Justin O'Beirne

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

What Changed?

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When Google rolled out its 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:

Let’s use these maps to see what Google changed.


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

Ok, let’s start with 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: 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? Let’s go to 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 we see above, 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 changes, how different is the map now?

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

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

But our graph above is deceptive: even though there have been 66 changes, only five zooms have a different total than before:

Surprising, isn’t it?

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

Ten fewer labels? That doesn’t seem like a big change—especially with those labels spread across eighteen zooms. It also means that each zoom averages just 0.6 fewer labels than before:

0.6 fewer labels? It doesn’t seem like the map has changed at all.

So what’s really going on? And what kinds of labels have changed?

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

Next, let’s plot all of the labels that have been added and removed—but this time, by category:

Just four kinds of labels have seen changes: CitiesCity Sub-AreasRoads, and Places.

And spread out across eighteen zoom-levels, none of these changes seems particularly significant—or even noticeable. In fact, the map’s overall character is nearly the same as before:

Even when we tally all of the map’s different Places by category, we see the same general mix as before:

What seems to have happened is that most of the additions and subtractions we saw earlier simply cancelled each other out.

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 all of our earlier observations from our Comparison remain true – at least for now...


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

If history is any guide, Google will likely continue making changes in the months ahead. So let’s stop and reexamine the map a few months from now...



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