Google Views' growth means death for longtime photo-sharing service

The little-known Panoramio service will eventually disappear as Google moves to a new Views option for sharing location-linked photos -- and adding imagery to Google Maps.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
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Stephen Shankland
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Evan Rapoport, Google's product manager in charge of its Views photo service, at Photokina 2014.
Evan Rapoport, Google's product manager in charge of its Views photo service, at Photokina 2014. Stephen Shankland/CNET

COLOGNE, Germany -- With its new Views service available to let people browse photos on a map, Google will phase out the Panoramio site it acquired in 2007, the company said Tuesday.

Panoramio doesn't have a wide enough selection of images to meet Google Maps' needs, said Evan Rapoport, the Google product manager in charge of Panoramio and Views who also announced the change on Panoramio's forum. "We need to be able to share more than just photos of landscapes and seascapes. Panoramio has done an amazing job, but we need to broaden that," he said in an interview here at the Photokina show in Germany.

Panoramio, which got its start in 2005, lets people upload photos tagged with location data that identifies where they were taken. It never achieved the scale of photo-sharing services like Yahoo's Flickr, but over the years it's served an important role at Google by providing imagery it can blend into Google Maps.

Google has been changing how it acquires those photos, though. First came the Photo Sphere app, which turns a series of photos into a 360-degree experience that can be shared with Google Maps, for Google's Android operating system and recently for Apple's iOS. Last week, Google opened Views to any photo. Google-approved photos will show on Google Maps across the bottom of the map; they're shown by default in satellite view but people have to click the chevron-shaped up-arrow symbol at the lower left to see them in the regular schematic view of Google Maps.

It's never easy killing off a service, even one that's relatively not well known. Community members sink many hours of work into their membership -- Panoramio has more than 80 million images -- and it can be painful watching a corporation with different priorities show that it's actually the one holding the control.

Google hopes people will ultimately be happy with the transition, though. It'll keep Panoramio around until Views is mature enough and the community is comfortable enough with the change, he said. "It's really hard to move to a new platform," he said.

Although Panoramio has been updated over the years, Views is more in tune with Google's current look. It's separate from the Google+ photos system, though. That can back up photos automatically from Android devices and lets people share photos privately. Photos uploaded to Views are public, and Rapoport said a private collection and sharing is a distant option if indeed it ever happens.

Helping Google Maps

The fact that the shots are public helps flesh out Google Maps services with images of places and businesses that people might visit. So why would you want to contribute your free labor to help Google, a company that socked away $5.6 billion in cash from its operations in the second quarter?

In short, vanity.

Photographers like to show off their work, and 1 billion people use Google Maps. A photo included on Maps means "you're going to start seeing view-count numbers on your photos reach astronomical numbers," he said -- often millions.

Google Views lets people explore parts of the world. The shots also are used on Google Maps, meaning that millions of people see photographers' images Google showcases there.
Google Views lets people explore parts of the world. The shots also are used on Google Maps, meaning that millions of people see photographers' images Google showcases there. Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Well, OK not just vanity. There's something to be said for helping others, even if you're also helping a for-profit corporation in the process. As Rapoport noted: "The lens you have is going to help somebody else decide: is that where they want to go on next vacation? Is that restaurant where they want to eat? Is that neighborhood park where they want to take their kids?"

The company knows it has more work to do on Views, though. Rapoport has been in discussions with many individual photographers about what to do next, he said.

Curated profiles on the way

One item high on the priority list is giving people the ability to curate their own Views profile pages, so that a photo of a slice of pizza taken for a local restaurant isn't competing for attention with more polished images.

"We want to improve people's ability to present the photos they want to present," Rapoport said. "The community is pretty clear about that."

Another thorny issue will be changing the community. Panoramio was a haunt for photography enthusiasts, but Views is more mainstream. Years ago, many Flickr enthusiasts griped when Yahoo folded in its broad Yahoo Photos collections and in their eyes brought down the neighborhood.

Google is aware of the challenge: "How do we have very talented photographers with expensive cameras coexist with people who have cell phones or take traditional snapshots? There's not always a great answer," he said. Google should be able to attract a sizable population, though, even if everyone isn't happy. "It's OK if our product isn't perfect for everybody. Putting photos on Google Maps is a really unique experience -- an amazing opportunity to publish photos for 1 billion people to see."