Justin O'Beirne

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


Introduction · 📍 · 2





We couldn’t have started our Cartography Comparison at a better time.

When Google rolled out its most recent changes, it overwrote its old map, leaving us no way to see what it used to look like.

But thanks to our Comparison, we have an ace in the hole: a detailed record of how the map used to look at each zoom in New York, San Francisco, and London:

We’ll use the maps from our earlier investigations to find everything Google changed.

See what I mean about our perfect timing? 😉


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We were halfway through our Comparison when Google rolled out its changes. So let’s backtrack and see if Google changed anything we’ve already looked at.

So far we’ve compared the number of things on Google Maps and Apple Maps — things like Cities, Roads, and Places:

So let’s start there.

Are the same things on Google Maps as before? Or are there different things now?

And have the amounts changed?

(We won’t pay attention to how anything looks just yet; we’ll just see if the same things are on the map.)

Let’s take one of our three cities and do a quick sweep across each zoom. Since our Cartography Comparison has had more readers in San Francisco than any other city, we’ll use San Francisco:


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📷 San Francisco | Photo by Justin O'Beirne


Let’s start with our earliest San Francisco zoom, z2:

Here at z2, the changes are subtle: the water color is slightly different now and the shadow along the coastline has been removed. But apart from those small changes, we see all the same things as before: all the same countries and oceans are labeled and all the same lines are drawn.

Let’s go to z3… 

Here again, we see all the same things as before: all the same lines and all the same labels.

Does the pattern continue on z4?

Just as we saw on z2 and z3, z4 also has all the same lines and labels as before.

In fact, if we look at the entire first half of our San Francisco zooms (z2 — z10)…

…we see the exact same things as before:

As the images show, not a single label has changed across our first nine zooms.

And it isn’t until we get to z11 that we see any change at all:

At z11, our map is almost the same as before — except for a small change at the bottom. Do you see it?

San Bruno Mountain State Park has been removed and two cities have been added in its place (Colma and Brisbane):

San Bruno Mountain State Park is still there in real life—it has just disappeared from Google’s map (along with several other parks). 🤔

In any event, the label changes we see at z11 mark the start of a trend—and as we continue across our remaining eight zooms (z12 through z19), we see a number of other label changes:

As the images above show, all the zooms from z11 onward seem to have some sort of label change (unlike the first half of our zooms, which had no changes at all):

So with all of the label changes, how different is the map now? And what’s changed?

Let’s count the number of label changes on each zoom and plot them in a graph:

Across all of our San Francisco zooms, 28 new labels have been added to the map, while 38 other labels have been removed—giving us a total of 66 label changes across all our zooms.

But our graph above is deceptive: even though there have been 66 changes, all but five of our zooms have the same number of labels as before:

Surprising, isn’t it?

And adding all eighteen zooms together, the new map has just ten fewer labels than before:

Ten fewer labels? That doesn’t seem like a big change—especially with those labels spread across eighteen zooms. And it means that each zoom has an average of just 0.6 fewer labels than before:

0.6 fewer labels per zoom? It doesn’t seem like the map has changed at all, in spite of those 66 changes.

So what’s really going on?

And what kinds of labels have changed?

As we did in Part 2, let’s divide all of the map’s labels into seven categories:

Now let’s plot all of the labels that have been added and removed—but this time, instead of plotting them by zoom, let’s plot them by category:

Our graph shows us that only four kinds of labels have had any changes: Cities, City Sub-Areas, Roads, and Places.

Each of these four categories has had labels added or removed, and there are now two more Cities, eight fewer City Sub-Areas, and four fewer Roads labeled on the map:

But these changes are small in the grand scheme of things: there's only a 2% decrease in Road labels (from 209 to 205) and a 3% increase in City labels (from 66 to 68). And spread out across eighteen zoom-levels, neither of these changes seems significant—or even noticeable to the average user.

But the story is a little different with City Sub-Areas, where there’s been a 22% decrease in labels (29 now versus 37 before) . And the decrease is most noticeable on the 13th and 14th zoom-levels:

The City Sub-Area labels are noticeably larger on the new map. Perhaps this is why there are fewer? (I.e., because they’re larger, perhaps fewer can fit?) But if the goal was to elevate their importance, Google seems to have accomplished the opposite in removing nearly a quarter of them.

Yet apart from this reduction in City Sub-Areas, the map’s overall character is almost identical to before:

What seems to have happened is that most of the 66 additions and subtractions we saw earlier have cancelled each other out. And apart from the 22% reduction in City Sub-Areas, the map’s profile is largely the same as before.

In fact, even when we tally all of the map’s different Places by category, we see the same general profile as before:

So from a content perspective, there’s been little change as to what’s on the map: the same kinds of things are on the map and in nearly the same amounts. And this also means that all of our earlier observations from our Comparison remain true.


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It’s surprising that so little has changed. But then again, this is what we saw earlier: Google always makes slow, gradual changes—never hastily changing anything.

But even though the content is the same, the map clearly looks different now. And it looks as if there’s something new on it.

Take another look at the zooms below. Do you see those faint, copper-colored shapes on the new map?

A New Thing has been added…



Copyright © 2010–2017 Justin O’Beirne