Maps: Google vs. Bing vs. Yahoo

mappingamerica.jpg Justin O'Beirne takes a close look at the most popular online map sites to try and figure out just why Google Maps is more readable. It comes down to the finest of details: Google adds white outlines to city names that are just thick enough to conceal what is behind the text, has a finely-tuned contextual hierarchy of type sizes, and a carefully selected color scheme. As an aside, it's intriguing how each service's maps artistically reflect their corporate operators' natures. Google's is perfectly organized and functional, devoid of embellishment. Microsoft Bing's is beautiful and overdesigned, with a subtle palette of lavender and teal. Yahoo's looks like someone vomited a spaghetti dinner in Carrot Top's hair. Google Maps & Label Readability [41Latitude via DF] Update: Wow, Tumblr has a bandwidth limit? Here's a cached version of the site if it's down for you.


  1. OMG… best line EVER… “Yahoo’s looks like someone vomited a spaghetti dinner in Carrot Top’s hair.”

    1. The analysis on the 41Latitude site is fine, but the visuals are an abomination.

      Auto-flashing gifs? SRSLY? I literally can’t stand to look at them.

      And then in the ‘number of cities’ comparison — where, again, *user-controllable* superimposition would be ideal — the images are arranged vertically so that you can’t even see them all on a single screen.

      The irony is overwhelming: Justin’s 41L post is explicitly about readability and visual communication and design — and the supporting visuals are a just poorly thought-out mess.

      Even the simple, static, unlabeled, side-by-side layout at the head of the Boing Boing post is already a far better visual than anything on that entire 41Latitude page.

      The ‘vomited spaghetti dinner in Carrot Top’s hair’ is genius though. Kudos to whoever came up with that.

  2. You know, I have to say, I like being informed about road type, like Yahoo! is doing with the road colors.

    1. “You know, I have to say, I like being informed about road type, like Yahoo! is doing with the road colors.”

      I agree here. If you are just looking at the map and making your own route, its good to know what type of road it is. With Google, it only tells you in the directions what type of road it is if you ask for directions from one location to another.

      1. Google indicates road type with the line width. Major routes get big thick lines, minor routes get thinner lines.

        Maybe that’s not all the information that’s available (ie, one way or tollways), but for a majority of cases it’s certainly sufficient.

        1. Knowing if something is a toll road is one of my biggest issues, actually. For instance, I got routed onto the Indiana East-West Toll & Chicago Skyway once using Google as my map. It would have been nice to be prepared with Cash & Change to pay. I only keep a few quarters in my car for “just in case” parking meters. I’m from Ohio and we only have one Toll road far far away from where I live. Toll roads hardly make it into my mind. But now I remember every time I go to Chicago!

          1. Knowing if something is a toll road is one of my biggest issues, actually. For instance, I got routed onto the Indiana East-West Toll & Chicago Skyway once using Google as my map.

            Google should tell you about toll roads in the turn-by-turn directions.

  3. This post prompted me to visit MapQuest’s web site for the first time in ages. (Poor dears, they were the first to the party and now they don’t even get a seat at the table.) Surprisingly enough they actually seem to have a pretty usable and non-hideous deal going now- too bad the improvements came too late to help them from getting crushed by Google.

    1. I’ve found that MapQuest actually provides more accurate and descriptive directions than Google Maps. GMaps has gotten directions wrong for us a few times. Now we primarily use MapQuest for directions (sometimes we forget and use Google like automatons).

  4. This was not the best post to read as I was starting to eat lunch: JKG is absolutely correct and I almost spewed my mouthful of sandwich on the screen.

    That being said, I only have experience with Google Maps, and now that many cab companies are using that service to find their customers, I have starting having increased wait times because the Google map address for my place in the country is -wrong-.

    Google even has lovely pictures of my rural road (in Saskatchewan no less!) but still can’t seem to figure out where I live if you type in my address.


    1. That used to be true for me right after I moved, but I reported it as a problem to Google and they fixed it inside of 48 hours.

    2. I always figured that wasn’t from Google’s data but some kind of directory, I’d be surprised if they mapped the whole planet by hand.

      They surely get the data from government/postal/open directories/survey data etc?

      Maybe I’m wrong.

    3. I have starting having increased wait times because the Google map address for my place in the country is -wrong-.

      Let them know. They’re very quick to respond. I’ve informed them of several errors in bike routes here in Boston, and they’ve made the corrections within weeks.

  5. I just read through this earlier today, and… well it seems like a lot of effort went into analyzing something that seemed obvious to me. but hey, excellent breakdown and commentary nonetheless!

  6. I’ve always wondered how much blame rests with Andy Samberg for the demise of MapQuest. December 17, 2005, Lazy Sunday dropped, proclaiming the ascendancy of GMaps: “Hit up Yahoo Maps to find the dopest route/I prefer Mapquest; yeah that’s a good one too/Google Maps is the best; True that, double true.”

  7. I agree. The carrot top line made me laugh out loud, reaching an ever higher (or lower) threshold for funny in my over-browsed cyber psyche.

    1. the data comes from outside sources, such as the census bureau, but each company has cartographers that take the raw data and design it as they see fit with various mapping programs, such as Arc GIS.

  8. Wow, went to MapQuest forst the first time in ages as well. It looks like they’ve invested in a StreetView competitor – “360 view.” They only had the major roads in my local Cambridge area, but I’m surprised. They must feel they can still make money if they’re spending it on (presumably expensive) street view.

    Their satellite images are a little further back than Google’s, at least in Cambridge. There’s are a few years old, while I’ve noticed that Google updated theirs to show the umbrella we put up this summer. :)

  9. This article is great, thanks for sharing! It’s stuff like this that makes me keep coming back to BoingBoing <3

  10. It would be nice to see a similar comparison of accuracy between maps. Google may be the most readable but the most accurate it certainly isn’t… at least not here in the UK

    1. Yahoo, MapQuest, and Bing, and pretty much every GPS made all use the same data from NavTeq. Google uses data from a combination of sources, including Navteq.

      Bottom line is everyone is buying their data from the same places so there isn’t going to be all that much difference in accuracy.

      1. It’s interesting to see how differently they all use the same data though.

        Look closely at the image BB linked to, the two highways that extend south from Albany.

        Google chooses to completely ignore the link between I-87 and I-90, the Bing map doesn’t highlight the I-90 chunk. Only yahoo highlights both routes, marking the I-87 option as a tollway.

        Makes me curious what their criteria is for choosing a route as the “primary”.

      2. Yeah. For the longest time, when my PAs would be scrambling to MapQuest some directions to an unfamiliar address (new geust actor’s house or some such), I’d throw my well-thumbed Thomas Bros guide at them. Until 2005 or so, there’d be a better than even chance that MapQuest would get them eternally lost in the Hollywood Hills, whereas the Thomas guide always worked. Plus it saved on paper, since they wouldn’t need to print out pages to take with them, and if they got turned around they could re-consult the guide by dome light.

        Now they all have GPS in their smartphones, the databases are better than they used to be, and if the satellite ever craps out once the revolution comes they won’t ever be able to find their way home from 7-Eleven, but whatever.

        My car still carries a fourteen-year-old Thomas Bros guide, and I expect it always will.

      3. There is a great difference in accuracy on the UK maps – they don’t use the same source.

        Bing, AKA Multimap here provide highly detailed Ordnance Survey maps and road-maps which are used in traditional map books (I think they are A-Z or AA maps).

        Google maps do look like they’ve drawn them themselves by tracing someone elses. When they first launch they were a big mess – especially things like railway stations which were either in the wrong place or mislabelled. They’re markers for things like buildings are all in the wrong place

  11. Wow. Such a detailed analysis.

    In reading through this though, there’s another aspect of Gmaps that helps to make it easier to read than Bing – the colored highways. Used as reference as much, if not more than the location of the major cities, it really helps disambiguate the visual info that Gmaps highways don’t just blend in with the city names. Bing is all monochrome, why? Form over function?

  12. I have never actually used Bing maps so I went over and checked it out as a result of this post.

    My computer monitor at work is a bit off on colors and low contrast color schemes look pretty washed out . . . Which is fine 99% of the time or you know, when I’m doing actual work, because I work mostly with spreadsheets and lab data.

    But I pulled up Bing and the roads are, literally, invisible against the background color. There are road names that appear to stand in thin air . . . if I stand up out of my chair and look at my monitor from an angle I can kind of see the roads start to show up . . .

  13. I was a bit miffed when Google Maps took a lot of topographical feature names off of their “Terrain” view a while back. In particular the names of a lot of less prominent mountains and peaks just disappeared. You can look them up on official USGS quad maps, sure, but it was quick and fun to see what stuck up where on the Googles.

  14. I move often so I spend a lot of time looking at maps online, and I must say that Bing’s Beta mapping software (that unfortunately requires Silverlight) is really quite beautiful. I know purple’s not for everyone, but the soft colors help let the subtle details of minor back roads and the hint of terrain stand out. (Bing displays much more geographic/road detail than does Google – and it remains uncluttered.) Also, Bing uses many more font varieties than Google, (especially in coastal regions) which mimics how charts separate different levels of information.

    Anyways, it’s not for everyone (especially those who can’t won’t install Silverlight) but Bing put a *lot* of money into researching most effective aesthetic, and I guess I was exactly the type of person they were trying to please.

  15. I like the pastiche aesthetic of Bing’s map but Google is overall more tolerable. I’d comment on Yahoo’s but Rob Beschizza did a better job than I ever could…

  16. Not all of Google’s updates are immediate, although they probably will fix incorrect addresses quickly. I was planning to visit Vancouver last summer and wanted to know how long the walk was from my motel in North Vancouver to the aquarium in Stanley Park. Google Maps didn’t know that you could walk across the Lions Gate Bridge, which would be a walk of about 4km. Instead,the route it gave me took a ferry to downtown Vancouver. I sent a message in July and got a reply within a few days that they would look into it. I got another message last month saying that they had fixed it. I suppose they had to wait until they found someone to check out the footpaths.

  17. All of them might start with the same base data but there are differences in either the supplemental data or the frequency with with the base data is updated.

    About five years ago I worked at the corporate headquarters of one of the largest retailers in the US. One of my duties was to place new stores that had opened on the store locater on the website. We used MapQuest but it wasn’t uncommon for the streets the new stores were on to not exist in the street database. This wasn’t too surprising since most of our new stores were built in the sprawling frontiers of exurbia. I’d often use other mapping services (except Bing which didn’t exist yet) to help figure out where to place the marker on what in MapQuest appeared to be a field with no streets.

    Funny thing about MapQuest is that if it doesn’t recognize the street address, it places the marker by default to the population weighed midpoint of the postal code. For one of our stores in Puerto Rico, this was the middle of a runway at the airport. I sometimes wonder if I hasn’t corrected that one if there would have been a customer blindly following directions and ending up getting squashed or blown over by a jet.

    1. I stopped using MapQuest when I realized that they assumed that all freeway exits/onramps were accessible in both directions.

  18. When Google Maps started, for quite a long time (months? year or more?) you still had to navigate MapQuest maps by clicking the buttons on the side of the image. No dragging to scroll around, mouse wheel to zoom in/out, etc. That’s why MapQuest’s userbase was decimated (I mean that in the true sense of the word, though obviously I don’t know the statistics) overnight.

    As a geologist, heavy map user, map geek in general, and lover of great design – I highly appreciate well thought-out and designed maps. Currently Google by far wins in almost every category. I’ve tried many others, and while often you’ll find something in Bing or wherever that’s really cool, the rest of it which isn’t as good as Google negates the usefulness of the cool part.

    The alternatives seem relatively stagnant, too, while Google is constantly improving all aspects of their map system. Not that I don’t think there are problems, there are. But compared to anything else, they’re amazing.

  19. I work a lot with maps, and I use Google (Earth/Maps) pretty much daily, and to a lesser extent also its various competitors. But, all the time really, I find that classic paper maps made by companies who’ve been good at it decades before Google even existed still do a better job at …well, being an informative and readable map than any online map I’ve ever encountered. Digital maps have their strengths, but also a lot of weaknesses. Google Maps with its mixture of crowdsourced and second-hand bought data in particular (but not exclusively) has the bad habit of being ridiculously incomplete and many a time just flat out wrong. It’s not helpful to have markers for places that show stuff being reliable only to a degree of “somewhere in this area, just walk around a lot for an hour or so, you’ll find it eventually”…

  20. Google has almost zero hydrography. I find this frustrating as I find water very important. This deficiency is likely part of why their maps are uncluttered.

  21. I’m noticing that to my taste the Bing map is superior. It’s far less cluttered with small towns and it labels highways and even rural highways with their given name, not just their number.

    On Maryland’s Eastern Shore, the Bing Map has few rural highways listed at a certain zoom level, but it has the most major ones there and it has the name label, like Blue Star Memorial Highway and it gives the US highway number for it and the state road number. Google Map has no label whatsoever for this road and it doesn’t look any different than all the other more minor roads around it. You have to zoom in considerably before Google will give you the name of the road.

    Click Zoom once more on each map and Bing gives you ALL the names of the waterways and inlets. Google has nothing no matter what your zoom level. If someone wanted to go do some fishing at Solomon’s Cove next to Webbs Creek, they could find it on Bing, but not on Google.

  22. What a weak shallow analysis. Showing three pics side-by-side shows no conclusive evidence which one is better. How about critical analysis comparing directions(google is by far the worse). How about alt-views and other features, etc. How about Bing’s alternative open street maps view. Google street view (which is currently the best) vs Bing street side view. Over all IMHO Bing currently has the best maps because of over all with less visual distractions, better satellite images(google look like images from the early 90’s) that are way more up-to-date. More accurate direction that don’t send you on some round about crazy google route.

    Bing and Google Maps both have their strong point but overall Bing is currently the better of the two. It’s nice have two giants battle one another for the better products challenging each other to improve their respective products.

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