In case you haven’t noticed, your Store Locator Plus and My Store Locator Plus apps may be working a little different during the last few weeks of 2016. You didn’t change ANYTHING but suddenly things are not exactly like they were before.
It is a special Christmas gift from Google to all of us.
Sometime in late 2016 Google updated their Google Maps API. We are not sure how many changes went into this release. I must have missed the call from Larry and Sergey this time. However we do know a few things that changed that impact customers.
#1 – Geocoding Requires Accurate Addresses
You better make sure your addresses that are sent to Google are darn-near perfectly formed. No more hiding meta in that address 2 field. If a business does not have a suite named “Attn: Customer Service” as part of their official address don’t put it on there. It very likely will not geocode.
Looks like Google is turning the screws a little more on their attempt to squash as much competition in the maps market as possible. Over the past few months they have tweaked their Google Geocoding API algorithms. Each change is going to make it just a little more difficult to get your addresses to return a correct latitude and longitude. It is definitely having an effect on locations people are entering into Store Locator Plus but the truly concerning issue is not with addresses you can fix but how it is going to impact all the odd variations of addresses your customers type in during a search.
As is typical from the Google Maps people, the results from their in-house applications including Google Maps The Website is very different from what non-insiders get. Any application using the Google Maps Geocoding service, whether a $20,000/year OEM license or a few-dollar-or-less-per-month Pay-As-You-Go API key, will see different results. The sad part is that what worked perfectly fine “yesterday” no longer works today.
Several known addresses that were designed to “test the system” suddenly started failing our internal testing over the past few days. After rolling back our software and servers to older releases to ensure we did not introduce a problem we’ve discovered that the change is almost 100% guaranteed to be a change in Google’s Geocoding API algorithms.
Diane Blackwelder CFP ®, Charleston Financial Advisors LLC, 4 N Atlantic Wharf, Charleston SC 29401 USA
Last spring that geocoded perfectly fine. Today it comes back “ZERO_RESULTS” which is Google-speak for “bad address”.
This does not work either:
Diane Blackwelder, Charleston Financial Advisors LLC, 4 N Atlantic Wharf, Charleston SC 29401 USA
Only the 100% proper address works:
Diane Blackwelder c/o Charleston Financial Advisors LLC, 4 N Atlantic Wharf, Charleston SC 29401 USA
Yet on Google Maps ALL 3 of these variations come back with the correct address.
This happens with a number of other addresses as well including this example using Google Maps in Germany with the same type of results:
Hotel Berlin Märkischer, Hof am Tacheles, Linienstraße, 133 Berlin 10115 Germany
While this only impacts a very small percentage of addresses people enter into Store Locator Plus, or just about any other mapping service using Google besides internal Google services like their Places (think Adwords but far more costly), it is still very clear what Google’s long term plans are for businesses using their map services.
Granted, Google can always fall back on the “well, that is technically not the right address” argument but the fact-of-the-matter is that these addresses worked perfectly well before. The same addresses work perfectly well in Google-owned properties TODAY. The addresses do NOT work for any third party applications because someone at Google decided they shouldn’t. Not nice, Google. Not nice. It is increasingly clear that Google intends to slowly strangle all third party mapping-software providers so they can collect all the customers that end up being left behind and throw them into their pay-per-request services.
Looks like we are once again having to seriously consider introducing alternative Geocoding and map image technology solutions. We have been investigating Open Street Map for some time. It looks like 2017 is finally going to see that option come online. It is almost a certainty for our MySLP SaaS service and may be integrated into one of our planned live-service options for our Premier Subscribers.
When people ask why we spent so much time and money building a SaaS service for maps, this is one reason why. It is much easier for us to help our customers have a superior experience for their end users when we can setup, testing and activate alternatives in one step. With per-website installations of Store Locator Plus on 20,000+ servers in 128 different countries providing the same type of pro-active response is impossible. We don’t have any control over what those webmaster are doing and not all of them are tech-savvy.
Sure, buy-and-own options like Store Locator Plus can be cost effective but if you’re business relies on your locator having a managed service makes a lot more sense.
Some cool things people do with map software. Maybe I’ve become a “Map Geek” after working on Store Locator Plus for 4+ years now, but I find this sort of thing both interesting and insightful.
Here is the map of South Carolina:
This map, featuring every road in the United States of America, assembled by Reddit user WestCoastBestCoast94, looks like a cartographer’s dream come true. It doesn’t take an expert to glean information from the map, like the location of major cities — dark, tight webs — and mountains — long, thin stretches of white.
Charleston Software Associates has officially become a Google Enterprise customer. The new licensing agreement for Google technologies will further strengthen the Store Locator Plus, a location mapping and search plugin for WordPress, product offering in coming months. The new licensing agreement provides CSA with direct access to the Google Enterprise support team as well as access to their high throughput map services servers.
The combination of access to the Google Maps API for Business services and improved Google support will pave the way for the development of advanced add-on packs as well as general improvement of services in the base Store Locator Plus product offering. On the drawing board for the future of Store Locator Plus is improved direct access to the Google Maps API for Business for customers with their own API keys and new services from CSA for customers that cannot afford the 5-figure investment.
One of the first products that is on the schedule is higher limits and faster throughput on the Geocoding API calls. This is the service that adds the latitude and longitude to all locations entered into Store Locator Plus. Some clients are loading tens-of-thousands of locations via the CSV import feature provided by the Pro Pack. Unfortunately the standard, free, Google Maps API service only allows a maximum of 2500 requests per IP address. Since many shared hosts have thousands of sites, some of which are using Google API services, it is possible that as few as 100 locations will hit the daily geocoding limit. A new service, still in the planning stages, will allow customers to use the CSA servers to encode their locations for a nominal access fee.
General product improvements are expected as CSA takes advantage of Enterprise Support at Google while developing the new services and features. Getting an in-depth technical overview of the Google API services and the best practices for implementing various API calls will extend the feature set and improve the performance of Store Locator Plus and the associated premium add-on packs.
To the best of my knowledge, Charleston Software Associates is the first WordPress locator plugin author to obtain a Google Enterprise license. My goal is to make Store Locator Plus the first and best plugin for leveraging the new services this license will provide. The next year should be an exciting one for Charleston Software Associates and the Store Locator Plus product line.
Store Locator Plus is helping 45,000+ WordPress sites present interactive store locator and directory maps to their customers. Along the way I have gained the loyalty and trust of thousands of web consulting agencies, design agencies, and website owners from mom-and-pop shops to multinational corporate enterprises. Part of keeping that loyalty and trust is keeping up with changes in technology and in business.
Over the past month I have been in conversations with both Google and Microsoft regarding their map services. It is no surprise to anyone that has been paying attention that maps are THE Go To Service for both these companies. The proliferation of mobile devices and the partnership it brings between “show me what I want” and “for where I am standing right now” has catapulted mapping services from a “yeah, we have that too” service to a must-have component.
Monetizing The Maps
Based on my recent conversations with both companies it is clear. Google and Microsoft are the top players in mapping technology and they are going to monetize that technology every way they can. They are NOT going to leave that money sitting on the table. If you are a business and are using maps to enhanced your customer experience, the writing is on the wall:
YOUR BUSINESS WILL BE PAYING FOR MAPS. Period. End of story.
Google and Microsoft have all been putting a LOT of work into their map products. They are both offering paid services for business maps. They are also putting a lot of pressure on third party service providers, like Charleston Software Associates, to start paying for access to those maps.
It is no longer an option to provide premium map services to your customer base and avoid paying a license fee if there is a map solution involved at any step of the process. If you do charge for ANYTHING even remotely related to showing a map on a website you need to purchase a map license. Have a freemium model, like Store Locator Plus, where “all the map goodness” is baked in to the free offering but the “CSS and HTML special sauce” exists in paid add-on packs? Doesn’t matter, it is tangential to the maps and thus a “premium maps offering”. If you earn ANY money in ANY way related to a map API you must purchase a license.
How much are those licenses? Tens-of-thousands of dollars depending on who you talk to. Have 100,000 visitors looking at your map page in a year? Try something north of 6-figures.
No wonder Apple decided to contract their own mapping services. Makes complete sense why they stuck with it after the first roll out that was less-than-perfect and current iterations are “not quite right”. If a small business is paying tens-of-thousands and a big business is paying hundreds-of-thousands, imagine what sort of licensing fees Apple had to be paying.
What This Means For SLP
I have been working the business plan for Charleston Software Associates and trying to justify the nearly $20,000 license fee that Google is charging for an OEM license starting next month. It is an annual fee that may (and likely will) increase in coming years. Thankfully I have just enough people buying premium add-on packs to justify the expense.
How does this affect Store Locator Plus? I plan on providing the same plugins I have provided for the past 2 years. I hope to continue providing a free base product in the WordPress directory, though that may change. It is possible that I will need to keep a Google OEM license “locked up” on my servers and make a call-back to my cloud presence before locations can be geocoded. I am still working out the legal and technical details on that aspect with Google. Hopefully things can remain as they are with only improvements and “no additional middle-men” in the process between your website and the Google servers.
For the foreseeable future everything will remain as it is. This puts a significant amount of added pressure on Store Locator Plus to generate revenue. Based on the current install base that should not be a problem. Sadly less than 10% of the 45,000 installed sites purchase ANYTHING from Charleston Software Associates. More than 41,000 sites use the free product with zero contribution toward its development and support.
One thing is certain, starting in July I am locked into the Google Maps program for at least a year. That means SLP and the add-on packs will be around until at least August 2015. The best way to ensure SLP is around much longer than that is for users to support the endeavor by purchasing a Premier Subscription. The recurring annual or monthly revenue helps offset the costs of the Google OEM license.
DIY Maps? Not So Fast
In case you are thinking “no big deal if SLP were to go away, we will just put Google or Bing Maps into our site directly”, not so quick. If your business is getting more than a few-thousand visits to your map you are going to get a call. It is only a matter of time. When you do the conversation goes something like this “Are you running a business that benefits in any way from having the map on your site? Yes? Here is your $20,000 bill.” . The only way out of it will be having a registered OEM licensed product such as Store Locator Plus.
“If SLP goes away there are other WordPress locator plugins on the market.” True. For today. They are all “getting the call” over the next few months. By this time next year there will be only TWO types of WordPress map plugins on the market. Premium with support and free but in constant danger of becoming outdated, unsupported, and abandoned.
Getting A Deal On Map Licenses
How can you get the best deal for your Google Maps license? Buy a Premier Subscription. It is FAR cheaper than getting a license directly. CSA is taking the “up front hit” on the license fee which is then distributed among all users. When Google starts fine-tuning the Geocoding and map presentation service to more closely monitor per-site user stats, Premier Subscribers will be the first to have unrestricted access and higher data caps.
Paying For Good Things
I can’t say I blame Google of Microsoft. They have a great product that they have been letting businesses use at no charge for a very long time. They have poured millions of dollars into the acquisition of intellectual property and millions more into the research and development of the products.
I have no issue with paying for the services that enable my customers to provide a better experience for their users.
For Store Locator Plus, I have elected to continue to support Google. I’ve been a long-time fan of Google. I am an investor in Google stocks since the early days and have been a paid Google Business services user for nearly as long. I like the company, the culture, and their positive impact on the technology landscape. Plus they just seemed more interested in my business and helping me out. I also think it is the best option for my users that have been “with Google” through Store Locator Plus for that past few years.
One of the immediate benefits is that I will have access to the Google Enterprise development team, apparently including someone into extreme skiing. More important, however, they can help advise on how to better implement the technology.
In addition the new license allows for much higher data caps and throughput than the base product. I am planning several new service options to increase map throughput. One of the top items on that list is a paid bulk upload service that will allow larger sites to geocode up to 100,000 locations daily.
I have a lot of locator coding in front of me over the next few months and will be bringing some new coders up-to-speed to help get it done. In the meantime I ask for your patience and support as I navigate the changing landscape of mapping solutions. I hope that I can remain a loyal and trustworthy guide for my customers.
Thank you for your continue support of Store Locator Plus!
This is a question that comes up fairly regularly. In the past few weeks it seems to have become more prevalent and while I do not have empirical data to back up my theory, my guess it that Google Maps API has once again changed their geo-location algorithm. That is the algorithm they use for Google Maps API requests looking for the latitude and longitude of a given address.
It is important to note that I said “Google Maps API” specifically. While it is perfectly logical to think that the results you get from a product like Store Locator Plus, which uses the Google Maps API, would yield identical results to the Google Maps website, that is not the case. In the past year alone I’ve seen at least a dozen cases where I do an API lookup and get one set of latitude/longitude coordinates yet a visit to maps.google.com yields something similar but different. Often the locations are within a few-hundred-yards of each other. However a few hundred yards can make a BIG difference when you are searching for specific locations within a city.
The app takes whatever is in the address input field and sends it to Google asking “hey, where is this?”. Google sends back a lat/long that can be widely variant depending on the input. Unfortunately a simple string of numbers that an American immediately thinks of as a “zip code” is more ambiguous to the Google server. That makes for some interesting results. Setting your default country to “United States” does seem to influence the Google Maps API algorithm, but only marginally. Maybe there is a way to make that setting “more influential” to the geocoding algorithm. That is something that is worthy of some extra research.
The way Store Locator Plus works is to take an address that is put into the zip/address field and send it away to Google for a latitude/longitude coordinate. What happens after that is very dependent on what is returned from Google. One thing I have learned from the experience is the more detailed the input the more consistent the results.
Here are specific results from extensive customer testing last week:
1508 7th Ave
This is fairly generic, so Google uses an algorithm (which they didn’t share with me) to determine the exact latitude & longitude using their “best guess” option.
The coordinates Google returned on subsequent identical searches:
There may be ways to address this within the plugin, but with 30,000+ sites using the plugin I need to be careful on what I change and why.
Proposal 1: Auto-extend The Address
For example, it would be possible, with a good bit of work, to “figure out” what region of the world he map is showing via an algorithm. For example, run a “behind the scenes” search of a single address and grab the city + state + zip from that whenever the address does not have a city + state + zip. Then re-run the search with that info appended. But there are issues:
Not all users are in the USA.
What do you do for countries where the format is zip + province on the end?
What if a user types 1508 7th Seattle? What is the street versus the city?
I could just take the initial center of the map and use that as the zip code, but that would mangle the location sensor results.
Proposal 2 : Add Separate Search Form Address, City, State, Zip Fields
I could create new input fields for city + state + zip, but again we have country specific issues.
I think entering separate fields is more of a pain for the user.
Have An Idea? Share…
Have and idea on how to address the “moving target” issue, please share.
Well, it finally happened. Today I received a letter from an attorney advising me that the infamous Google Maps patent troll has finally landed in the Store Locator Plus neighborhood. While the letter seems to indicate that the action is being taken against a company with a WordPress site that happens to use one of my plugins (among many others), I can only wonder how long it will be before the notorious “GeoTag Inc” troll comes crawling under my bridge and starts demanding ransoms from Charleston Software Associates or any of my customers.
Not that my plugins are anything special to warrant attention. The core technology is based on the readily available sample code provide by Google for the Google Maps API. It is public domain code that has been used in HUNDREDS of mapping themes, plugins, and even proprietary products. It does not live in just my plugin, WordPress plugins, or even just Google related products for that matter.
GeoTag, Inc., however, feels they have a US Patent (US Patent Number 5,930,474) that means that ANY website that has a map showing locations of ANYTHING on it is using their patent and that they are due some form of compensation. While I’m not a patent attorney, it seems as though Google and Microsoft both feel like GeoTag Inc. has an invalid patent that they are using as today’s favorite method of extortion: patent trolling. In fact, Google and Microsoft filed for a declaratory judgement against GoeTag, Inc. a few years ago trying to get an injunction on the practice. Companies that don’t have the resources to fight the legal battles, are just a little less informed and are tricked into thinking they may have done something wrong, and others that just would rather pay up & move on to managing their business all have been caught in the patent troll trap.
Personally I despise the patent system, even though I’ve contemplated using it. So much so that I’ve filed some provisional patents myself. IMO the patent system is just plain broken when it comes to technology, ESPECIALLY software related technology. I am also a very big fan of winning business and monetary rewards by doing your job better than anyone else. Not by suing the crap out of people that are better at doing something than you are. Patent trolls quickly move from having had some expertise in a field, such as geo-location software, to being nothing more than experts in litigation. Just smart enough to be a pain in the ass but not smart enough to contribute to society in a meaningful and productive way. Just enough ambition to get in the way, but not enough ambition to actually do something useful. In other words, smart and lazy. The worst possible combination of traits there can be.
In the case of GeoTag, Inc. it is even worse. They created and invented NOTHING. They are in business solely in the industry of being a “Patent Troll”. This has become so prevalent that I’m pretty certain the US Government has a new North American Industry Classification (NAICS) just for this type of business. GeoTag, Inc. has purchased patent portfolios for the sole purpose of “suing the crap out of people” and collecting on the patents. They even created the fictitious name “GeoTag, Inc.” to make it “feel’ more like they actually built or created or have some other legitimate purpose related to geo-location technology. I guess “Pa-Troll, Inc.” would not have sounded as “techie”. Probably a good marketing move on their part.
Interestingly, GeoTag, Inc. sent out HUNDREDS of patent violation letters through their hired guns to try to raise even more cash, or more accurately the PERCEPTION of potentially more cash value in their portfolio of patents so they could go public. They filed with the SEC in 2010 to become a publicly traded company but then withdrew the request 18 months later in 2011. The amazing part is that along the way they are trying to pretend they are a technology company and pretend they actually created something when their very well documented historical path shows they have done nothing but build a patent portfolio they use to employ teams of attorneys to collect revenue from companies that are actually creating value.
I think the history of the founders of GeoTag says it all. Direct from the GeoTag Inc. website:
Chief Executive Officer, Director and Inventor John W. Veenstra … served as CEO and Chairman of Cityhub.com, Inc., a privately held patent holding company.
I guess I should not be surprised that John’s personal website attempts to inject a virus via a Mass Injection attack that can perform keylogging and website redirects.
In the meantime I will let things take their course, continue to develop ever improved products, and try to make for a better experience for everyone by refining, improving, and expanding the software systems that makes life easier for my clients and their customers.
Foss Patents : Microsoft and Google jointly sue GeoTag, Inc.
Google and Microsoft have joined forces to take down a Texas company’s geotagging patent that they claim has been used in lawsuits against more than 300 entities, many of which are customers of the two companies. Microsoft and Google want to protect Google Maps and Bing Maps against this kind of activity.
Law 360 : Microsoft Settles Map-Service Claims In Ongoing Patent Suit
Law360, New York (May 14, 2013, 7:29 PM ET) — GeoTag Inc. has agreed to drop claims that Microsoft Corp.’s Bing Maps service and other map-related products infringe the nonpracticing entity’s store-locator patent, according to a stipulation approved Tuesday that said the parties would continue litigating other claims.
The Patent Examiner: GeoTag Searches for More Local Search Engines To Sue
So far, none of the company’s 20 cases has closed or gone to trial. Attorney Joe declined to say how many licensees the company has garnered through litigation. In March of last year, Microsoft and Google, usually fierce rivals, filed an unprecedented joint lawsuit against GeoTag, seeking to knock out the company’s patent. The complaint said that GeoTag’s suits “have placed a cloud on the Plaintiffs’ web mapping services” because many of the defendants are their customers. That lawsuit is still pending.
BizJournals San Jose : Trolls file most patent lawsuits in 2012
LexMachina said that four of the top five patent litigants in its study only use their intellectual property for licensing and litigation. They were Arrivalstar, TQP Development, GeoTag Inc, Pragmatus AV.
Only one of the top five, Brandywine Communications Technologies, was classified as an operating company.
I recently was approved for the upcoming Google Maps interface changes and I must say I like it a LOT more than the previous interface. Going back to the current interface that is the “official release” everyone uses at http://maps.google.com seems old and clunky now. This gives me some new UI design to aim for with the Store Locator Plus product line.
Here is the invite with the link to the preview site. You’ll need to sign up and get approval before you can use the new Google Maps site. It took 3-days to get my request approved. Your results may vary.
Google owns a variety of top-level domains (TLDs) besides the American-centric Google.com. For example, the Bahamas uses www.google.bs as the official domain name.
With Store Locator Plus a setting is provided to allow the site administrator to set the starting TLD for the Google map. While any address in the world can be searched from any of the TLDs, as far as I know anyway, selecting the Google TLD determines where the map centers and how map information is rendered. Sadly, Google has made it very difficult to find their latest list of support TLDs even when using the Google search engine. Thus, I have compiled a list of the TLDs I am aware of and that are accessible inside of Store Locator Plus v3.11.19:
Czech Republic maps.google.cz
Hong Kong maps.google.com.hk
Phillipines has a Google map domain of maps.google.com.ph
Republic of Ireland maps.google.ie
Israel has a Google map domain of maps.google.co.il