Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Secrets of Google Maps

I'm a heavy user of Google Maps. Early on I relied upon Mapquest, but as soon as Google Maps came along I ran off like a hot potato. They seemed so simple and clear compared to the Mapquest versions.

I haven't used the maps on Bing or Yahoo, but a recent comparison of these two with Google Maps reinforced my choice of Google Maps. Blogger Justin O'Beirne of 41Latitude particularly focuses on the hierarchy of the city name sizes and the use of white outlines around the names, which makes them easier to read when laid over the complex maps.

One of the most fascinating parts of O'Beirne's post reveals that Google maintains a clear space around all major cities, leaving out the names of many large suburbs in order to focus the user's eye on the recognizable city names.

Google map without map info, showing city names with a large open space around St. Louis
On many levels of zoom, for instance, Iowa shows more city names than Illinois, despite the fact that Illinois has more cities with large populations. This donut-hole effect allows the very largest Illinois cities to pop, rather than be lost in a swarm of smaller ones.

Another notable part of the post is O'Beirne's revision of the Bing map to add a fourth level of hierarchy to the city name sizes. It's amazing how much better the map looks with that one change.

I love analyses like this. It's a fine example of the cognitive surplus in action.

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