Justin O'Beirne

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

Surprising Changes to Google’s Cartography


Browsing Google Maps over the past year, I’ve often thought there are fewer labels than there used to be. Google's cartography was revamped three years ago—but surely this didn't include a reduction in labels? Rather, the sparser maps appear to be a recent development.

A few days ago, I was looking at some screenshots I used for a post in April 2010. I’ve posted one of those screenshots below alongside a screenshot of Google Maps today:

⚠️ NOTETap or click any image to enlarge.

Pictured above: The same area and zoom in 2010 and 2016. Notice how many fewer labels are on the 2016 map.

Comparing the screenshots above, the majority of the missing labels are city labels.

Just how many fewer cities are labeled today? Let’s count:

(Above, I’m counting the number of city point icons on each map.)

2010 - 46 Cities
2016 - 8 Cities—an 83% reduction in city labels.

46 cities in 2010 vs. 8 cities in 2016that’s pretty significant.

Even more interesting are the kinds of cities that have been dropped from this zoom. For instance, the area’s second largest city, Newark, is missing today—even though it was on the 2010 map.

In fact, if you take the area’s five largest cities (after New York City), you’ll find that none of them are on today’s map—even though four were on the 2010 map (Newark, Yonkers, Paterson, and Bridgeport):

The map has become so sparse at this zoom that you have to go 35 miles away from New York to find the next labeled city:

Strange, isn't it? But maybe it's just a New York thing.

Let's check a couple more cities and see if the pattern holds. We'll start with Chicago:

Similar to what we saw in New York, the 2016 map of the Chicago area also has fewer labels.

Just how many fewer?

Let's count the number of cities between the two:

2010 - 44 Cities
2016 - 12 Cities—a 73% reduction.

And similar to what we saw in New York, the Chicago area's second largest city (Aurora) is also missing.

Let's check one more area and see if the pattern continues. This time, the San Francisco Bay Area:

Similar to New York and Chicago, there's once again fewer labels on the 2016 map.

Oakland and Berkeley's omission from the 2016 map is particularly surprising. There's ample room for them, if San Francisco's text is positioned to the left of its icon, as it is on the 2010 map. But that's yet another peculiarity with the 2016 maps: the text is always centered directly above or below a city's point icon. Contrast this to the 2010 maps, where a greater variety of label positions was used.

One last time, let's count the cities on each map:

2010 - 44 Cities
2016 - 10 Cities—a 77% reduction.

Three sets of samples, all showing the same thing: the number of cities has significantly decreased between 2010 and 2016.

While you were looking at the maps, did you notice some of the other changes?


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