Justin O'Beirne

Justin O'Beirne of San Francisco, California. Essays, projects, and contact information.

Google Maps’s Quiet Transformation,
Apple Maps’s ______?


⚠️ Tap or click any image to enlarge


Shortly after I published my Cartography Comparison last June, I noticed Google updating some of the areas we had focused on:

Coincidence or not, it was interesting. And it made me wonder what else would change, if we kept watching. Would Google keep adding detail? And would Apple, like Google, also start making changes?

So I wrote a script that takes monthly screenshots of Google and Apple Maps.1 And thirteen months later, we now have a year’s worth of images:

On Apple Maps, the area looks much as it did a year ago. But it’s quite a different story on Google Maps: as the months went on, Google continued adding detail. And Google now has a complete map of the park paths:

It’s cool to see how much Google Maps has changed over the past year. But it’s also surprising to see how little Apple Maps has changed:

The park above (Patricia’s Green) is the centerpiece of a vibrant and trendy neighborhood in central San Francisco, just blocks away from City Hall. And San Francisco, of course, is Apple’s and Google’s backyard – if there’s anywhere each map is at its best, it’s likely San Francisco.2

But here’s what’s most surprising –

In my Cartography Comparison last year, I wrote:

Let’s take a look at the final zoom on our San Francisco map pairs – which is a close-up of Patricia’s Green... here, Google has park paths and even some buildings and structures that Apple doesn’t have. And on Apple’s map, Patricia’s Green isn’t green.

According to Google Analytics, that essay has received more than 1,000 hits from computers on Apple’s corporate network, mainly Apple’s Sunnyvale and Cupertino campuses. Yet nearly a year later, Patricia’s Green still isn’t green.

Then again, Apple’s primary data provider, TomTom, is also missing these details:

Comparing the roads between the maps – and ignoring their styling (i.e., their colors and thicknesses) – Apple appears to be using TomTom’s road and path data here. Notice the roads are angled the same way and notched in similar places:

So if Apple is dependent on TomTom for this kind of data, it would explain why the park hasn’t changed.

But in focusing on Patricia’s Green, we’re selling Apple short. Even though the park hasn’t changed, Apple’s map has changed over the past year. Take another look – many of the businesses and places shift and change, almost monthly:

Let’s enlarge Apple’s map and look closer...

There’s a lot of fluctuation: some places are added; others are removed.

To get a better sense, let’s put green dots on the places added each month and red dots on the ones that disappear:

And let’s tally each month’s changes:

Places are added and removed almost monthly on Apple’s map.

Do we see the same on Google?

Let’s look...

Similar to Apple, there’s a noticeable amount of churn.

Let’s get a better sense of it:

Interestingly, Google has fewer changes month-to-month than Apple:

And adding all the months together, Apple has twice as many:

So it seems that Apple is updating its map more frequently than Google.

But when we look closer, this doesn’t seem to be what’s happening. For instance, near the park’s southeast corner, there’s a group of three auto service-related businesses: Domport Auto Body ServiceFell Street Auto Service, and California Detailing:

Google has distinct locations for each. But Apple plots them at the same location...

...and as the months pass by, Apple cycles through all three – padding our addition/removal counts:

We see a similar situation at the park’s northwest corner: Timbuk2 and La Boulangerie are on the ground floor of the same building:

Google plots them in separate locations, showing both. But Apple plots them in the same location: some months, we see Timbuk2; other months, we see La Boulangerie. But never together:

A number of the additions and removals we counted earlier on Apple are similar – the map is cycling though businesses plotted at the same location.

This all seems to suggest that Google’s location data is more precise than Apple’s. (Or that Apple’s geocoder is buggy.) And perhaps here we’re seeing the fruits of Google’s decade-long Street View project:

Google has been using computer vision and machine learning to extract business names and locations from the Street View imagery it has collected. And as of 2014, Google had already driven 99% of U.S. public roads.

It’s likely this imagery has increased the accuracy of Google’s place data. And as we saw with Timbuk2 and La Boulangerie, this greater precision allows Google to fit more businesses on its map than Apple.

In fact, on the maps we looked at earlier, Google labeled more places than Apple in all but one of the months:

And across all thirteen months, Google averaged 34 place labels per map, whereas Apple averaged just 30.


*   *   *


Speaking of place labels, did you notice that halfway through the year, Google’s changed in appearance?

And not only that... but Google’s park paths have had at least three distinct looks over the past year:

Three different looks?

What’s going on with Google Maps’s design?


*   *   *



When Google Maps first launched in 2005, it was little more than a road map of North America and the British Isles:

But Google eventually filled in the rest of the world – and all while adding many more features and datasets:

With everything Google has added over the years, you’d think the map would’ve become hopelessly cluttered. And yet that hasn’t been the case.

Similar to how a software engineer refactors their code before expanding it, Google has repeatedly refactored the styling of its map as it has added new datasets. And we see this in the evolution of Google Maps’s cartography:

As Google has added more and more datasets, it has continually rebalanced the colors, weights, and intensities of the items already on its map – each time increasing its map’s capacity for more.

So when Google introduced a new dataset last Summer (Areas of Interest), it wasn’t too surprising to learn that Google had once again refactored its map. After all, without the refactoring, the new feature wouldn’t have been legible. Let me show you...

Below, I’ve taken Google Maps’s old design (the left image) and added the new Areas of Interest feature (the right image) – but looking between the images, it’s difficult to tell I’ve added anything on the right:

And zooming in doesn’t help – once again, the AOIs are barely visible:

Google needed to change something to make the AOIs easier to see, so it adjusted the map’s background color:

And though the colors above don’t look very different, look what happened:

With a simple color tweak, the AOIs instantly became more legible.

But Google didn’t stop there... it adjusted most of the map’s other colors, too:

But while it was easy to understand why Google had changed the background colors, the motivations behind the other changes were less clear.

Maps are frequently used outdoors, often in bright sunlight. And many of the new colors made parts of the map less obvious and harder to see, especially the roads:

And in some cases, the roads became impossible to see:

It made little sense. Why was Google breaking its map?

And in addition to the color changes, Google also flattened the map – eliminating the coastline dropshadows it had added just a couple years ago and removing most of the road casings:

If refactors are done to increase capacity, Google’s summer refactor seemed to have gone too far, leaving a lot of excess capacity. And taken together, the changes made the map seem washed out. Sterile, even – as if all the map’s character had been bleached out:

It just didn’t feel as Google-ly as before.

And yet, a “cleaner” map seemed to be exactly Google’s aim. Google even said so, using the word “cleaner” three times in its blog post announcing the new design.

The fixation on cleanliness was peculiar. But even more peculiar was the timing.

Historically, Google has been cautious about cartography changes, never changing too much too quickly, and preferring small iterations over grand releases.

And Google has also tended to make its largest changes during the quietest parts of the year. U.S. map usage peaks in the Summer. And the last time Google changed its cartography, it did so in the dead of Winter:

But this time, Google rolled out its redesign at the end of July – peak travel season – when its usage had swelled to 4th in the U.S.:

And unlike Google’s prior redesigns, there was no press event, no mention of it at Google I/O (just two months earlier), no public or private beta, no Fast Company puff piece, no advance warning of any kind. Just a short blog post.

It almost seemed as if Google thought it wasn’t a big change.

And it’s only when we see how the map evolved over the next several months, that we realize what Google was really up to...


*   *   *



Swapping San Francisco for New York, we once again see the before-and-after of Google Maps’s Summer redesign:

But watch what happens as we go from Summer to Fall:

A dramatic increase in place labels.

And then as we go from Fall to Winter, they’re colorized:

The contrast between last Spring and this Spring is especially striking:

Over the course of a year, Google quietly turned its map inside-out – transforming it from a road map into a place map.

A year ago, the roads were the most prominent part of the map – the thing you noticed first. Now, the places are.

And it’s not just New York... Here’s London:

And San Francisco:

Now we see what was really happening last Summer: by bleaching and flattening the map, Google was clearing it for all the things it would add later. And last Summer’s redesign was just the first in a series of steps.

It makes you wonder what else Google is planning.

Looking again at the screenshots above of New York, London, and San Francisco, we see a year-over-year increase in place labels...

...and a year-over-year decrease in road labels:

And we see the same visually: Google has been gradually increasing the prominence of its places....

...while slowly decreasing the prominence of its roads:

And these shifts match what we saw back at Patricia’s Green: as the year progressed, Google reduced the prominence of the paths, making them lighter and then thinner:

And all the while, Google increased the prominence of its places:

Interestingly, Google’s place icons are now even more like Apple’s.

Here’s last year:

And now this year:

And speaking of places, Google has also been increasing the variety of places it shows.

In our Comparison last year, we found that Apple generally showed a greater variety of places than Google:

But look what happens when we resurvey Google a year later:

It’s quite a difference – and Google’s mix is now much closer to Apple’s.

Speaking of Apple... while Google has been making all those changes, what has Apple been up to? After all, Apple announced an “all-new design” for Apple Maps just weeks before Google’s Summer redesign.

Let’s take a look at how Apple looked a year ago, before it released its new design:

And now let’s see how it looks today:

See the difference?

I don’t either.



1   We’re only looking at the default maps. (No personalization.) ↩︎

2   Whenever either company releases a new mapping product or feature, we’re almost always treated to a demo involving San Francisco. From Steve Jobs searching Google Maps for Starbucks at the iPhone’s introduction in 2007...

...to Google showing off 3D satellite imagery of San Francisco City Hall in 2012...

...to Apple’s debut of Apple Maps...

...to Google’s announcement of the “new” Google Maps in 2013...

...to Apple’s announcement an “all-new design” of Apple Maps last year...

So if there’s anywhere in the world where each map has been touched up the most, it’s likely San Francisco. ↩︎

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