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Seriously the Most You Will Ever Read About Map Labels
December 2, 2010 2:33 PM   Subscribe

Google Maps and Label Readability. No really, it's an interesting read.
posted by azarbayejani (32 comments total) 43 users marked this as a favorite

 
Related: Fata Morgana, an art project in which everything is stripped from Google Maps but the labels. (via deconcrete)
posted by theodolite at 2:42 PM on December 2, 2010 [6 favorites]


Very cool to have something you know kind of intuitively (experientially?) to be true explained so plainly. And makes me wonder how much of this kind of design ethos is responsible for making other google products (e.g., gmail) successfully
posted by digitalprimate at 2:42 PM on December 2, 2010


I doubt the other map services are better, but one thing that annoys me with Google Maps is how sometimes it can be really hard to find a label for a road you're looking at. Even with lots of blank space in the current pan/zoom, you sometimes have to pan around a bit to find a road label.

Yes yes, I know, first-world, world-of-the-future problem.
posted by kmz at 2:42 PM on December 2, 2010 [4 favorites]


Interesting post and blog. Thanks.
posted by defenestration at 2:53 PM on December 2, 2010


Your post did not lie. A lot of the stuff was obvious, but I'd never noticed the ring of space around major cities. Pretty cool.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 2:55 PM on December 2, 2010 [2 favorites]


Whoa! On the Fata Morgana thing, it's really, really cool to look at the zoom level of the USA that's 2 zoom ins from being able to just see the state levels. There's so much whitespace in the western part of the country! I mean, I knew that, but... it's interesting to look at it graphically.

The main link is also pretty cool. I like the little animations. It really makes the comparisons stand out.
posted by Night_owl at 2:55 PM on December 2, 2010


There was some kind of crazy text outline flame war going on involving hacker news, /r/programming and Zed Shaw but now I can't find any reference to it. But yeah, mark me down on team white outline.
posted by Ad hominem at 3:04 PM on December 2, 2010


We broke it.
posted by Mental Wimp at 3:10 PM on December 2, 2010


Interesting indeed. I like this stuff. And it's the little things like this that increase user retention.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 3:12 PM on December 2, 2010


We broke it.

In the end, it was the hordes of GIS fanatics and cartographreaks, slavering over the latest label-outline-width analysis, that took down Tumblr for good.
posted by theodolite at 3:16 PM on December 2, 2010 [2 favorites]


At far-out zoom levels, I'm not sure if I prefer Google or Bing's design. I actually think that Bing's are a bit more legible, and have a better typeface. On the other hand, the Google map provides far more road information at those zoom levels, at the expense of fewer city labels, and a more cluttered appearance. On the other hand, Google's map is very intelligent about choosing which roads to highlight -- I-95 is the first to get included on the east coast map.

Another gripe about Google is that their "Interstate shield" seems a bit too big, obstructs other features, and can be hard to match to an underlying road in densely-populated areas.

Bing displays state borders much better. The NJ-PA border is really hard to make out on Google.

The last time Google introduced a new map update, they included a lot of bad information in it. Slowly, it's being fixed (and they DO respond to problem reports, although they do take some time to be fixed and make it out onto the site)

The city cluster thing is pretty cool though. Kudos to Google for injecting competition into this long-stagnant field, and kudos to Bing for attempting to compete! Remember how awful online mapping was before GMaps?

In short, Bing's maps are easier to read and prettier to look at, but display less useful information compared to Google. At the end of the day, I'm going to keep using Google.
posted by schmod at 3:17 PM on December 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


Some of the improvements Google has over Yahoo just make it seem like Yahoo isn't even trying.
posted by smackfu at 3:30 PM on December 2, 2010


A peek inside of a cartographer's brain. The devil is in the details.
posted by Jodio at 3:41 PM on December 2, 2010


Yeah, I hate to say it, but after looking at this comparison, I might just use Bing from now on.
posted by Jairus at 4:33 PM on December 2, 2010


Why is the visibility of map labels so important?

Google, Bing and Yahoo! are *search engines*. I'm not going to click and drag a map around, reading map labels, to find a city. I'm going to type the name of the city in a search box and have the map tell me where it is.
posted by meowzilla at 4:38 PM on December 2, 2010


Google, Bing and Yahoo! are *search engines*. I'm not going to click and drag a map around, reading map labels, to find a city. I'm going to type the name of the city in a search box and have the map tell me where it is.

You will, however, use the map labels to place the city you've searched for in a context you're familiar with.

The bit about white space around cities is really interesting, but part of me wonders how much of that simply reflects geography. I compared Brainerd, MN in Google Maps and Bing at different zoom levels. You can see Google dropping labels in and out, though I'm still not convinced that's an artefact of the geography--at the zoom level where the white space is most apparent, the outermost suburbs are missing, but a bunch of them got obliterated by the label for Minnetonka. Similarly, I don't think you could fit Brooklyn Park and Maple Grove next to each other, so Maple Grove disappears (as do the towns out beyond Maple Grove, but I think they fall below the population threshold to be marked at that zoom level). Bing simply doesn't believe any part of Minnesota outside the Twin Cities Metro is populated. (Seriously, north of the Twin Cities, St Cloud, Duluth and Superior are marked.)
posted by hoyland at 5:24 PM on December 2, 2010


I knew there was a reason I've been using halos (white spaces) around my labels on my maps for the past few years. I guess I internalized Google Maps style more than I realized.

Also, labeling is the most heinously tedious task one can undertake in cartography. The fact that any online mapping service can get it close to correct amazes me. I still laugh at the inevitable errors that crop up, and have fun trying to figure why they occur, but I remain mostly impressed. Except by Bing, that shows Nizhniy Novgorod being in the Atlantic east of Labrador. What's up with that?
posted by mollweide at 5:50 PM on December 2, 2010


Oops, that link doesn't work. (How do you link to a specific view in Bing anyway?) Go to the ocean east of Labrador and south of Greenland and zoom into the zoom level that's the 5th notch above the bottom most and you should see a label for a Russian city. Or try this screen capture.
posted by mollweide at 5:59 PM on December 2, 2010


Heh, it's funny how usability works.

Just about everything he singles out for praise is something I hate about google maps.

Disappearing roads and town names depending on what level you are zoomed to.
Labels that get in the way of detail you want to see.
Ugh.

I will admit, the colors seem much more legible and pleasing on google rather than bing.

I've been using the new mapquest maps lately, they are much clearer and legible to me. Not being able to turn off the terrain is kind of an annoyance though.
posted by madajb at 6:26 PM on December 2, 2010


(How do you link to a specific view in Bing anyway?)

Click on the envelope icon in the bottom left corner.
Not the most intuitive if you don't have the left-hand bar expanded.
posted by madajb at 6:30 PM on December 2, 2010


This is great. I'm currently researching and applying to Master's programs in human factors and usability, so this is right up my alley.
posted by Defenestrator at 6:30 PM on December 2, 2010


Thanks, madajb. I tend to hate wasted screen real estate, so the first thing I did was to minimize the left-hand bar. And, gosh darnit, I wasn't going to email it anyway.
posted by mollweide at 7:00 PM on December 2, 2010


Google, Bing and Yahoo! are *search engines*. I'm not going to click and drag a map around, reading map labels, to find a city. I'm going to type the name of the city in a search box and have the map tell me where it is.--meowzilla

Don't get hung up on the 'search engine' label. Google and Bing are a lot of things. For many of us, the point of looking up the city is to try to figure out how to get there. In that case the details around the city are the most important features of the map. I assume this is why the 'interstate shields' are so big.
posted by eye of newt at 8:16 PM on December 2, 2010


And besides, some of us look at maps online as if they were actually, you know, maps. Something that tells what's near what. They're not just a means to an end of displaying Starbucks locations. They can inform us about the world, about spatial relationships, with appropriate caveats.
posted by mollweide at 8:24 PM on December 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


Did he really do this by hand?
posted by mostly-sp3 at 9:49 PM on December 2, 2010


Just about everything he singles out for praise is something I hate about google maps.
Disappearing roads and town names depending on what level you are zoomed to.
Labels that get in the way of detail you want to see.


The point of this, of course, is that GoogleMaps is designed for dynamic mapping: if what it shows isn't exactly what you want to see, you can zoom to a different level or shift the focus. The assumption is that at a given level of detail, it privileges what most people want to see more quickly and then you can "drill down" if necessary. It's different from print mapping in which the user is more likely to need to continuously follow a single line across the page and anything omitted requires finding another scale map elsewhere.

I like the color scheme on the new Mapquest, but it seems like it goes out of its way to put major city labels right over highways, making them harder to read. Yahoo Maps is bizarrely less focused on actual legibility (some labels overlap weirdly) but I do like that it color-differentiates neighborhoods.

No really, it's an interesting read.

Please don't talk down to cartophiles.
posted by kittyprecious at 5:36 AM on December 3, 2010


If you like this, you might also like Making Maps: DIY Cartography and Michal Migurski's blog.
posted by oulipian at 5:42 AM on December 3, 2010


Did he really do this by hand?

Probably not as hard as you might think. There's very little black on the page except the text. I'm no Photoshop wizard, but I'm sure you can extract a color to a layer, and I'd also bet it's pretty easy to do a halo effect or outline.
posted by jedicus at 6:59 AM on December 3, 2010


It strikes me that same principles apply to subtitling. Good fansubbed anime uses custom fonts, and the easy solution is use a font with a high contrast outline. It does cost screen space though, in a medium not designed with subtitles in mind.
posted by pwnguin at 8:52 AM on December 3, 2010


Bing is trying too hard to look like a page out of an atlas. Yahoo needs to tone down the heavy colors used for the roads - it obscures the place labels. Google... well, so far they are doing it pretty well in my book. Bing might keep them on their toes, but to be perfectly honest whenever I see a site linking to a map for directions, Google is pretty much what I expect to see. If instead the link goes to Mapquest I usually think "get with the times, you out-of-touch morons" and if it goes to Bing I generally think "I wonder how much Microsoft paid them for the link".

Yahoo makes me think "Wait, Yahoo has maps?"
posted by caution live frogs at 9:00 AM on December 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


Unfortunately, if you turn on the Wikipedia links overlay, it does not scale the links back accordingly. Zoom out too far, and it's impossible to see anything because every wikipedia link is visible at every level of zoom.

You can, however, see the location of sunken U-Boats off the coast of Newfoundland. Cool!
posted by Eideteker at 10:17 AM on December 3, 2010


The point of this, of course, is that GoogleMaps is designed for dynamic mapping: if what it shows isn't exactly what you want to see, you can zoom to a different level or shift the focus.

Oh sure, I know the reasons they do it, it just doesn't mesh with the way I use maps.
It might be more useful if the transitions were more uniform, as it is, information seems to jump on and off the map without rhyme or reason.
posted by madajb at 10:24 PM on December 4, 2010


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