Carbonate platforms changed substantially in spatial extent, geometry, composition and palaeogeographical distribution through the Phanerozoic. Although reef construction and carbonate platform development are intimately linked today, this was not the case for most of the Phanerozoic. Carbonate production by non-enzymatic precipitation and non-reefal organisms is mostly responsible for this decoupling. Non-reefal carbonate production was especially prolific during times of depressed reef growth, balancing losses in reef carbonate production. Palaeogeographical distribution and spatial extent of Phanerozoic carbonate platforms exhibit trends related to continental drift, evolutionary patterns within carbonate platform biotas, climatic change and, possibly, variations in ocean chemistry. Continental drift moved large Palaeozoic tropical shelf areas into higher latitudes, thereby reducing the potential size of tropical platforms. However, the combined global size of carbonate platforms shows no significant decline through the Phanerozoic, suggesting that availability of tropical shelf areas was not a major control of platform area. This is explained by the limited platform coverage of low-latitude shelves (42% maximum) and occasional high-latitude excursions of platform carbonates. We speculate that reduced tropical shelf area in the icehouse tropics forced the migration of the many carbonate-secreting organisms into higher latitudes and, where terrigenous input was sufficiently low, extensive carbonate platform could develop.