Justin O'Beirne

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



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There’s a saying amongst cartographers that “labels are half the map”. And if you were to remove all of the labels from Google Maps and Apple Maps, it would certainly seem true.

Just look at how empty the maps look without their labels. Here’s Google Maps with and without labels:

And here’s Apple Maps with and without labels:

Putting the two label-less maps side-by-side, they actually look quite similar:

It’s almost as if the same things are drawn on both maps (e.g., the same roads, the same parks, etc.)—they’re just colored differently.

Google Maps offers a map styling API—so let’s use it to make the maps look even more alike, so that we can better compare what’s on them.

We’ll adjust a few of Google’s colors to match Apple’s. First, let’s adjust the coloring of Google’s roads to more closely match Apple’s:

Now that we’ve adjusted the color of Google’s roads, let’s adjust the color of Google’s land and water and its parkhospital, and university areas:

Remarkable. We’ve changed just a handful of Google’s colors—and the maps look almost identical.

There are some subtle differences (which we’ll look at later)—but in terms of the shapes and lines drawn on each map, the two maps are quite similar.

But what about the other “half” of the map? The labels half?

Is what’s labeled as similar as what’s drawn?

Let’s take another look at the map pair we started with:

Comparing the two maps, there’s actually a large number of labels that appear on one map — but not on the other.

Here they are, outlined in black:

The two maps have very few labels in common—so few, in fact, that if we only kept the labels that they do have in common, the maps wouldn’t label much:

So perhaps more than anything else, the biggest difference between Google Maps and Apple Maps is in what each chooses to label.

*   *   *

In Part 1, we looked at cityroad, and place labels and which map showed more—but there are many other things labeled on both maps. 

How often do Google and Apple Maps label the same things? Does one map have more labels overall? And what’s labeled most on each map?

We’ll look at these questions and more as we take a closer look at labeling


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