How To Optimize Delivery Routes With Google Maps

February 1, 2023
Screenshot of a Google Maps page highlighting the city of Chicago.

We spend our days (and occasional nights) telling people what route optimization is, and why it’s so important for delivery businesses. One of the most common follow-up questions is: “Yeah, but doesn’t Google Maps do that?”

The answer: Well, kind of. But not really. In this article, we’ll walk you through the difference between a route and an optimized route, how Google Maps route planning works, and when you’ll need proper route optimization software.

How does Google Maps plan a route?

If you want to find the fastest route from point A to point B, Google’s technology is going to absolutely nail finding the best roads and giving you turn-by-turn directions. It’s free, fast, user-friendly for all technical skill levels, and all in all one of the best route planning tools available for simple routing scenarios

This is what happens when you ask Google Maps “what is the best way to get from A to B?”:

  1. Google looks at each of the addresses you give it, and quickly identifies their latitude and longitude coordinates (this is called geocoding). Then it puts two markers on the map.
  2. Google identifies all the possible road segments between your two points.
  3. Then  it scores those road segments based on factors like the shortest distance, the length of connecting road segments, and the traffic conditions at the time of the day.
  4. It returns you the highest scoring route, and some runner-up alternatives.

There’s more complexity to its algorithm that we’ll reserve for the advanced class, but basically you can trust Google Maps to do two things:

  1. Give you a very good path from your current location to your destination.
  2. Provide an extraordinarily accurate Estimated Time of Arrival (ETA). When Google released the Android operating system for mobile devices, it began capturing real time traffic and location data from its users. That has made its travel time calculations accurate beyond anything we’ve known before. 

So to recap, if you’re looking for the shortest path between two stops, then Google Maps is a fantastic navigation app. 

Google Maps route planning for multiple stops

What if you need to plan a multi-stop route? We’re no longer talking about the path from A to B, but rather A to B to C to D and so on, until we’ve covered every stop. This is the kind of scenario delivery drivers face every day – and the higher the number of stops in the route plan, the less useful Google Maps becomes.

We’ve written a detailed tutorial on how to use Google Maps to plan a route with multiple stops, but basically the rules are:

  • Routes must be 10 stops or less.
  • You can only plan for one driver at a time.
  • You can’t factor in constraints like delivery time windows.
  • You can manually re-order stops to get a more efficient route.

What’s the difference between a route plan and an optimized route?

A route plan is just a list of destinations you’re going to visit, from A to B. It may include driving directions and estimated travel times. An optimized route arranges the destinations and the routes between them in the most efficient order, so your travel distance and time are minimized.

Can Google Maps optimize a route with multiple stops?

Here’s the deal: Google Maps is not a route optimization tool. You can use it to plan a multi-stop route, and to find the shortest route between any two stops, but it was never designed to find the optimal order of all the stops to give you the most efficient route. 

At best, you can try to DIY basic route optimization in Google Maps route planner. Once you’ve plotted your addresses, you can rearrange them until you find the most efficient order for visiting each stop. That will give you the best results possible for which roads to take — but Google can’t provide the stop order for you.

The optimization of stop order is one of the key differences between delivery route optimization software and web mapping services like Google Maps.

How to optimize a route using Google Maps

Ok, so we’ve explained that Google Maps is not a delivery route planner, or a route optimizer — but what if you want to use the DIY option anyway? Many small delivery businesses manage with Google Maps alone, so here’s how to get it done. (This is the quick version of our tutorial – if you want more detail, check out our separate post on how to plan a delivery route with Google Maps.)

Just keep in mind that you can’t plan multiple routes at the same time. You’ll need to plan your routes in batches.

1. Assign driver territories

If you have more than one driver, cluster your stops into driver territories. This can be done by assigning postal codes to your drivers, or by dividing the city up into neighborhoods or zones like north, south, east, and west.

2. List stops in order

Now, within each territory, do your best to list each stop in the order you want it completed. You can do this in Google Maps directly or by using a spreadsheet—we have a free delivery route spreadsheet template you can use.

3. Build routes in batches of 10

Now use Google Maps to find the shortest path between each stop. You’ll need to do this in batches of 10.

4. Dispatch routes to drivers

Google Maps gives you the option to send a route via email or SMS. Drivers can then easily open the routes on their android phone or iphone. 

Hitting the limits of Google Maps as a route optimizer

The DIY route planning solution with the Google Maps app works up until around 10-20 stops, but after that it becomes increasingly difficult. Even at just 20 stops, there are literally billions of different ways to connect them. Even if 99.99% of those ways are obviously dumb, that still leaves the planner with thousands of reasonable options. It’s just too much for a human to manage — especially when there’s a deadline to get deliveries on the road! That’s where route optimization algorithms come in. 

Even with just 1 delivery van and 50 destinations, there are already quattuorvigintillion (that’s 1 with 76 zeroes) possible route solutions!
A quattuorvigintillion is a lot more than the total number of stars in the universe.

Route optimization is the use of algorithms to identify the shortest possible distance or drive time for a given set of stops, with the end result being an optimal, efficient stop order. Without the use of an algorithm, a route probably can’t be considered optimal, simply because there’s too much math involved for a human to do. 

Route optimization is also a solution to two of the most difficult problems in computer science: the Traveling Salesman Problem (TSP) and the Vehicle Routing Problem (VRP), which specifically applies to delivery route planning that needs to take into account complexities like time windows. These are not problems that Google Maps is aiming to tackle.

If you have more than a handful of stops, you need a tool that can find the optimal order of stops to ensure your routes are efficient.

Why do delivery routes need to be efficient? 

The costs associated with delivery route planning have a huge impact on profitability – so efficient delivery management is critical. 

The most important number to track is cost per delivery. The more deliveries you can make in a day, and the less you have to travel between stops, the more value you will generate from deliveries, taking into account driver wages and fuel costs. So how do you get more deliveries per route, and shorter routes? That’s a job for route optimization!

When to use a route optimizer

Once you’ve hit the limits of Google Maps, planning efficient routes manually becomes very time-consuming and prone to human errors. A delivery business commonly spends a couple of hours in Google Maps just for one route plan. That can get very costly in a small business! So saving time is one reason to use decent route planning software that includes route optimization. 

A proper multi-stop route planner will also help you solve these four problems that many delivery managers face:

1. You have routing constraints

  • Time windows: Your customer wants their delivery to arrive within a certain timeframe (e.g. between 2pm and 4pm).
  • Driver shift times and breaks: Your driver’s shift time needs to be incorporated into the route and/or tracked. Or your driver takes a break that needs to be accounted for.
  • Vehicle loads: You need to pay attention to how much a delivery vehicle can carry.
  • Stop distribution and route assignment: You need a solution that evenly distributes stops across your fleet of drivers, looks for the minimum number of drivers required, or assigns routes to the best or nearest driver.
  • Driver & vehicle prerequisites: You need to assign a driver with a specific skill-set or customer relationship to a stop. Or you need a certain vehicle (e.g. refrigerated) to handle a specific stop.

2. You need to plan the optimal stop order

You can plot a route in Google Maps with multiple stops, but the order of the stops is left up to the user.
Re-ordering stops in Google Maps is a slow, manual process.

In Google Maps, the order of the stops in a route is up to the user. You’ll need to look at the map, and drag and drop the addresses into the best order you can come up with. The order of stops (also called a sequence) is usually the most important factor in cutting your overall driving distance and working time per driver – and hence fuel and wage costs.

3. You need to create routes for multiple vehicles

If you’re dividing your routes between two or more vehicles, you probably want to decide which driver should get which orders. This means you’ll need to consider factors like how the driver’s shift times intersect with the customer’s time windows, and whether they have enough room in their vehicle for the order. 

This is the Vehicle Routing Problem we mentioned earlier: What is the optimal set of routes for a fleet of vehicles to traverse in order to deliver to a given set of customers? It’s pretty much impossible for humans to find optimal routes on their own, even when the stops are clearly plotted on Google Maps. 

4. You need to manage the rest of the delivery operation

There is more to managing a delivery business than planning optimal routes. Route planners often begin looking for alternatives to Google Maps when they encounter problems related to fleet management, delivery experience, and internal operations. Delivery businesses of all sizes tend to look for software solutions that offer functionality like:

  • Live route progress: To manage deliveries efficiently you need to be able to track driver locations, see if they’re sticking to their routes, ensure they’re on target for the ETAs communicated to your customers, and know when a problem is happening.
  • Customer status updates: There’s been a massive shift in consumer expectations since Uber, Amazon, and others brought new technologies to the delivery space. Modern route optimization platforms can automatically communicate ETAs to customers by email, via SMS text messages or even via live tracking links.
  • Proof of delivery: Capturing a signature or photograph as proof of delivery gives a delivery business legal protection and helps customers identify who collected the package, and at what time.
  • Driver mobile apps: Android and iOS apps that can easily be downloaded from an app store make it easy to dispatch routes to drivers, and for them to manage their routes on their phones.

Benefits of route optimization software

Our interviews with Routific users have shown that a delivery business can reduce its driving time by up to 40%, and route planning time by up to 95%, by using delivery route optimization software. 

Plan routes in minutes, not hours

Let’s start with time-savings for the person doing the planning work. There’s an easy way to estimate the financial value of this time: Multiply the hours spent on route planning by your hourly wage. Now think about how else you could spend those hours – maybe on winning new customers, or developing new products – and the monetary value of those tasks. 

Since route optimization software can reduce route planning time down to a couple of minutes, this is one of the most immediately recognizable impacts for planners who use manual or semi-manual routing methods.

Lower costs to increase profitability

Poor route planning costs money! There’s one key performance indicator that explains this: cost per delivery.

Cost per delivery is simply your wages + fuel costs for a period, divided by the number of deliveries you make in that period. The more deliveries you can make, the more your cost per delivery comes down and the closer you are to profitability.

A route optimization solution can help make your business more efficient, lowering your cost per delivery.

Route optimization has become particularly important to delivery businesses because of ever-increasing competition in the market space. The basic requirement for profitability is that revenues must exceed costs – but delivery businesses don’t have a lot of room to raise their prices. In fact, research by Morgan Stanley points out that the biggest reasons potential customers do not opt for delivery is because of the price. That leaves delivery companies with nowhere to go but lowering their costs by operating as efficiently as possible.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do I add 20 stops on Google Maps?

Google Maps is designed to work with up to 10 stops at a time. But there’s a clever hack you can use to add more than 10 stops. Basically, you make two ten-stop routes and then combine their URLs to see them all listed on a single map. But this won’t give you an efficient or optimized route — you will still have to create an efficient route sequence yourself.  

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The easiest-to-use route optimization platform for growing delivery businesses.

Portrait of Marc Kuo
Marc Kuo
Marc Kuo is the Founder & CEO of Routific, a route optimization platform for growing delivery businesses. Our mission is to green the planet by reducing the mileage and fuel consumption of delivery fleets. With over a decade of experience in the last-mile industry, he has advised hundreds of delivery businesses on their route planning and delivery operations.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can Google Maps do route planning?

You can plan a route of up to 10 stops in Google Maps. It's a good, free choice for short driving, biking or walking routes. You can work in batches to plan longer routes. If you’re a delivery business or delivery driver, our recommended method for longer routes is laid out in our Google Maps Route Planner for Deliveries post.

Does Google Maps have a route planner?

Yes, Google Maps can be used as a route planner. However, it does not come with route optimization, meaning that you need to sort the sequence of your multi-stop route yourself. Google Maps also doesn't support multiple routes.

Routific is purpose-built route planning software for delivery businesses that comes with route optimization for your entire fleet. Your drivers can still use Google Maps for navigation with real-time traffic data.