What Happened to Google Maps?
Surpising Changes to Google‘s Cartography
⚠️ Tap or click any image to enlarge
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.
For instance, here’s a screenshot of Google Maps I took in April 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 dropped from this zoom. For instance, the area’s second largest city, Newark, is missing today—even though it appeared in 2010.
In fact, if you take the area’s five largest cities (after New York City), you’ll find that none of them are on this zoom today—even though four of them were there in 2010 (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, starting 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?
2010 - 44 cities
2016 - 12 cities—a 73% reduction.
And similar to what we saw in New York, the 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 in 2016.
Oakland and Berkeley’s omission from today’s 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 was in 2010. But that’s yet another peculiarity with the 2016 maps: the text is always centered directly above or below a city’s point icon.
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 substantially decreased between 2010 and 2016.
But if you look closely, the cities aren’t the only thing that’ve changed. While the number of cities has decreased, the number of roads has actually increased.
Take another look at our New York maps from earlier:
Doesn’t it appear as if there are more roads on the map today than in 2010?
Focusing on Connecticut, there are many more roads today:
And not only are there more roads, many others that were already on the map in 2010 have since been upgraded.
Take these roads on Long Island, for instance:
Notice how much more prominent they look today.
Across the whole map, around 40 roads now look much more prominent than they did in 2010. I’ve highlighted them all in black, below:
Interestingly, many of these upgraded roads are shorter segments—and they’re generally not as important as the roads that already looked prominent in 2010, such as Interstate 95 and Interstate 80.
But with so many upgrades and additions, today’s map is cluttered compared to 2010’s. For example, take the area just north of New York, near Yonkers:
In 2010, there were plenty of roads—but today, the area is now a mess. With so many roads so close, they all bleed together, and it’s difficult to trace the path of any single road with your eyes.
And look again at Long Island:
The primary route across Long Island—Interstate 495—is clearly shown as such in 2010. But today, it’s now unclear: all of the newly upgraded roads muddle the map and 495 gets lost among them. And you can’t even tell which road the “Interstate 495” icon belongs to.
But it seems as though the opposite of Tufte’s suggestion was implemented between 2010 and 2016. The upgraded roads were all on the 2010 map—but their design has since been changed, making the map look unnecessarily complex. And the coherence and clarity shown in 2010 has been lost today.
Nor haven any of upgraded roads been labeled:
If these roads were important enough to warrant an upgraded appearance, why weren’t they also given labels or shield icons? (After all, an unlabeled road isn’t nearly as useful as a labeled one.)
What drove all of these changes?
Let’s dive deeper...
ORPHAN CITIES & ROADS TO NOWHERE
At the zoom-levels we’ve looked at, the map is primarily about cities and roads.
Just look at how empty the map looks without them:
Left: Google Maps 2016
Right: Google Maps 2016—with all of its cities and roads removed.
Quite a difference, isn’t it?
Now let’s see what the map looks like with just cities and roads:
Surprising. With everything removed (other than cities and roads), the map still looks like a map.
In many ways, the map above is a simple network map: The cities are the nodes. And the roads are the paths between the nodes.
If you live in a city, you’re likely quite familiar with network maps. You might even use them pretty regularly.
Here’s a good example of one:
And here’s an even more famous one:
One thing you’ll notice about these maps: they rarely have lines that don’t have any stations. And they rarely show stations that aren’t connected to lines.
After all, what would be the point of a line that didn’t stop anywhere? Or a station that didn’t get stopped at?
And yet this is exactly what we’ve seen on Google Maps, both in 2010 and in 2016.
Take another look at our Bay Area maps:
Notice the pattern?
2010 - Lots of cities, but very few roads.
2016 - Lots of roads, but very few cities.
...or put another way:
2010 - Lots of stations, but very few lines. (And many stations aren’t connected to lines.)
2016 - Lots of lines, but very few stations. (And most lines don’t have any stations.)
If this was a transit map, it wouldn’t be very useful.
Is it useful as a road map?
Let’s take a closer look at a couple of areas within the Bay Area.
First, the Pittsburg / Antioch area:
2010 - Cities, but No Roads. Pittsburg and Antioch are shown—but how to get there? No roads are shown that go to Pittsburg and Antioch.
2016 - Roads, but No Cities. Roads leading to Pittsburg and Antioch are shown—but Pittsburg and Antioch aren’t labeled. Why travel on those roads? Where do they go?
On the 2010 map, Pittsburg and Antioch are what cartographers call “orphan cities”. That is, they’re cities that lack connections to the rest of the road network.
A similar situation exists with Santa Cruz:
2010 - Santa Cruz, but No Roads. Santa Cruz is shown, but it’s orphaned (i.e., there are no roads going to it).
2016 - Roads, but No Santa Cruz. Four different roads leading into Santa Cruz are shown—but Santa Cruz isn’t.
On either map, it’s not immediately clear how to travel between San Francisco (or any other Bay Area city) and Santa Cruz.
See the problem?
Both maps, the one from 2010 and the one from 2016, have a similar issue: a lack of balance.
Google Maps of 2010 had plenty of cities—but not enough roads. It was unbalanced.
Google Maps of 2016 has a surplus of roads—but not enough cities. It’s also out of balance.
So what is the ideal?
* * *
I once saw an incredible map in a Chicago stationery store. Someone had taken the map and turned it into a cover for a photo album, the kind of thing you’d find on Etsy and other online craft sites.
I snapped a few pictures of it because it’s one of the best examples of this concept I’ve ever seen. (The photos were taken with an iPhone 4 on a dark, winter day—so please forgive the quality.)
Now compare the map in that photo to a comparable zoom on Google Maps today:
Even though it’s from the early 1960s, the old map is more balanced than the Google map.
Notice that there are no orphan cities on the old map. Every city is connected to the road network:
And not only are there no orphan cities, but there are no unnecessary roads. Nearly every road is labeled—and nearly every road has a city along it. We don’t have the cluttered bird’s nest of unlabeled roads that’s on the Google map. Instead, every road serves a purpose.
The balance is spot on.
And the map is incredibly efficient.
I took that picture more than five years ago, but I’ve always wondered what a digital version of that old map would look like and how it would compare to Google Maps today.
Let’s try a quick experiment.
First, we’ll take Google Maps as it is today:
Now, let’s add all of the cities from the 1960s road map:
The added cities certainly improve the map’s balance.
Next, let’s discard all of the roads that weren’t on the 1960s map. We’ll keep the freeways, since many of them weren’t built yet—but let’s get rid of everything else:
It doesn’t feel as though we’re missing much with all those unlabeled roads gone. And the individual roads are now so much easier to follow, especially above Chicago. You can actually trace each one with your eyes.
Put another way: every line now has a station. And every station has a line.
There’s one problem, though: we still don’t have labels on most of the remaining roads.
Let’s rectify that by adding most of the shield icons from the 1960s map and see what we get:
Nearly every road is now labeled, making the map even more useful.
Let’s take one last look at the map we started with and compare it to the map we ended up with:
If you were lost in this area, which map would you want to use?
* * *
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
And 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 maps, is less always more?