Internet Technology Explained

How Does Google Maps Work?

Rob Nightingale 08-01-2017

Google Maps has been a staple of the internet for over a decade now, but few actually know how it works. For the rest of us, Google Maps is pretty much one step away from magic.


For example, how does Google create such accurate maps for so many different regions? How can it collect so much data 7 Amazing Google Dataset Search Results You Can Use Now Google's new dataset search engine helps researchers pour through large datasets from public sources. Read More about so much of the world? Who works to keep the maps maintained and updated? And what about real-time traffic conditions, temporary speed limits, and operating hours for nearby businesses?

Somehow all of these complex features work damn well, which is why so many of us have come to rely on Google Maps for everyday navigation 13 Google Maps Tips for Smarter Navigation on Your iPhone Google Maps is a "communication tool" now. Let's look into the benefits – some new, and some old – which can help us make sense of the world around us. Read More . So isn’t it about time we learned how it all works? Keep reading to see the magic behind the curtain.

Why Did Google Launch Maps?

Google’s public mission is to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”. Many, but not all, of the company’s present-day projects focus on this mission — a mission reliant on gathering, organizing, and interpreting millions of gigabytes of data.

But the information Google is trying to organize isn’t only online. Much of it’s offline. Speaking with The Atlantic, Manik Gupta, senior product manager of Google Maps, explained: “Increasingly as we go about our lives, we are trying to bridge that gap between what we see in the real world and [the online world], and Maps really plays that part.”

google maps example


At a very basic level, Google Maps has taken a huge amount of offline information and published it online. We’re talking things like highway networks, road signs, street names, and business names. But as I hint below, Google hopes that Maps will be able to do a lot more in the future.

Collecting Data for Google Maps

When it comes to collecting data to help maintain and improve Google Maps, it seems there can never be enough — and the impressive bit is that none of that information is over three years old. This is a project of immense scale.

Map Partners

To help with this endeavor, Google partners with “the most comprehensive and authoritative data sources” via its Base Map Partner Program. A huge number of agencies submit detailed vector data to Google, and these agencies include the USDA Forest Service, the US National Park Service, the US Geological Survey, various city and county councils, and so on.

This data is used to demarcate changing boundaries and waterways, display new bike paths, among other things, and this helps to keep the “base map” as up-to-date as possible.


Street View

Google Street View is a never-ending road trip. With a massive squad of vehicles dispersed around the planet, their aim is to repeatedly drive around every accessible road they can find — all the while taking 360-degree photos everywhere they go.

google street view example

Based on the GPS coordinates of those vehicles, Google overlays its Street View images on top of its base map.

Street View offers much more than just a stitched panorama of streets and destinations. Using ever-improving optical character recognition (OCR) capabilities, Google can “read” things like road signs, traffic signs, and business names.


These additional reads are processed and turned into navigational and directional data that Maps can incorporate into its database. If a road’s name has changed since the last time it was photographed, a more recent Street View photo will detect this. This is also (partly) how Google has built its huge database of local business details.


Another layer of Google Maps is its satellite view. This is a close collaboration with Google Earth, stitching together high-resolution photographs of the planet taken by satellites above.

These images are cross-checked with other layers of data, such as Street View as well as data submitted by external agencies. This helps Maps to pick up geological changes, new and altered buildings, etc.

Location Services

There isn’t much information available about how exactly Google uses mobile location services to keep Maps up-to-date, but it clearly plays a large role.


google maps directions

Yes, that’s right: if Google has access to the location data collected by your smartphone, then you’re part of Google’s crowdsourced operation to improve and expand Maps.

Your location data can be used for things like real-time traffic updates, estimating current traffic speeds, and pinpointing road diversions. If a busy route suddenly has no traffic, Maps can assume there’s a diversion and will adjust directions accordingly.

Google also uses this data to estimate the hours when individual businesses will be busy. It does this by keeping tabs on the foot traffic in individual buildings. A bit creepy perhaps, but it’s yet another attempt to bring that offline information online.

Google Maps Users

Google Map Maker is another way in which Google is crowdsourcing its Maps operation, and this is a program that’s been around since 2008 (among Google’s many others).

Working in much the same way as OpenStreetMap, Google Map Maker allows anyone to contribute their local knowledge to Google Maps. The good news is that most of this functionality is being incorporated into Maps itself, and Map Maker will be shut down for good in 2017 once the transition is complete.

google map maker

In short, users can edit Google’s maps with their own personal contributions. You’re able to add and edit places, new roads, building outlines, and hiking trails. And if you think you can get away with vandalism, think again: user edits can be reviewed by other users.

This means that there’s a huge army of public editors who keep Google Maps up to date 24/7. This is especially useful for mapping hard-to-reach places and for gathering knowledge that would otherwise be out of Google’s reach or awareness.

Local Guides

As well as its army of editors, Google also has millions of so-called Local Guides. Local Guides is a feature that will remind you of Foursquare and is Google’s attempt at collecting a layer of more subjective data to lay over its base map.

When you’re in Google Maps, go to My Contributions and you can search for different places in your area. By leaving a review, answering a few questions, and submitting a photo, you can contribute to this additional layer of data.

This local knowledge helps Maps to know things like the vibe of a cafe, whether a hotel has parking, or whether a restaurant has vegan options. In return for contributions, users can earn rewards like increased storage on Google Drive.

Making Sense of the Data

As you can see, the amount of data being collected by Google is astonishing — and we haven’t even touched on some of the other service integrations, such as with Google’s business listings.

These layers of data, when processed, are what give us access to all the information found on Google Maps. But what actually goes into making sense of all that data?

This largely boils down to the kinds of algorithms that make up the bedrock of Google as a company The Story Of Google: Algorithm and Functionality Updates Google released its very first algorithm update sixteen months after it went live, which was mostly undocumented. Read More . These algorithms, which happen to be extremely complex and secretive, work to clean the data, spot inconsistencies, and link it all together to make it more useful.

For example, when Street View scans images for road signs and business names, algorithms may try to make sense of road networks by interpreting those road signs. At the same time, location data may be taken into account when calculating fastest routes from A to B.

Although algorithms are always improving, they can only do so much, so all of this data is also combined with a ton of human involvement. If there’s something Google’s algorithms can’t make sense of, a team member will manually look it over and set things straight.

Often, intersection logic is inputted manually and new roads are “massaged” into place. This is because sometimes the best way to understand what’s seen on the road is to delegate the task to a human.

This is without doubt a huge task. That’s why Google has teams around the world dedicated to keeping things up to date in every country in which it operates.

When There’s a Mistake on Google Maps

Every day, masses of changes are made to Google Maps. Some of these may be the addition of new places and new roads while other changes may involve fixing mistakes.

Many of these are fixed by chance by members of the public: editing place descriptions, adding roads, and so on. Yet on top of this, Google has a large team of people working through the thousands of reports that are filed to Google each day.

editing google maps

A good chunk of these reports are reviewed and acted on manually. This is done using Atlas, Google’s own map-editing program. New routes are drawn by hand, roads are connected, new buildings mapped out, etc.

This is a project that will never end. With thousands of new roads being built each day and cities changing traffic rules when necessary, Google Maps will always be fighting a battle to stay accurate.

Google Maps: A Huge Undertaking

While Google Maps is often seen as “just another map,” there are a huge number of layers that we take for granted. These all work together to offer the service that so many have come to rely on — a service that far exceeds the depth or quality of its competitors.

From the driving of millions of miles, through the complex algorithms, to the huge amount of human input that’s required, Google Maps is something to be admired.

Google Maps Street View Camera
Image Credit: Gabriel Andres via Flickr

Yet Google won’t stop here. Google Maps is already going to play an important role in the company’s foray into self-driving cars How Close Are We to Self-Driving Cars Being Available? Read More . And as more subjective information, photos, and videos are linked to Maps, the app could go from being a map of the world to being a guide to the world.

Did you know this much work went into maintaining Google Maps? And what other information do you wish you could make use of in Google Maps? If you don’t use Google Maps, why not?

Image Credit: enigmanic via Shutterstock

Originally written by Dean Sherwin on February 22, 2010

Related topics: Google Maps, Maps.

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  1. olawale
    March 12, 2018 at 12:13 pm

    This is the best piece of information on the internet. Proud of the guys at Google

  2. Daniel Triana
    November 27, 2017 at 1:10 pm

    The eighth grade science answer to this question is that Google maps is a gis connected to a gps. That may be an over simplification, but the GPS is essential for personal navigation.

  3. Fanjan
    August 28, 2017 at 9:54 am

    So.....since Google crowd sources data for "making it universally available" where can I access said data sets regarding maps?

  4. Frank66
    January 8, 2017 at 12:24 pm

    I, for one, quite liked this article.
    It was interesting to read about how Google makes use of many types of information (not only map data), to make Maps as accurate as possible.
    Well done!

  5. Frank66
    January 8, 2017 at 12:20 pm

    I, for one, quite liked this article.
    It's intriguing how google combines all types of data (not only map data) to make an accurate map!
    Also, I understand that Google may not publish all the technical information about how Maps works, and so no-one but Google employees will know the details.
    Well done!

    • Rob Nightingale
      January 10, 2017 at 12:39 pm

      Thanks so much, Frank!

  6. Saadeldin Gali
    January 8, 2017 at 6:15 am

    Incredible! !!!!

    • Rob Nightingale
      January 10, 2017 at 12:39 pm

      It is!

  7. Andy
    August 18, 2016 at 9:54 am

    What the bloody F**K is this ?
    Waste of time and energy..

    • Rob Nightingale
      January 10, 2017 at 12:40 pm

      I hope you like the complete re-write of this article!

  8. Linda Jonse
    February 25, 2016 at 2:06 pm

    What a Bull Shit!

    • PoggyBee
      March 18, 2016 at 7:47 am

      At east Bullshit is use full in some ways, this is just a trash, may be ... what to tell, humans don't have a word to describe it yet!

      :( :-( :<(

  9. Kaustubh Agarwal
    January 17, 2016 at 2:20 pm

    The title is highly misleading!

  10. Lisa Rose
    November 28, 2015 at 2:35 pm

    If you were my husband, I would have killed you after reading this nonsense

    • Anant
      July 25, 2016 at 4:47 am

      I totally agree with you dear. :)

    • Rob Nightingale
      January 10, 2017 at 12:40 pm

      I hope you approve of the completely re-written article :)

  11. San Boo
    November 28, 2015 at 2:34 pm

    I agree with Panni

    • Mosa
      November 28, 2015 at 2:43 pm

      Yep, I agree with you too San

  12. Panni
    November 28, 2015 at 2:33 pm

    Hey stupid, don't even dare to dream of writing another article...! Oops...! :( :( :(

    • pannikutty
      March 18, 2016 at 7:41 am

      hey panni.... i agree with you

  13. deepa
    February 25, 2015 at 7:05 am

    i am not understand anything

  14. Worthless
    January 8, 2015 at 11:25 pm

    Worthless article to those interested in the backend of how Google Map works. Title is misleading for sure. Try to understand what your title defines before writing your article.

  15. sank
    February 23, 2010 at 8:44 pm

    This is 'how to use google maps' and doesnt look like the base technology is explained. I always wonder how it performs the 'Get directions'. Hope a new article comes up

  16. Joe
    February 23, 2010 at 11:24 am

    I too would like a little more information on the specific technology e.g. how does Tele Atlas compile its information like satellite imaging and such. This article basically tells me that Google maps mysteriously gets its map data from an equally mysterious company.

    "The maps are highly accurate and have been hailed for recording extremely rural areas and mapping the terrain correctly." What makes them so accurate and how do they record extremely rural areas? It seems impossible; I want to know more!

  17. yugan
    February 23, 2010 at 7:23 pm

    I agree with Hitesh. the title is totally misleading. you haven't explained how Google Maps works. Please change the title. You might get a high page rank..but ppl will be pissed

  18. Hitesh
    February 23, 2010 at 1:48 am

    You said technology explained but this looks like feature explained.

    I love you technology section but this post does't much help to understood technology

  19. Victor
    February 22, 2010 at 4:08 pm

    Tele Atlas is not the only map data provider for Google. Google uses over a dozen diff map data sources. In the US, Google is no longer using Tele Atlas.

    • Dean Sherwin
      February 23, 2010 at 1:56 am

      Hi Victor,

      I did some research into your comment but can't find anything to confirm it. Google say themselves that they use Tele Atlas as their primary mapping source.

      Have you got any link etc...?

      - Dean.