Google Maps is an everyday lifeline for billions of people around the world. In fact the vast majority of people who use any kind of web mapping service are using Google Maps.

With over a billion individual, active users each month, five billion downloads for the Android mobile app and counting, and an enormous 20 petabytes of geocoded data (that’s 20 million gigabytes), Google Maps has quickly become the biggest map project in history.

We are using its features more and more all the time – multi-modal transit journey planning, finding our nearest cafe or ATM and virtually exploring far-flung corners of the world. But for a lot of us, the scale of Google Maps features is still unknown.

This is the Google Maps University guide; in it, you’ll learn that there is a lot more to Google Maps than you ever realised. Not only a route finder, street viewer, or location sharer – Google Maps is lots of things all at once. Keep reading to discover them.


Google Maps has grown and evolved a lot over the years since it launched in 2005. It’s big success is that it has continued to pack more applications with more features, more data and more data sources into its products with better and better algorithms – bringing people back to use them day after day and year after year. This is a brief history of that evolution.


Sep - Oct

Google acquired web mapping pioneers Keyhole, Where 2 Technologies and ZipDash in just a couple of months, quickly positioning itself to take on its position at the forefront of a new generation of web maps.



Google announced the launch of Google Maps with a pretty understated blog post on 8 February. “We think maps can be useful and fun, so we've designed Google Maps to simplify how to get from point A to point B.”


Very quickly, it became clear that Google Maps was a lot more than just a searchable map – or, it became clear that searchable maps had a whole stack of uses for daily life.


Google Maps mobile launched and revolutionized everyday life for millions of smartphone users. In the same month, the web app got Directions and a layer for satellite imagery.



Google Maps showed that it can go far beyond the everyday mapping functions – like navigation – in the web and mobile apps with the launch of Google Earth. In the same month, Google Maps offered third-party developers the chance to make more bespoke applications with Google Maps data by launching the Google Maps API (now known as Google Maps Platform).


Before the year was out, Google Transit connecting public transport routes and timetables was first launched in Portland, Oregon (this would evolve into the worldwide [GTFS]google-maps-explained/glossary format for sharing transit information).



Average traffic congestion was included for over thirty US cities, Street View debuted for New York City, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Miami and Denver.


A new version of the mobile app – the first to feature the ability to locate your device using GPS and nearby wireless networks – was released.



Turn-by-turn navigation took Google Maps mobile apps to another level of functionality – eventually rising to challenge single-purpose SatNav devices for drivers (like the once-ubiquitous TomTom).



Bicycle directions and trails were added to the web and mobile apps.



Offline maps first became available on the Android mobile app.



Google acquired Waze, a rival mobile and web map which showed more crowdsourced live traffic information. Google Maps quickly introduced the features to its apps.



New satellite imagery was added to Google Maps – over 700 trillion pixels of images.



After bringing web mapping to every corner of the world, Google Maps went to outer space with direct imagery from the moon, Mars and other planets.

What has Google Maps become?

Today, Google Maps is a lot of different things in one package. We’ll touch on these here, but be sure to read a full explanation in Chapter 2: What is Google Maps?

On the surface, Google Maps is a large, interconnected ecosystem of applications (or apps). But this is only the tip of the iceberg. Google Maps is also all of the data (pieces of information) that these applications process for you – the high quality, digital map of the world and all the information in it. And tying the two together, making sense of the data and making it useful with applications, are powerful algorithms (mathematical keys for processing data with computers).

Some Google Maps applications

This list just scratches the surface of Google Maps applications:

  • Two mobile apps (Android and iOS)
  • A browser-based web app
  • Directions and layers of extra information (essentially, more maps that you can switch between)
  • Directory information
  • Geocoded imagery
  • The engine for a custom map maker in Google My Maps (and others)
  • An incredibly popular API that puts Google Maps to work in reams of third-party applications on the web and mobile
  • And a powerful educational tool (especially with Google Earth)

Google Maps is a massive data consumer

To keep feeding reliable, accurate and up-to-date information about the real world around us to its applications, Google Maps has to constantly rake in huge amounts of data from diverse sources.

  • The map itself – the whereabouts and dimensions of roads and buildings and rivers and borders – comes from:
  • Satellite and aerial photography
  • Government records
  • Private mapping services and geological surveys
  • And human Google employees correcting mistakes

The extra information on top of this map data – business hours, photos and Street View, reviews, traffic congestion and transit information – also comes from various sources:

  • Street View cameras
  • GPS signals in users’ smartphones
  • Business directory services
  • Business owners themselves
  • Volunteers with the Local Guides program

All of this – again – only scratches the surface of where Google Maps gets its data from. Getting and storing huge amounts of data – and updating it – is one of the main activities that keeps Google Maps running.

How does Google Maps work with algorithms?

All of this data has to be efficiently, accurately and reliably processed by computers and smart devices to be of any use in Google Maps applications.

That’s where powerful algorithms come in. Geographic data in Google Maps is like a big graph with labels on coordinates, the algorithms that make it work in applications are like robots that read all of the labels with instructions to find a path from place to place, or find a restaurant with wheelchair access.

Getting the most out of Google Maps

This guide will show you how all of these applications, data and algorithms work – so you can really get the most out of Google Maps.

In Chapter 2: What is Google Maps? we will explore the Google Maps applications in more detail, take a closer look at all of the data behind them, and touch on some of the algorithms that make the data usable.

In Chapter 3: Using Google Maps you’ll learn the ins and outs of using Google Maps applications. You’ll also find some great hacks that you’ll want to start using straight away.

Chapter 4: The future of online maps explores some of the most exciting predictions for where online maps will go in coming years – everything from artificial intelligence to blockchain will impact online maps as we know them in the not-too-distant future!

Finally, flick through the Glossary for easy-to-understand definitions of all the technical jargon that comes part and parcel with digital mapping, as well as extra information about key ideas in this guide.

Written by Ben Pilkington. Published January 27, 2021.