Custom Google Maps are a fun and interesting way to get students involved in map reading, measuring distances, learning about historic places or connecting places and literature.  There are so many ways you could incorporate Google Maps into your subject area - either by using existing maps made by users or creating original ones.  Consider using the Distance Measurement Tool to calculate the distance from one location to another in a custom map or check out some of these Google maps (need a Google account to view custom maps):

  1. Earthquakes in the Last week -  
  2. Famous places in USA - made by VCS 8th Graders
  3. California Missions - (This is actually a Google Earth file but can be opened in Google Maps too),-119.817402&spn=8.488761,11.733398&z=6
  4. Horatio Alger's New York - These are the places referenced in Ragged Dick, or Street Life in New York with the Boot Blacks - 11th graders,-73.988854&spn=0.123562,0.183334&z=12
  5. Presidential Historic Sites -
  6. Map your Clean Up the World Activity- A cool Google Map project
  7. Google Lit Trips -
  8. GMdir:  an unofficial Google Maps Directory -
  9. Postcard Geography -
  10. Travel to US places

There are also some cool gadgets you can add to your Google Maps to view clouds, contours, virtual tourism videos, crop circles, Wonders of the World and more at

Reference links from Google Help:

Google Maps Background Info

Most folks today rely on Google Maps to look up locations and print out directions to where they are going but there is so much more to Google Maps and new features are constantly being added.  You don't need to have a Google account to use Maps unless you are going to create your own custom maps (more about that next week).

The Google Maps HELP page has a great diagram that describes some of the features available in Google Maps and you can even  watch easy-to-follow video tutorials.   Some features include:

  • Search, get directions, add destinations, save, share & print maps
  • Various views:  street, traffic, satellite, terrain
  • Layers:  photos, videos, Wikipedia
  • Left panel, Info window, navigational controls, my profile

A few of the features of Google Maps that I use often are the user reviews, more info and search nearby.

The "More info" link can contain great information such as photos of businesses, descriptions, restaurant reviews, links to driving directions and much more. Need to access the map again?  Save it to My Maps (need a Google account).

Let's say you are thinking of checking out a new restaurant.  Search for the name of the restaurant on Google Maps.  Once you have located the placemarker on the map, open up the Info window.  Look for a link for "user reviews".  Most of these reviews are from websites like,, and more (source).  Of course the reviews on the maps are not as detailed as the ones on the websites, but it can probably give you the information you need.

You can search maps in a variety of ways if you do NOT know the name of a particular business:

Just last term I wanted to order pizza for the Computer club but since I do not live close to school I did not know what businesses were nearby.  So, I first search for the name of our school and clicked on the placemarker to open the "More Info" window.  Then I selected "search nearby" and searched for pizza.  The next map that appeared show the location of our school and all of the pizza locations nearby.  How easy it that??
diagram that describes some of the features available in Google Maps

Of course, my students love to play around with Street view, turn on the photos, or zoom in on specific locations.

Creating a custom Google map is easy. Here are the basic steps (you need to be logged into your Google account).  These are selected directions from My Maps User Guide :

Creating a Map

Creating a map is easy. Here are the basic steps:

  1. Go to Google Maps.
  2. Click My Maps > Create new map.
  3. Add a title and description for your map. You can make your map public or unlisted. Learn more.
  4. Use the icons in the the top right corner of the map. These include:

  5. Select button Selection tool. Use this to drag the map and select placemarks, lines, and shapes.
    Placemark button Placemark tool. Use this to add placemarks. Learn more.
    Polygon button Line tool. Use this to draw lines. Learn more.
    Shape button Shape tool. Use this to draw shapes. Learn more.

You can return to your map at any time. Just go to Google Maps and click My Maps. Sign into your Google Account and select the map from your list of maps.

Adding and Editing Placemarks

To add a placemark to your map:

  1. Create or open a map.
  2. Click Placemark button. Your cursor changes into a placemark icon with an "X" crosshairs. The crosshairs indicate where the placemark will fall.

    Placemark icon
  3. Move the cursor to the appropriate location. If you want to dismiss this placemark, press the Escape key.
  4. Click your mouse button to place your placemark. It should bounce into place.
  5. Add a title and description.
  6. You can also change the icon for your placemark by clicking the icon in the top right corner of the info window.
  7. Click OK to save your placemark.

To move or edit a placemark:

  1. To move any placemark on your map, drag and drop it to the new location. Note that you can only edit or move placemarks on your maps, not others.
  2. To edit a placemark's title or description, click on it to open the info window. Edit the title and description and click OK.

Adding Rich Text or HTML Descriptions

By default the descriptions of your map items are in plain text. However, you can use rich text or HTML. To do this:

  1. Create or open a map.
  2. Click the appropriate placemark, line, shape. The info window appears.
  3. Click Edit.
  4. Choose Plain Text, Rich Text or Edit HTML.
  5. To edit rich text descriptions, select the text and use the icons above the description field:

    Rich text icons
  6. To use HTML descriptions, add HTML in the description field. Some HTML may be stripped from the description if it is considered unsafe or malicious.
  7. Click OK to save your changes.

Adding Photos

You can add photos to your map, as long as they are hosted online. Upload your image into Google Docs.  Open image, right click on image, select "copy image location" and paste the URL* when inserting an image into the placeholder. 

You could also use a service such as Google PicasaWeb or Flickr and put your photos online.

To add photos:

  1. Create or open a map from My Maps.  Select Edit.
  2. Click the appropriate placemark, line, shape. The info window appears.
  3. Choose Rich Text
  4. Go to Insert / image
  5. Paste URL* (image location). Press OK.
  6. You will now see the image in the placeholder area. 
  7. Click OK to save your changes.
  8. Select Done and now you have an image embedded into your map.

Sharing Maps

Once you have created a map, you can share it with others. To do this:

  1. Open the map you want to share.
  2. Click Link to this page in the top right corner of the orange title bar. This will put the map's URL in your browser navigation bar.
  3. You can share this URL with your friends by sending it in an email or posting it on your blog or website.
  4. You can also click the Email link in the top right corner of the orange title bar to open your default email client with the map URL in the email body.

Public and Unlisted Maps

  • You can choose to make your maps public or unlisted.
  • Public maps are maps that you want to publish and share with everyone. Public maps will be included in the search results on Google Maps and Earth.
  • Unlisted maps are maps that you only want to share with a few select people. Unlisted maps will not be included in the search results, so they are accessible much like an unlisted phone number -- anyone who knows the specific URL of the map can view it, but there's no directory or search for finding unlisted maps.

Viewing Your Maps in Google Earth

If you have Google Earth installed on your computer, you can view your maps in Google Earth. To do this:

  1. Create or open a custom map.
  2. Click the KML link or icon in the orange title bar. Google Maps uploads a KML file to your computer that you can open in Google Earth. How cool is that???

More information at My Maps User Guide.