Custom Google Maps: A Great Digital Engagement Tool

Custom Google Maps

Custom Google Maps can be used in a variety of ways to produce numerous benefits for organizations, their members, and other key stakeholders. This article provides examples, enumerates some of the key features, and provides resources and basic development tips. Additional suggestions, as well as questions, are welcome. (July 17, 2013)

Author: Courtney Hunt


UPDATE (October 2014)

Google is in the process of upgrading their custom maps feature (now called Google My Maps) and migrating existing maps. You can learn more about the changes here. We’ve updated this piece to reflect how Custom Google Maps will now work.


One of my favorite features of Google Maps is the ability to create personalized maps that you can save and share. I have personally used the feature to map out travel routes (and more) for a road trip through the Western United States in 2011, as well as to develop daily tourist itineraries for visits to Dublin, Ireland in the fall of 2012 and New York City in the summer of 2013.

But Custom Google Maps aren’t just useful to individuals. They also have a variety of potential applications for organizations, groups, and communities, which can use them in ways that produce value for both themselves and their individual members/stakeholders.

Key Features

Custom Google Maps are…

Visual. The popularity of infographics and sites like Pinterest and SlideShare clearly demonstrate how much people appreciate visual displays. Custom Google Maps are a great way to show geographically-oriented information in a visual way. Here are some examples:

  • We have created a Member Map to illustrate both the geographic diversity and relative distribution of the membership in our LinkedIn group. In a similar vein, non-profit organizations could use them to share chapter information, chambers of commerce could display member businesses, and academic institutions could use them to illustrate where their graduates have ended up (an alumni diaspora if you will).
  • The University of Virginia has a UVA Global Network map with information about different regional alumni clubs and admissions volunteers.
  • The Forest Preserve of Cook County has organized the parks and recreational areas in the 69,000 acres of public land it manages so that people can more easily find their “next adventure in the forest preserves!”
  • The America’s Highway project produced the America’s Highway: Oral Histories of Route 66 map.
  • Google has a 2007 Googleplex map that displays “photos of life at Google Headquarters” (I wonder if this one will be upgraded?)

Customizable: As many of the examples above illustrate, the pins on a Custom Google Map can include more than simple text. They can include photos, videos, and links to websites as well. You can also change the pin icons themselves and format the text in a variety of ways, and even edit the html.

Flexible. Map owners can choose whether to make their maps public or keep them “unlisted.” They can also opt to leave the map in its Google location or embed it on their own website.

Collaborative. Map owners can invite other individuals to develop and edit individual maps.

Dynamic. As soon as there’s a significant change, most maps can be updated quickly and easily.

Embeddable. It’s very simple to embed a Custom Google Map on a web page. Google creates the code; the only adjustment you may have to make is to correct the height and width to fit in the space you’ve allocated.

Shareable. Custom Google Maps can easily be shared via Google+, Facebook, and Twitter. The can also be shared through other channels by using a custom url provided by Google.

Engaging. There are many ways to use Custom Google Maps to generate interest and dialogue. At the simplest level, people who view the map can rate it or write a comment directly on the map. When the map is embedded in a website, it can also stimulate discussions about the map’s contents and/or give people an incentive to take action. Finally, the map and its activity can be shared via social media to regularly invite people to check it out and engage. Here’s one of our tweets as an example:

Toronto is the seventh urban area to hit 100 members! Check out our updated member map!

General Development Tips

You can get super-fancy with Custom Google Maps, which involves lots of coding and technical skills. But as Google themselves noted when they introduced the feature in 2007, it doesn’t have to be complicated. You can create a fairly simple map manually, or by converting data in a spreadsheet to a KML file (we used BatchGeo for this) and then uploading it (if you’d like specific tips on doing that, please let us know). With the new maps, you can also use a CSV or XLS file directly, without having to convert it to a KML file.

Here are a few specific lessons Associate Digital Network Manager Sean Pearson and I learned from our Custom Google Map creation and management efforts:

  1. Every map has an “owner,” who has to have a Gmail account. Rather than having the owner be an individual, it’s probably better to create a Gmail account using a corporate identity (i.e.,
  2. If you have map collaborators who don’t have access to the login credentials for the corporate Gmail account, each of those collaborators will also need a Gmail account.
  3. Several aspects of the Custom Google Maps feature are not clear or intuitive. For example, you click on the open folder icon to delete a map – huh? And changing pin formats is a bit of a head scratcher. Be prepared to hack around and try things to familiarize yourself with how things work. The answer you’re looking for is there somewhere…
  4. For better and for worse, the map autosaves while you’re editing it. So if you make a mistake or change your mind, you may have to manually undo what you’ve done. Google’s undo feature only works for the most recent change.
  5. Determine how you want to display the list of pins on the left-hand side of the map, focusing on an arrangement that best meets your goals and makes the most sense to a map viewer. Once you’ve determined that order, make sure the pin list accurately reflects that order, both when the map is created and as you add to it. It’s very easy to drag and drop the list items to create the desired order.

If you’re experienced with creating Custom Google Maps and have other tips to suggest, we’d love to hear them. And although we’re no experts, we’re also happy to try to answer any questions you may have.

Happy mapping!


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