I just discovered the insanely addictive Google-maps-based game Geoguessr. If you’re not familiar with it, the game picks out a random Google street view location and you have to figure out where you are. It’s essentially a role-playing game where you pretend you blacked-out and/or were kidnapped by Carmen Sandiego, and woke up in a strange place on Earth. The closer you guess to the correct location, the more points you get. Sometimes you get placed on a busy interstate and can easily figure out your position, other times you’re on a desolate highway or on a small winding forest road which looks like it could be anywhere in the world. These 6 simple hints will allow you to zero-in on your location quickly, or at least ensure that you’re not guessing the wrong hemisphere.
1. Google Street View’s Range
Despite Google’s seemingly endless panopticonic abilities, they still have only mapped a small portion of the world’s streets. This information is by far the most important thing to know as it literally cuts your guessing options in half. It also explains why you’ll get a ton of locations in Brazil, the US, and Canada as opposed to other places in the Americas. Check out this map.
Think you might be in an African country? Bam! This map narrows your choices to about 3. Just placing your guess within South Africa will guarantee you about 2000 points.
2. Traffic patterns
Considering you’re placed on streets (most of the time), traffic can be a great indication of which country you’re in, and if there isn’t any traffic then you know you’re in some desolate region (northern Canada). Pay attention to which side of the road people drive on. If it’s the left then you just narrowed your choices dramatically. Given the range of Google street view, the left handed traffic countries you’ll encounter most are South Africa, Botswana, Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain, and Japan. And the good news is the last two look nothing like each other or the other four. If there’s no traffic easily visible, then check to see which side of the road the signs are on. Check out this map to see the traffic patterns for each country.
3. Old vs. New Google Street Photos
Like knowing Google Street View’s range, knowing which street images were taken in lower resolution is also helpful. Street View has been a project since 2007, a year when people still mentioned the VCR like it was a thing, so it’s no surprise that the quality of Street View pictures has improved considerably since then. Therefore, if you get stuck with a grainy and blurry patch of road, chances are you’re in a country that was one of the first to get Street View. That narrows your choices to primarily the US and Australia, and primarily in an unpopulated area that Google deemed not important enough to warrant an updated Street View.
When you think you’re in Canada or Russia but have no clue where, a quick glimpse of the trees can be very handy and save you hundreds, if not thousands of points. Look to see if the trees are mixed or strictly coniferous. If you have an entire forest of Christmas trees then you’re near the Arctic, the more mixed it is the further south you are.
Take a look at these maps to see where deciduous forests and coniferous forests are.
5. The Cyrillic Alphabet
Sometimes figuring out a country’s language nearly guarantees you big points in Geoguessr – see a sign in Italian and you’ll never be off by more than half thousand kilometers. However, see a sign in Russian and you still have half a world to navigate. That’s where knowing the most basic Cyrillic characters is really handy, it’s also extremely easy as half the characters are recognizable Latin characters and the other half have Latin counterparts. For instance, the Cyrillic C = Latin S, B=V, P=R, and H=N. For a more complete transcription, see this chart.
Just know the most minimal characters will allow you to read signs like “POCTOB” and know that you’re near Rostov, instead of merely seeing it as some alien language.
6. Know the big differences between similar-looking places
Australia vs. South Africa
This difference can be hard as hell to spot if you’re stranded on a dusty red deserted highway. Both have similar geographic features and are at about the same latitude. Both also have similar road signs, but the differences in them can definitely help you out. First, look at names of towns – if they’re Dutch or German sounding then you’re in SA , English or silly-sounding and it’s Australia. Also look for signs of animals crossings – South Africa (and Botswana) will have buffalo and cattle signs posted along the roads and you’ll occasionally see a kangaroo sign in Australia.
Spanish vs. Portuguese
Latin America is huge, and guessing a place in Spanish-speaking Mexico when it was really Portuguese-speaking Brazil will ruin your game. If you take 5 seconds to look at a sign and learn the subtle differences between the languages, you can narrow your choices immediately. Take this difference between the Spanish and Portuguese words for “information:” Spanish - información, Portuguese - informação. In fact, if you see a word ending in -ção, then that’s a dead giveaway that it’s Portuguese.
US vs. Canada
If I had a nickel for every time I thought the plains of Saskatchewan were the plains of Texas and vice versa then I’d have at least enough to use a phone booth in 1978. In other words, it’s damn hard to tell the difference between the two. One easy way is to find the speed limit as Canadians abide by the kilometer and Americans use the mile. Other signs to look for are general density (US plains are empty, but not nearly as much as Canada. If neither of those work, then look to the sky and see if the clouds look more northern (that’s the best description you’ll get from a non-meteorologist).