How the Google Maps app became the world’s most important map service

100 million kilometers of roads cover the Earth, approximately. The app Google Maps has covered a large part of it, revolutionizing the way we see the world. atechbook explains how a business model has evolved into the globally established map service.

When Google Maps went online more than 15 years ago, no one knew how powerful the mapping service would become. The introduction of the iPhone two years later, which heralded the beginning of the smartphone era, allowed the potential of digital maps to truly unfold. Wondering what’s behind the most successful map service? atechbook took a closer look at the history of Google Maps.

From pure maps to advertising platform

Smartphones, and thus almost always Google Maps, are in virtually every pocket these days. Thanks to GPS positioning, it’s almost impossible to get lost. Traffic jams are displayed in real time. Satellite photos and images from the cameras of Street View cars show the surroundings, so that the service is now not only a map, but also a travel guide.

The distances that Google has photographed for its Maps correspond to around 400 circumnavigations of the earth. In total, the images represent around 16 million kilometers of road. For the company, the effort was worth it: Google Maps, launched on February 8, 2005, linked the real world with the digital image. The result is a gigantic business directory that enriches Google’s advertising platform with a constant stream of location data – and raises major concerns among a number of data protectionists.

Meanwhile, listings on Google Maps are fiercely contested because, along with online reviews, they can drive a stream of customers to a store, hotel or restaurant – but also scare off potential clients if they get a bad grade. Some of those affected therefore also hire dishonest service providers who use manipulated entries to make the business look better – or make the competition look bad.

Also interesting: Google Maps gets new features thanks to AI

The idea for Google Maps

The Google Maps app didn’t exist as it did, but digital maps did exist before 2005 – and it was three acquisitions that gave Google the building blocks it needed to get the project off the ground. Today’s Internet investor Chris Sacca, who worked at Google at the time, recalled how co-founder Sergey Brin derailed a meeting of executives on a completely different topic in 2003 because he was showing off the Keyhole company’s satellite imagery service on his laptop. Instead of listening, everyone wanted to see how to zoom in on their homes from space, Sacca told the technology blog “Recode.”

Keyhole specialized in seamlessly stitching together various satellite images and sold the service to businesses. Founder and chief executive John Hanke had other offerings as well, but sold the company to Google Maps because the vision of free maps for all appealed to him.

At the company Where2 Technologies, brothers Lars and Jens Rasmussen came up with the idea of recreating maps on the computer screen for route instructions – and reloading necessary information from the web as needed. And the start-up Zipdash obtained traffic data to display estimated arrival times and delays on the route. All familiar features of today’s maps – Google brought them together in one service.

Also interesting: use maps from Google Maps even without the Internet

Always one step ahead with the Google Maps app

Before the app came along, Google Maps initially became the most used maps on computer screens. When Apple launched the iPhone in 2007, they were pre-installed – and on smartphones of the rival Android system developed by Google anyway. This did not escape the attention of competitors: Nokia, then still the world’s leading cell phone manufacturer, bought the map provider Navteq in 2007. And the Dutch navigation device specialist TomTom snatched up the second major map supplier TeleAtlas after a bidding war with the U.S. company Garmin.

A Google Maps Street View car with 360-degree camera on the roof.
Photo: Getty Images

Google, meanwhile, went on to also collect its own map data with camera vehicles. This also gave rise to the Street View service with photos of streets. In the industrialized nations, Google’s Street View service only hit a snag in Germany: in 2010, data protectionists forced citizens, companies and organizations to have the street images of their houses pixelated. To this day, this means that streets in Germany cannot be seen with usable, up-to-date photos in the Google Maps app. It is true that Google camera vehicles have been driving through Germany again since August 2017. However, the images are not published, but are only used to update city and street maps.

Google continues to experiment with Maps – as a source of money

For Google, however, the maps have also become another advertising platform in Germany. Since 2016, there have been so-called “Promoted Pins” – map markers of businesses that are highlighted on the map because the owners have paid for them. By the end of 2021, the Google Maps app could bring in revenues of up to $3.6 billion, estimated analyst Mark Mahaney of bank RBC. Morgan Stanley even expects just under five billion dollars already this year and a doubling by 2023. Google is also experimenting with “augmented reality” features, in which information on the screen is superimposed on real environments.

Also interesting: Google Maps warns if your cab is taking the wrong route

Meanwhile, there are alternatives

Apple, meanwhile, broke away from the Google Maps app in 2012 with its own map service. The premiere initially went wrong. The reason: iPhone manufacturer had underestimated the effort required to combine geodata and satellite images from different sources and in different quality levels into a homogeneous service. In the meantime, however, Apple Maps is definitely competing with Google Maps. The iPhone manufacturer also sent its own camera trucks to Germany to collect road data independently of providers like TomTom. In the coming years, Apple plans to spend billions on improving its maps.

Nokia, meanwhile, sold its map service to Audi, BMW and Daimler. The carmakers want to expand the service under the name Here to become a leading supplier of precise maps for robot cars.

In Germany in particular, a legion of volunteers is also opposing the supremacy of Google and the Maps app. Similar to the world’s largest encyclopedia, Wikipedia, around a million volunteer “mappers” are surveying the landscape in OpenStreetMap (OSM). The free world map can not only keep up, but provides much more precise information down to every single street tree. In rural areas, on the other hand, OSM is often not on par. Thanks to a more flexible licensing form, OSM maps can now also be integrated into commercial projects. Internet giant Facebook, for example, also uses OSM data and actively participates in improving the map material.

Where does Google Maps get its data from?

When people use the Google Maps app to find a nearby restaurant or the fastest route to work, they use their own location. They either enter this separately or – as is the case with most users – it is already displayed by the app. This means that the GPS function is activated. Google Maps takes advantage of this function and continuously aggregates the location data of all users in anonymized form.

This makes it possible for Google Maps to determine how many people are on the road, when, where and how fast. Especially in the dust calculation, this is of great advantage.

Data protectionists warn …

… and criticize the disadvantages of the navigation system. Thanks to the GPS function of the Maps app, Google knows continuously where you are and for how long. This information can be used to create a motion profile that allows ads to be tailored and played out according to users’ individual preferences.

Those who want to turn off location can easily do so in the settings:

  1. Open Settings.
  2. Click on Google Maps and then on “Location”.
  3. Now tap “Never” to deactivate the location function.


Google Maps