Google Maps' Street View mode can easily seem like an exercise in mapping indulgence. Is it really necessary to drive cars mounted with high-tech cameras around dozens of cities just so that people can view the front door of a local business? According to a profile of Google's mapping efforts in The New York Times Magazine, the feature is more than worth its money — it's actually become a core strength of Google Maps. “When we started, Street View was just some sci-fi idea,” Street View leader Luc Vincent tells New York Times Magazine, “but now, it’s the backbone.”

Street view images are turned into hard mapping data

By analyzing Street View data, Google is able to ensure that its actual maps and directions are accurate. Through the photos, it can reportedly verify turn restrictions, automatically pull out street addresses, or even match up Colonel Sanders with the location of a KFC. New York Times Magazine reports that Google employs a staff of 2,000 in Hyderabad, India tasked just with confirming that map data matches up with images in Street View.

So far, Google has reportedly mapped one-tenth of the world's roads and sees a billion regular users. But despite the success, there's a reason that Street View isn't slowing down: from OpenStreetMap to a series of mapping clones throughout Asia, Google has plenty of competitors keeping it sharp. New York Times Magazine has more on Google's ongoing mapping battle, including new uses of its Trekker backpack and how it's starting to apply the technology to self-driving cars.