoor map. These maps also come complete with the iconic Google Map styling, which will help lend the maps a degree of legitimacy and authenticity that would be lost if a company used a bespoke solution which produced particularly unattractive or difficult to use maps.

Want to learn everything there is to know about indoor mapping? Download our guide.

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What are the drawbacks of using Google Maps for your indoor maps?

There are, however, certain drawbacks to using Google Maps for your business’s indoor maps.

Firstly, not every business may be able to use Google Maps whether they want to or not. Google have an approval process for indoor maps, due to a natural desire on their part to maintain the high quality of their Maps product. If the uploaded floor plan files aren’t detailed enough, or the building in question doesn’t meet Google’s eligibility standards, they may choose not to publish the map.

For those businesses that do have floor plan files accepted, it will still take some time for Google to initially process the maps. The same is true for future updates. While these both also apply for bespoke indoor mapping companies, when dealing with a company the size of Google, which has to handle millions of mapping requests every day, time delays are inevitable.

There are also limitations on the amount of detail an indoor map on Google Maps can contain. Due to being processed via floor plans, Google will naturally omit certain features of a building in order to maximize functionality. In the big venues that Google favor for their indoor maps, such as stadiums and airports, these smaller details - such as seating areas - matter less. However, in cases such as office buildings, the minutiae of desks, chairs, power sockets and meeting rooms are critically important - without them, the indoor map serves little purpose. 

Finally, Google Maps has some fundamental drawbacks when it comes to operating as an indoor positioning system. We’ll cover these in the next section.

How can I add my indoor maps to Google?

If, after weighing up the pros and cons of Google Maps, you think they're the solution for your business, you can begin the process of submitting your files for transformation into indoor maps within Google Maps by becoming a mapping partner. You can do that by clicking here.

Becoming a partner comes with the added benefits of accessing the Maps API, which lets businesses layer their own technology and icons upon the foundation of Google Maps, as well as adding immersive 3D tours of the inside of locations to Google.

Can Google Maps be used as an indoor positioning system?

As discussed, under the right conditions, Google are more than capable of producing detailed, intuitive, user-friendly indoor maps, particularly for large indoor venues such as stadiums and airports, where individual features (such as rooms or lounges) tend to be spacious and clearly separated from one another. As we’ve covered many times elsewhere on the Pointr blog and website, maps form the foundation for any high performance indoor positioning system, and Google have this fundamental requirement covered.

Unfortunately, Google Maps come with one critical drawback that means their efficacy for indoor positioning and indoor navigation is extremely limited; GPS. We have a full post detailing GPS, how it works and the challenges it faces indoors, but if you want a quicker summary of how it impacts Google Maps, read on.

GPS ascertains a user’s position on a global map by triangulating their position using multiple satellite signals. This is the technology used by Google Maps to calculate a user’s position and display it on a map via the blue dot. Outdoors, GPS is a remarkably reliable and accurate system given the amount of data that the system deals with every second. Accuracy is typically within a 10 meter range, which in outdoor environments is more than enough in most situations, particularly paired with other information, such as the internal compass reading of a smartphone to help ascertain orientation.

Indoors, however, it’s a different story. 

Firstly, GPS has tremendous difficulty penetrating ceilings. In some cases, GPS is just about able to garner enough signal in an indoor environment to track a device’s position. However, as soon as multiple obstacles are presented - for example, a user in a building with multiple walls either side of them, and several floors above them - GPS signal is almost always completely compromised. For environments such as stadiums, which feature both indoor and outdoor locations and tend to be relatively sparse indoors, GPS may just work; in architecturally complex buildings such as offices or airports however, it is often completely unreliable.

Even if GPS signal is somehow able to find its way into a building and provide a reliable signal, there is a second, equally insurmountable problem to it being used for indoor positioning. As previously mentioned, GPS positional accuracy often has a margin for error around 10 meters. When driving, for example, this level of discrepancy between a user’s reported and actual location tends not to matter too much. Turnings are spaced far enough apart that even if the GPS believes you’re slightly ahead or behind of where you actually are, there’ll be enough information to tell you which turning is the one for you, particularly when this data is fed through a complex algorithm such as Google’s which can incorporate other factors such as orientation and travel speed.

In indoor locations, however, accuracy is paramount. A 10 meter difference could mean GPS believing you’re two rooms away from the one you’re actually in, in a completely different store inside a mall, or multiple desks from the one you’re actually sat at. The same is true for navigation. A 10 meter discrepancy in where you’re actually standing and where GPS believes you are could mean an instruction to turn left or right sending you down the completely wrong corridor. 

Because of these two major drawbacks of using GPS indoors, Google Maps’ ability to function as an effective indoor positioning and navigation system is severely impaired.

If this guide has led you to reconsider your decision to use Google Maps as an indoor positioning and navigation solution, why not get in touch with Pointr? Our patented Deep Location® technology, combined with BLE hardware, is capable of 1-3m accuracy in indoor locations, while our MapScale® tool is capable of transforming thousands of floor plan files into beautiful, interactive indoor maps in a matter of minutes.