What Happened to Google Maps?
Is Google Maps getting less detailed?

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Browsing Google Maps over the past year, I’ve often thought there are fewer labels than there used to be. For instance, here’s a screenshot of Google Maps from 2010 alongside a screenshot of Google Maps today:

Notice how many fewer labels are on the 2016 map. Comparing the screenshots, most of the missing labels are city labels.

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

2010 - 46 cities
2016 - 8 cities—an 83% reduction.

But even more interesting are the kinds of cities that have been removed from this zoom. For instance, the area’s second, third, fourth, and fifth largest cities (Newark, Yonkers, Paterson, and Bridgeport) are all missing today—even though they appeared on this zoom in 2010:

Strange, isn’t it?

But this seems to be a pattern with almost every metro. For instance, here’s Chicago:

And notice that Chicago’s reduction is nearly as big as New York’s:

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

And like we saw in New York, the Chicago area’s second largest city (Aurora) is also missing.

We also see this same pattern in the Bay Area:

And it’s an even larger reduction than Chicago’s:

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

Oakland and Berkeley’s omission from today’s map is particularly surprising. There’s ample room for both, if San Francisco’s text is positioned to the left of its icon, as it was in 2010. But that’s yet another peculiarity with today’s map: a city’s text is always centered directly above or below its point icon.

But if you look closely at all the maps above, the cities aren’t the only thing that’ve changed. While the number of cities has decreased, the number of roads has increased. Take another look at our New York area maps:

Doesn’t it appear as if there are more roads today than in 2010?

For instance, look here at Connecticut:

And not only are there more roads, many others have been upgraded.

Take these roads on Long Island, for instance:

Across the map, around forty roads now look more prominent than they did in 2010. I’ve highlighted them in black, below:

Interestingly, many of these upgraded roads are shorter segments that are generally less important than the roads that already looked prominent in 2010, such as Interstate 95 and Interstate 80.

All of the these upgrades and additions make today’s map harder to read. For instance, take the area just north of New York, near Yonkers:

In 2010, there were plenty of roads—but today, there are now so many roads so close together that it’s difficult to trace the path of any one road with your eyes. They all bleed together.

And look again at Long Island:

The primary Interstate across Long Island—Interstate 495—is clearly shown as such in 2010. But today, it’s unclear: all of the upgraded roads muddle the map and 495 gets lost among them. You can’t even tell which road the “Interstate 495” icon belongs to.

Nor have any of upgraded roads been labeled:

If these roads were important enough to warrant an upgraded appearance, why weren’t they also labeled or given icons?

* * *

All things considered, Google Maps’s city reduction was likely an optimization for reading the maps on mobile devices, and the new roads were added to make the maps look less empty (once the cities were removed). After all, a map with fewer labels is a map that’s faster to read.

Consider that between April 2010 and April 2016 (when all the screenshots were taken), sales of mobile devices exploded:

📈 Source: Benedict Evans / Andreessen Horowitz

Also during the same period, mobile usage of Google Maps surpassed desktop usage.

Given these trends, it’s likely that Google Maps was optimized for mobile—and this explains many of the changes we observed earlier.

But when it comes to cartography, is less always more?