Gettting started with My Places in Google Maps

Learn how to use My Places to create customized maps that you can share with the world.

By Donald Ritchie

The My Places feature in Google Maps is a great way to create customized maps that you can share with your customers, co-workers or friends. You can use it to show customers how to reach your office, to help people find the venue for a meeting, to show your friends the itinerary of your recent vacation, or for any other purpose where sharing a map makes sense.

In this tutorial, I'll show you how to get started with My Places. The process is fairly painless, and requires no HTML or other coding skills. It's also completely free.

But you will need a Google account. This is the same account that you use for other Google services, such as GMail. If you don't already have an account, you will be prompted to create one at an early stage in the process.

Creating the map

To get started with My Places, go to http://maps.google.com/maps. Then search for the location that you wish to map. This might be a city, street address, postal code or perhaps a landmark or building. Zoom or pan the map as necessary until you see the approximate area and level of detail that you want your map's visitors to see (Figure 1).

Starting point in Google Maps

Figure 1: Start by finding the map that you want your visitors to see.

Next, click the My Places button, which is at the top of the panel to the left of the map. It's at this point that you'll be prompted to create a Google account or to log into an existing account if you haven't already done so.

After you've created some maps in My Places, you will see them listed in the left-hand panel. You will then be able to click on the name of a map to edit it. But for now, we want to set up a new map, so click the large Create Map button at the top of the panel.

Next, enter a title and a short description for the map. Whatever you enter here will be visible to your visitors, so be sure to enter something that's meaningful to them.

As you can see, there's also an option to make the map either "public" or "unlisted". This option won't affect the methods available for sharing the map. In fact, every My Places map is public, in the sense that anyone who knows the URL will be able to see it. Choosing the "public" setting simply means the map shows up in your Google profile. If that's not what you want, set the option to "unlisted".

Adding place markers to the map

Figure 2

Figure 2: Use the middle button
to drop a placemark.

Now that you have the basic map, you can add markers to it. These will show the places that are of interest to your visitors - the location of your business or home, for example.

To add a marker (also called a placemark), click on the middle of the three buttons in the top-left corner of the map (Figure 2). The mouse pointer will change to the icon shown in the button. Click on the map at the appropriate point and drop the icon there. (If you can't see the three buttons, this is probably because the map is not in edit mode; to fix that, click the Edit button at the top of the left-hand panel.)

When you drop the icon, a small editing window will open (Figure 3). Use this to enter a title and description for the location. Again, these entries will be visible to your visitors (they'll see them in the left-hand panel when they view the map), so choose some wording that will make sense to them. Click OK when done.

Figure 3

Figure 3: Enter the location's
title and description here.

If you drop the icon in the wrong place (which is very easy to do), simply drag it to the correct location. If you need to amend the title or description, click once on the icon. This will re-open the editing window. This window also has a handy Delete button, which removes the icon from the map.

Changing the default icon

If you don't like the default icon, you can easily change it. Just click on the marker (on the map) to open the editing window. Then click in the box in the top-right corner of the window - the one showing a copy of the icon. This will open a new window which shows a palette of about a hundred useful images and pictograms from which to choose.

Changing the icon in this way won't affect any markers that you previously added to the map, but it will change the default for future markers.

It's also possible to create your own icons. I deal with that in another tutorial (see Add custom icons to My Places in Google Maps).

Adding routes to the map

As well as placemarks, you can add routes to your map. This is useful, for example to show your visitors the route of a trip that you've made or of a tour that you're planning. You can also add lines for other purposes - to mark the boundary of a property, for instance.

To add a route or other line to the map, first click the right-most of the three buttons shown in Figure 2. Then click on the point on the map that represents the starting point of your route. Next, click on the next point along the route, and then the next, and so on, until you reach the end. To terminate the route, click on the last point a second time.

When you finish the route, the editing window will open, ready for you to enter a title and description, just as you did for the placemarks. This time, you can also click on the box in the top-right corner of the window to change the color of the line, its thickness or its opacity.

If you made a mistake in plotting the line, don't worry - it's easy to fix. Just click on any of the intermediate points, and drag it to the correct location. Or click anywhere on the line to re-open the editing window and change the title or description.

As you draw the route, you might reach the edge of the visible portion of the map. You won't be able to use the mouse to pan the map (because you're in "drawing mode"). Instead, use the up, down, left and right arrow keys to the move the map in the required direction.

You need to be careful if the line that you're drawing passes near the sliding zoom control on the left-hand side of the map. It's very easy to accidentally drag the slider, causing the map to suddenly change scale - sometimes to the point where you can no longer see the level of detail which you need to plot the route. The best way to avoid this is to first arrange the map so that you can draw the line without going near the zoom control.

Routes along roads

If the line you are drawing follows roads - either highways or city streets - there's a clever way of improving the accuracy of the route.

Click the small down-pointing arrow in the right-most button in Figure 2. This will open a menu from which you can select "Draw a line along roads". Then proceed to draw the line as before. This time, each segment of the route will automatically snap to the nearest road.

In the case of a fairly simple route, you might even be able to trace the entire journey simply by clicking its start and end points. Google will look for the most obvious road route - and usually does a good job of it. Of course, this won't work if the route follows bike paths, hiking trails, waterways or other features that Google doesn't consider to be a road.

You can also apply the "snap to roads" option retrospectively. Click on an existing route to open the editing window, then click the box in the top-right corner. This will open the dialog where you specify the line's color, width and opacity. This dialog has a checkbox labeled "Snap to roads" which does exactly what it says.

Saving the map

As you work on the map, it's a good idea to click the Save button from time to time. That way, you won't lose your work if the computer crashes or there's a power outage. The Save button is located at the top of the panel to the left of the map.

When you've finished creating the map, click the Done button, which is next to the Save button. At this point, the buttons shown in Figure 2 will no longer be available, and you won't be able to add or alter your markers or routes. To re-enable the buttons and return to edit mode, click the Edit button at the top of the panel.

Sharing the map

An open map

Figure 4: How the map looks when it's open.

The final step is to make the map available to the people you want to share it with. This is simply a matter of giving them a URL that will lead them to the map.

Figure 5

Figure 5: Use the right-most
button to get the URL.

To determine the URL, first make sure that the map is open. The left-hand panel should show the title and description that you entered, as well as a list of all the markers and routes that you added, along with their descriptions (Figure 4). If you only see the name of the map and the time that it was last viewed, click on the name to open the map. (This is important; if the map itself is not open at this time, the URL will point to My Places, not to the actual map.)

Next, click the Link button, that is, the right-most of the three buttons just above the top-right corner of the map (Figure 5). This opens the window shown in Figure 6.

In this window, check the "Short URL" option. Then highlight the link in the box immediately below it (this will show something like http://g.co/maps/ followed by an apparently random string of characters). Copy this link to the clipboard.

Figure 6

Figure 6: Copy the URL from this window.

You can now send the link to your customers, friends, etc., for example by pasting it into an email or IM message, or placing it in a blog post. When the recipients click on the link or paste it into their browsers' address bars, the map will open. The visitor will be able to pan and zoom the map, search for nearby places (such as hotels), and use it to generate driving directions. But they won't be able to change the markers or routes in any way.

Summing up

In this tutorial, I've shown you how you can use My Places to easily create customized Google maps with a variety of features, and to share them with anyone who might benefit from them. In my next tutorial, I'll show you some options for publishing your maps (see Embed Google maps into your website or blog). In the meantime, I hope you enjoy using this powerful and useful tool.

December 2011

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