So, you need a Map API for your project, and what are your options?
Google Maps APIs, although being an excellent, professional-grade solution with an outstanding POIs database, comes with a hefty price. This inevitably pushes developers to seek equally good alternatives, which there are plenty of.
We'll discuss not only the alternatives, but we'll advise what to look for and make suggestions depending on your needs. Available options depend on your needs, specifically on the number of users, the growth rate, particular use case, and the customization level. We'll also list things you should pay attention to when choosing a Map API vendor and mapping software, as well as some free options.
So, you have a project to develop and need a Map API?
Faced with this situation, people either go with the ubiquitous Google Maps or find themselves digging through the Internet between hundreds of vendors, trying to understand the differences, pros, and cons. The first ones, usually within months, end up with a hefty bill for Google Maps. The second group discovers that the selection was unsatisfactory, had a non-existing support level, etc. Sooner or later, by learning from their mistakes, they end up with an expensive lesson.
The point is not to go with the first option that crosses your mind but to make an educated decision.
The objective is to find the best possible solution for your end-customers at the most affordable price.
To help you during this process, we'll present the necessary steps you should make during your due diligence.
This step will require some basic knowledge of the terminology of Map APIs. Go through the application workflow, analyze, and list APIs you'll require, focusing on the expected behavior and API features.
The goal is also to identify on time if any of your requirements are niche because it can turn your search into completely another direction. There will be a workaround for some of them, but it's essential to identify them on time.
The most sought after Map APIs are:
The big user database is the ultimate goal of each product or service. However, a big user database certainly brings particular challenges, namely price, and traffic.
More users generate more API requests, and because the majority of APIs are charged per request, the number of users directly correlates with the final price. User database size section recommendations for selecting the right vendor for your project size.
Small projects (applications) with up to 10,000 to 20,000 monthly active users can practically choose any available solution. Almost every Map API vendor on the market provides generous free tiers, as well as a cloud service, making it a win-win situation.
Mid-sized projects are probably in the most unfavorable position. This is the point when available options begin to narrow - you're no longer eligible for free tiers, and you're still too small and irrelevant to negotiate the contract with the prominent vendors. Mid-sized projects should do their due diligence extremely well, research the market thoroughly, and make the most careful decisions.
The ultimate advice would be to turn to mid-sized Map API vendors - they're typically more open to collaborations and the most flexible in terms of feature requests you might have.
Large user-database projects are in the most favorable position to negotiate a custom quota, services, and support level.
After the price, the second challenge is the burst rate - the number of served APIs per unit of time (QPS or Queries Per Second). To support the traffic generated by an extensive user database, the API vendor should offer several reasonably priced burst rates to choose from.
Several questions arise: "Do you need only a map solely to display objects on it? Or do you require more complex (and expensive) APIs such as Geocoding or Routing? Will out-of-the-box solutions fit you?"
The use case plays the most important role in deciding on a Map API vendor. Specific and niche requirements mandate the selection.
Because many might not be aware that some of them are considered non-standard, we'll list a few:
Non-standard use cases:
Data privacy & security issue:
Use case and requirements section explains in-depth all of these features.
Map APIs are typically charged per request, and the total expense will depend on the number of active users.
"Pay per use/Pricing per request" is the most common pricing model - or pricing per transaction, to be precise. Make sure to check the vendors' FAQs to discover what defines a transaction because the consequent pricing can significantly vary. Map loads or Tile API has the most intricate pricing structure.
Needless to say, the budget is the major factor when deciding on the option. Besides the number of active users, the complexity of required APIs has a big impact on the pricing. Some of the complex and non-standard features are listed in the Use case and requirements section.
The tables below show pricing comparison between major Map API vendors, split per the most common APIs:
Note: Where direct comparison pricing is not available, the cost of the closest is used. To find out more about pricing structures, refer to the How pricing works section.
Tile API is billed per map load, but the definition of a map load is quite broad and varies between vendors. Typically vendors offer proprietary mapping software (SDK) and track the API consumption through them. The diversity amongst SDK implementations is why the map load is still treated very individually.
The use case in the most favorable position is displaying maps and map data visualization in mobile applications because certain vendors offer completely free Tile API usage. However, be aware of the caveats described in the Free options for map display section.
Geocoding (converting addresses to coordinates) and Reverse geocoding services (converting coordinates to addresses) are uniformly equally priced, and the table below doesn't differentiate them.
Routing API comes with the most variations, such as Navigation, Matrix routing (used in route optimization), Isochrone, Map Matching (Snap to road). All of the routing variations typically have similar prices amongst the vendors.
This section covers the basic API variants and thoroughly explains the API features you should pay attention to before choosing a certain vendor.
The quality of map data is equally important as the algorithms behind APIs. To deliver results, Geocoding and Routing algorithms need to process map database and therefore cannot produce even decent results based on substandard map data.
To better understand the map-related features, we recommend reading The difference between Map API vendor and Map Data Provider section.
|Map data source||OSM, professional global and regional providers||OSM||Professional||Professional||Professional|
|Map data update frequency||Weekly - Quarterly||Unknown||Unknown||Quarterly||Unknown|
|Global map data coverage|
|Unlimited custom themes|
All the above APIs have to surpass various challenges, so the list below names the few most significant features that every Geocoding API should possess.
Routing API and its variants are the most complex and troublesome to develop amongst all Map APIs. The list below covers both industry-standard features and frequently neglected ones.
|Flat fee pricing||✓|
|Higher burst rates||✓|
|Permissive usage policy||✓|
The adventurous ones can opt for open-source solutions and hosting services. Switch2OSM is a great source of information on how to render and serve map tiles and provide geocoding and routing services.
To name a few options:
In-house maintenance and hosting map services are excellent options for large businesses with fairly simple use cases, such as the plain map display.
However, more specific features will call for non-trivial software adjustments since they require an in-depth understanding of algorithmsand the awareness of the consequences such adjustments may introduce.
Check how Compact Maps ticks the boxes of your Map API buying checklist!