Screenshot of a Google Maps page highlighting the city of Chicago.
Route Optimization

How To Optimize Delivery Routes With Google Maps

January 25, 2022

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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?”

In this article, we’ll walk you through when it makes sense to use Google Maps as a route planner for multiple stops and when it’s likely you’ll need an alternative, such as route optimization software.

When should a delivery business use Google Maps to plan routes?

If you’re ever interested in finding the shortest path between points A and B, Google’s technology is going to absolutely nail finding the best roads for you to take — permitting you’re in a part of the world where it has sufficient map data.

Google Maps is one of the best route planning tools available for simple routing scenarios. It’s free, fast, and user-friendly for all technical skill levels.

In a nutshell, this is what happens when you ask Google Maps “what is the best way to get from A to B?”:

  1. Google looks at the two addresses you gave it, and quickly geocodes (identifies the latitude and longitude coordinates), before plotting two markers on the map.
  2. Google will then single out all of the possible road segments in between your two points.
  3. 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 ultimately you can trust that Google Maps not only gave you a very good path from A to B, but also it provided you with an extraordinarily accurate Estimated Time of Arrival (ETA). When Google released the Android operating system for mobile devices, it began capturing real time location and traffic data from users that made its ETA calculations accurate beyond anything we’ve known prior.

So to recap, if you’re looking for the shortest path between two stops, then you’ll almost certainly want to use Google Maps as your route planner. Now, if you are planning an entire route with more than two stops, we are no longer talking about the path between A to B, but rather A to B to C to D and so on, until we’ve covered every stop in your route. The more points we add into the route plan, the less appropriate Google Maps becomes for the problem.

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Here is the general criteria for when you can plan routes using Google Maps:

You can follow our instructions for how to use Google Maps as a route planner for hints on how to plan a route with up to 10 stops for any purpose.

Will Google Maps optimize a route with multiple stops?

Often, Google Maps is confused with being a route optimization tool. It can definitely be used for planning a route with multiple stops. The distinction here is that while Google Maps is a tool that can be used to find the shortest route between multiple stops, it was never designed to find the optimal order of those stops in your route. The person planning routes will need to plot addresses in Google Maps, and spend the time manually determining the most efficient order to serve them in. If you tell Google what order those stops should go in, you’ll get the best results possible for which roads to take; but you can’t ask it to provide the stop order for you.

The optimization of stop order is one way in which delivery route optimization software separates itself as a category from Google Maps’ software,  which functions as a “web mapping service”, not as a route optimizer.

How to Optimize Your Route Using Google Maps?

Many businesses with small delivery fleets choose to use Google Maps Route Planner. 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 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 (north, south, east, 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.

google maps for delivery 2-1

We wrote a more detailed blog about using Google Maps to plan delivery routes with multiple drivers. Check it out if you want a deeper dive.

What is route optimization?

route optimization

In a few words, route optimization is the usage of algorithms to identify the shortest possible distance or drive time for a given set of stops, with the end result being an optimal stop order. Since Google Maps will not determine the optimal stop order, it does not optimize routes. It’s also not really possible to optimize routes using manual methods, at least in a reasonable amount of time. 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. For example, for 1 delivery van and 57 destinations in any given metropolitan city, there are already quattuorvigintillion (that’s 1 with 75 zeroes) possible route solutions. As you add more delivery vans, the math gets even harder.

Route Optimization further acts as a solution to two of the most difficult computer science problems: the Traveling Salesman Problem (TSP) and the VRP algorithm can also take into account complexities, like time windows, into its search for the optimal route. These are not problems that Google Maps is aiming to tackle, which is further to the point that it’s a mapping service that can help with route planning, but not an optimization tool.

When should I use an alternative to Google Maps?

Even with just 1 delivery van and 50 destinations, there are already quattuorvigintillion (that’s 1 with 76 zeroes) possible route solutions!

If you have more than a handful of stops, you’ll probably want a tool that can optimize your route. That is to say, you need a tool that can find the optimal order of stops, with all of their complexity, to ensure your routes are efficient. Why do routes need to be efficient? The costs associated with delivery route planning are recurring, and have one of the largest impacts on profitability, which we’ll break out into more detail soon.

Once you’ve gone above 5 addresses, route planning and plotting efficient routes manually with Google Maps’ help can become very cumbersome, and prone to human errors — particularly when you need to take into account some circumstances regarding how you deliver your goods. It’s not uncommon for delivery businesses to spend a couple of hours in Google Maps just for one route plan. You’ll likely need an alternative to Google Maps if you have any of these 4 problems:

1. You Have Routing Constraints

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.

In Google Maps, the order of the stops in a route is left 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 for the drivers. The order of stops is also referred to as a sequence, and is usually the most important aspect of cutting your overall driving distance and working time per driver.

Many delivery businesses opt for route optimization software instead of Google Maps because driving distances and working time carry with them high fuel and wage costs, and using a route optimization tool that can find the optimal sequence of stops is the most effective way to reduce these. Another factor is that a good stop sequence is very time-consuming to attempt to figure out when planning manually.

At the time of this writing, Google Maps has a limit of 10 waypoints (stopping places in your route). This means that if a driver has more than 10 deliveries, you’ll need to upgrade to Google’s paid version, which increases the limit to 25 waypoints. Google Maps’ mobile app is fantastic for navigating after the sequence has been determined. As mentioned earlier, Google will nail the path you take from A to B in between each stop in the sequence. But unfortunately, you can’t use Google to decide the sequence of stops A, B, C, or D

3. You Need To Create Routes for Multiple Vehicles

If you have a list of addresses, and are dividing that list between two or more vehicles, you probably want to determine which driver should be getting certain delivery orders. This is where the aforementioned constraints get even more complex, as you consider factors such as:

It’s referred to in the academic world as the “Vehicle Routing Problem (VRP)” and asks, "What is the optimal set of routes for a fleet of vehicles to traverse in order to deliver to a given set of customers?". As referenced earlier, with 1 driver splitting 50 stops in a metropolitan city, there are well over quattuorvigintillion (that’s 1 with 76 zeroes) possible route solutions — that number only gets larger with more drivers.

As you can imagine, it’s pretty much impossible for humans to consistently find optimal routes on their own, even when the stops are clearly plotted on Google Maps. Google has developer tools for software engineers that can help you solve the VRP, but it does not have something out-of-the-box for solving it.

4. You Need to Manage The Rest of the Delivery Operation

There is more for a delivery business to consider than 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 to help with the following:

What’s the benefit of route optimization software?

route optimization tool

Delivery route optimization software providers have released a number of case studies in recent years. The results show that a delivery business can reduce its driving time by up to 40%, and route planning time by up to 95%.

Planning routes in minutes, not hours

Let’s start with time-savings for the person planning routes. The value of time is a non-monetary cost, but there are ways to calculate and translate it into a financial spreadsheet. Essentially, you weigh the time spent on route planning vs. your wage for that period of time + the additional monetary value you could generate by working on other 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.

Lowering costs to increase profitability

To better understand the impact of the second benefit, reduced driving time, we first need to identify where specifically delivery businesses lose money with poor routes. There’s one key performance indicator that’s arguably the most important for this: “Cost Per Delivery”. This can be simplified into an equation:

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 competition in the market space. For profitability, revenues need to exceed costs, but delivery businesses aren’t finding a lot of room to raise prices. In fact, Morgan Stanley  research points out that the biggest reasons potential customers do not opt for delivery is because of the price. This sentiment has led to a surge in route optimization software adoption for delivery companies of all sizes, as they look to lower operational costs and increase cash flow. Operating as efficiently as possible to lower delivery costs has now become productized.

infographic explaining route optimization and google maps
Author portrait

Marc Kuo is the Founder & CEO of Routific, a route optimization platform for small 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.