Why does Google Maps give varying satellite images?

More specifically: I was bored, and googled my house from work using Chrome. It showed a very recent overhead view. I could tell by the arrangement of the pots on the patio. When I tried to show the view to my wife at home, the shot was at least 2 years old. When I looked at it on my phone, it was at least 3 years old. We tried Chrome, Firefox and Explorer. All gave the same results. Work = recent. Home = not so recent. Phone = ancient.

What gives?

Since we don’t have a direct example of what you’ve seen it is difficult to say why you see images from different times but the images that are used will often vary with the degree of mangification and (on mobile applications) the amount of bandwidth. The process of stitching images into a coherent and accurate picture is actually quite complex because it often requires identifying landmarks and correcting for scaling and angle artifacts in the images, all of which is done autonomously.

Also, I assume that you aren’t using Google Earth since you mention the browsers that you used, but Google Earth will cache data for faster rendering, and depending on how you have cache setting set may not update immediately when images change. You can also use Google Earth to go back in time in satellite images.


The thing that bugs is why do different computers show differently dated images? Why does my work computer have more recent shots than my home computer if I’m accessing the same website?

It may be getting the data from different servers, at different bandwidths, selecting for optimal performance based on that. Massive websites like Google Maps aren’t a single server or even single server farm. Your sessions and data may be provided from completely different locations.

Zoom levels?

Some zooms seem to be literally zooming on on the image, or enlarging rather. Other zoom levels are clearly a different image capture of the ground, and so forth. Also, I’m guessing there is an algorithm at play to determine which set of images to send you based on where you centered/put the marker. Quite possibly the client side stack of this is making a best guess and even though you think you are centered over a spot on the map, in reality the data sent to the server might be off a bit here or there.

OK, got it. That definitely explains why my phone retrieves such an old image. Work has a much higher bandwidth as well.

Obligatory note that what most people call “satellite images” in Google Maps/Google Earth are actually taken from airplanes. You have to zoom WAY out to get actual satellite images.

On a desktop Google Maps will default to the most recent data that can produce a 3D rendering which may be further back than the flat images that will default on a mobile device.

On the desktop, it shows my house under construction. On the phone, I can see my car in the driveway.

Correct, and I find this quite annoying sometimes. Their push to go all 3D is something of a regression not only in quality but also time accuracy. Yes you can tilt and pan the 3D view, but more often than not it renders power lines as striped planes and bulky trees can be a pain to navigate around, among other issues. Anyway, as USCDiver said, older or “unsupported” web browsers/graphics cards or low-power/data constrained devices may be defaulting Maps to “lite mode” that doesn’t have the 3D capability, but uses newer 2D aerial photos.