What Makes Google Maps So Popular? A Case Study
By Riley Panko
If you own a smartphone and are looking for directions, more likely than not the first app you'll open is Google Maps.
Google Maps is the preferred navigation app by a large number of U.S. smartphone owners. This was reported in a 2016 survey, in which 69% of iPhone and Android users marked Google Maps as their favorite map app.
A more recent survey found Google Maps to be the most popular navigation app among 67% of U.S. smartphone owners.
Why does Google Maps succeed so far beyond competitors such as Apple Maps? Its popularity can largely be attributed to its attention to detail, made possible by Google's massive data collection endeavors.
The History of Google Maps
Google Maps began in Australia, with the Sydney-based digital mapping startup Where 2 Technologies. In 2004, Google acquired Where 2 Technologies - at the time, Google's second-ever acquisition. Around the same time, Google also acquired Zipdash, a traffic analysis company, and Keyhole, a geospatial data visualization company.
These technologies provided the backbone of the early Google Maps.
Flash forward to 2008. That year, Google launches Ground Truth - an initiative seeking to combine all of Google's mapping data to create the most accurate maps possible.
The data comes from satellite and aerial imagery, as well as Google's Street View program, which has sent 360-degree cameras all around the world to document streets (as well as footpaths, trails, and even destinations such as the Great Barrier Reef and inside of The White House) from ground level.
The Street View cameras not only photograph the routes, but collect data on the size of streets, speed limits, turn restrictions, and more using processes similar to computer vision and machine learning.
All of the data is compiled into a Java application named Atlas that Google employees working on Ground Truth use to comb through massive amounts of information. Google didn't let anyone see how the application worked until 2012.
This aggressive and somewhat secretive approach to data collection proved to be a win for Google Maps. Google refined its increasingly extensive maps with more and more data.
Details, Details, Details
In 2017, cartographer Justin O'Beirne wrote a longform article on the detail found in Google Maps, compared to Apple Maps. O'Beirne discussed how, in even rural towns, Google Maps features the outlines of buildings, footpaths, and even 3D renderings of certain structures.
In fact, Google Maps features the outlines of the majority of buildings in the U.S. This detail helps Google create better directions and a more positive navigation experience.
Yet, Google Maps doesn't only collect and present data. It has even begun to analyze that data and use it to present navigation in new ways.
For example, Google Maps highlights cities' "areas of interest" with darker shading.
Downtown Seattle with "areas of interest" shown in darker shading.
Google Maps is able to do this by crunching years of collected data, compiled from its various endeavors.
With satellite and aerial imagery, it captures the exact location and shape of buildings. With Street View imagery, Google can better identify what buildings are and where high density areas are clustered. Furthermore, Google also has a fleet of volunteer cartographers who help edit its maps, encouraged by its Local Guides program.
Together, all these elements help Google Maps figure out where cities' most densely trafficked areas are.
While criticized for potentially excluding low-income, multiracial areas, areas of interest are one example of the strength of Google Maps' data.
Where Will Google Maps Go From Here?
In June 2018, competitor Apple Maps announced it was rebooting its service after years of unsuccessfully competing with Google.
It will stop relying on third-party data - which critics note as one of Apple Maps' biggest flaws. Instead, Apple Maps will anonymously collect data from iPhone users, as well as from its own satellite and aerial imagery. In 2015, Apple also launched its own fleet of on the ground mapping vans, similar to Google's Street View program.
Yet, Google Maps is years ahead in the amount of data it has collected. Apple Maps may be too little, too late.
Meanwhile, Google Maps announced it is integrating incident reporting, a feature adopted from navigation app Waze, which Google acquired in 2013. This feature, which crowdsources information on traffic flow, construction work, and other navigation obstacles, adds additional strength and analysis to Google's data.
Overall, Google Maps holds the throne when it comes to GPS apps. Given that it is so far ahead of its competitors in the amount of information it has collected, it's unlikely to be unseated anytime soon.