New Geocaching.com Maps and the Google Issue

Today, Groundspeak rolled out another regular update of Geocaching.com and, amongst many other alterations (including bug fixes and new features), changed its default maps from Google Maps to MapQuest (which uses OpenStreetMap).

This is as much a tale of Google Maps, probably moreso, than it is of Groundspeak and Geocaching.com. To fully understand what is happening, we need to go right back to the start.

First, a brief introduction to some geekery. An Application Programming Interface (API) is the means whereby different pieces of software can be connected and communicate – be it websites or applications. For geocachers, Geocaching.com used the Google Maps API to embed Google Maps onto its cache pages, and this is what this issue is all about.

On April 8th, 2011, it was revealed on the Google Geo Developers blog that the Google Maps/Google Earth API terms of service were being changed. One of the key points of this announcement was that websites were eventually going to have either reduce their map usage to new limits placed on free use of the Google Maps API, or pay to obtain commercial usage – either through a per 1000-view model, or what is assumedly a very expensive Google Maps API Premier license.

This was followed up by a further announcement by Google on October 26th, 2011 that further reinforced these changes, and outlined that its new usage limits would begin to be clearly enforced early in 2012.

So, the situation we had late last year was this:

  • Google Maps was free;
  • Google Maps was going to become more expensive in early 2012;
  • Geocaching.com was using Google Maps, and serving up a lot of pages with Google Maps.

This meant that Groundspeak would have had three options when the Google Maps API usage limits were enforced:

  1. Pay Google’s per 1000 map view charges;
  2. Purchase a Google Maps API Premier license;
  3. Change its web mapping service.

So, that brings us to today – Valentine’s Day 2012 in the United States – a day that has seen some love lost for Groundspeak as it moved away from Google Maps with its site update. However, let’s be clear about this upfront – the problem is not Groundspeak, but rather the pricing that Groundspeak would have had to pay to license the Google Maps API. This is nothing more than business decisons being made by both sides.

For a long time, Google made its Maps API free to lure developers in. Over the last year, it has attempted to monetise the free service it is providing. This is, of course, within their rights, although as is always the case when you try to add a fee to a paid service, you run the risk of of being called out on the bait-and-switch.

As the Latitude 47 blogs points out today, the Geocaching.com website firmly sits in the high-user category – the 0.35 per cent of sites that Google said would be impacted by this license change. Groundspeak states that it is serving around two million map loads each and every day. When you work through the numbers, Google’s new charges actually amount to significant amounts of money. Two million map loads a day translate to US$7900 for one day of Google Maps. Multiply this across a standard 365-day year and you’re talking US$2.88 million – just for serving embedded Google Maps. And this figure does not even account for continued growth in geocaching worldwide, in terms of more caches and more cachers, both of which will increase the company’s costs. Google Maps Premier License is possibly an option –  the pricing is not publicly available for comparison – but I understand it starts from US$10,000 per year. I expect for the number of map loads that Geocaching.com is providing that a Premier License will be far more expensive than this.

All we are seeing here is that Groundspeak is not willing to pay for what was previously a free service. Groundspeak has the right to say no to these new terms, and it has done so. Heck, if I was going to see an increase in operating costs for a business of US$2.9million a year, with no increase in revenue to make up for it, I’d say no too.

It should be noted that OpenStreetMap, as a volunteer-driven, open-source project, also places server limits on websites using their maps. However, MapQuest provides a means of delivering large volumes of OpenStreetMaps from MapQuest’s own servers, utilising OpenStreetMap data.

However, Geocaching.com’s map change has certainly become a polarising issue for many. There are now hundreds of posts spread across multiple forums regarding this issue.

There are many different points and issues being raised:

  • The change between Google Maps and MapQuest/OpenStreetMap is significant for some, and they are not comfortable with the new presentation;
  • There appears to be some map-rendering bugs; some resulting in blank maps, another is that the new map doesn’t display a distance scale;
  • MapQuest does not appear to have good satellite/aerial imagery. However, Google Earth is still an excellent means to access caches on the satellite/aerial imagery that Google has licensed;
  • There are actually more maps available, as you can view not only MapQuest’s tileset, but different map renderings including CloudeMade’s, OpenStreetMap and OpenCycleMap.

One of the stand-out improvements that will be obtained by switching to OpenStreetMap – is the ability for the geocaching community to make corrections and improve OpenStreetMap the world over. You see, it is truly open. With an account, you can directly edit the maps. So if you find a new walkway, you can add it, and then – usually within hours – see your contribution appear directly on the map! Google Maps, on the other hand, does not even support its community mapping tool, Google Map Maker, in many countries yet. And unlike OpenStreetMap, any community edits to Google Map Maker, stay with Google. OpenStreetMap edits, however, are shared, making them available far and wide across many different web services. So if you add or fix something in OSM, your contribution will be shared across many web services.

The move to OpenStreetMap will also create interesting possibilities, as is already being talked about. It is relatively easy to build your own mapserver that generates and serves your own map tiles. This means that eventually Groundspeak will be completely independent when it comes to map data. Not only that, but it will be able to customise this service so that greater emphasis is given to features important to geocachers, such as park polygons, and walkways.

It is going to be a painful transition for many, and when change is forced on you with little notice, it can be uncomfortable to bear. However, I’m firmly convinced, that over the long term, most of the Geocaching.com mapping will benefit from this change. For everything else, there is still Google Earth.



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  1. Guwapo's Papa

    It’s been 24 hours and I’ve decided I don’t have a problem with the new maps. There is no satellite/aerial imagery in New Zealand to speak of but I can live with that if it means keeping the current costs the same.

    All we have really lost is the ability to view all the caches on the same page in Google maps. You can still view them individually using the links on the cache page. It’s also been pointed out that there are other listing sites where you can still view the caches altogether – although without the filtering the geocaching.com provided. And as Gav has pointed out there is always Google Earth.

    One thing to bear in mind though. Google has lost the revenue from Groundspeak. They are clearly seeking to commercialise the provision of maps. Who will they come after next?

  2. Chris

    The big downer for us in NZ, and in a lot of other places in the world, is the poor or lack of, in NZ’s case, aerial/satellite imagery. Yes Google Maps/Earth are still there for one’s individual use, but it’s a pain to do the whole copy paste thing.

    You can still achieve the same thing, yes, in that you can get an aerial image map with a bunch of caches marked out on it, however:
    – You can’t do it with the Geocaching.com kml, as that randomly offsets cache icons
    – You need to use some other tool like GSAK, as opposed to just doing it with 1 click on the website

    I can see where people are coming from when they say their membership has been devalued by this, but at the end of the day, it had to happen and it’s Google that forced it, not Groundspeak.

    That said, I would be very very interested to know what the premier licencing options are for using the Google Maps API, because I don’t think for a moment Google was expecting anyone to fork out anything of the order of magnitude of USD3mil, certainly not for 2 million hits per day. 2 million sounds a lot, but there’s about 7 billion people in the world…. imagine if there was some component of the facebook site that all of a sudden attracted a licence fee like that! 😉

  3. Pete

    I have found Groundspeak’s GM replacement less than satisfactory. I’ll live, but it is definitely a step backwards for now. GS have had enough time to get this right. How long exactly have we had those v0.93 “beta” maps being served now?

  4. ErikaJean

    I don’t like the change, not ONE bit. But if I want to keep caching I’ll have to get over it.

  5. rediguana

    @Chris – actually NZ has pretty good imagery, especially as over the past couple of years some councils have been uploading their own imagery to Google. I’m a GSAK user, so I can happily get by exporting a KML/GPX from GSAK and then browsing that to my leisure in Google Earth. And if I’ve got corrected coords, then caches will appear in the right place 😉

    I wouldn’t say that paid membership has been devalued though, Google Maps access was never something that was limited just to Premium Memberships – it was just a convenient, and previously free, service that was integrated into Geocaching.com. Like you, I’d love to know what Maps Premier would cost for the order of 2m hits/day.

    Thanks to people like me, there will be some aspects of OpenStreetMaps that will far outshine Google Maps – because I’ve taken the time to upload tracklogs and mark new tracks on maps that Google Maps doesn’t even know about. Google Maps has so many road errors, and doesn’t contain many tracks and walkways on them. And in New Zealand we don’t have Google Map Maker to correct them, and even if we did, the modifications would be limited just to Google Maps.

    1. Chris

      I didn’t make my opening sentence clear – I meant with the new maps being used on geocaching.com there is no aerial/sat view for NZ. Absolutely in Google Maps/Earth, and other places, there is very good imagery. It’s just not as easy to that good imagery, with caches displayed, so easily anymore – you need to be a GSAK user, for example, or put up with using the kml in Google Earth that randomly offsets cache positions.

      With regards people feeling their premium membership has been devalued by this – of course, no, the maps were there for free users also, but I guess [amateur psychology moment] a lot of people feel that they simply should pay $30 to support the running of the site and that using it for free is not an option, so they would simply see the usability decreasing while the cost remaining the same. While disappointed that this change had to be made because of the circumstances that came about, I’m not necessarily one of those.

  6. P.J.

    Does it stink?


    But the reality is, rising costs in one place make businesses think in ways to not bring things down on all customers. Groundspeak did what it thought was best for the overall picture.

    I don’t personally like the change and as a premium member, I feel I should be able to say a little something about it. However, Groundspeak has kept geocaching free for many people. And the $30 yearly premium amount has been that way as long as I can recall. So if it means no kicking up the premium price, I’m fine with it. And before others jump on yapping, make sure you’re a paying member. If not, it makes no sense to complain about something you’re getting for free and wondering why Groundspeak might not pay for the upgrade.

    I’ll get used to these maps just as well as something else. In the end, I usually plug coordinates into my car GPS to get me to the area and then just use the handheld to find the cache. So in the end, it won’t kill me to do an extra step, if I really need to look at something else quickly.

  7. Luke

    I’ve posted a workaround to reintegrate Google Maps w/ Map, Sat & Terrain back into the Geocaching Maps page over at gps.org.nz

    Currently it only works with Opera and Firefox, but Chrome support is coming soon I’m led to believe.

  8. Dave Racette on Facebook

    best part of it, I like when you zoom in, you lose caches on the map, they just disappear…

  9. René Lindberg Mikkelsen on Facebook

    No aerial/sat-view for Denmark either.. must be a US-thing?

  10. Jakob Vels on Facebook

    Dave Racette – there is a workaround when that happens – Copy the link in lower left corner, paste to adress bar and press enter and you are right back at the exact same spot on the map and caches will refresh.
    René Lindberg Mikkelsen – check out this GM script (15 different maps, incl google and google sat) http://userscripts.org/scripts/show/125949

  11. Colin Saunders on Facebook

    Great stuff thanks 🙂 am a happy cacher with maps again just found the other maps just aren’t as good but I do use them as well getting a better idea of where i am going

  12. Ben Nelson on Facebook

    basically they have made caching impossible for me. well over half of the streets that were on the google map are not on the new sets…
    kind of hard to plan a walking route based on were I can catch the bus and closely timed if I can’t tell if there is a way to get from point A to point B…. Pretty much the end of my caching except for events and the odd major outing to a power trail. This sucks the big one 🙁
    wish i could get a refund on my membership cause I JUST renewed it.

  13. Colin Saunders on Facebook

    go to firefox browser and use greasemonkey as written above all is good then 🙂

  14. Ben Nelson on Facebook

    ya…. except I can’t do that, long story. but my machine can’t have 3rd party add ons installed. 🙁

  15. southtowntn

    There is also always GSAK, now provided it only contains whats in your database, you can use macros to load the whole database in a verity of interesting ways, including google maps.

  16. GW240

    I know google maps is just trying to make a buck……so instead of just charging the top users they should just go ahaed and charge everyone.. Then maybe they could keep the fees down for the top users also.
    Actually what I want to happen is for this whole idea of charging anything to blow up in thier faces and for everyone to dump them.
    Google has just stepped into a pile of Sh…. and it stinks.

  17. altbiers

    Some may have figured it out, but they are back for premium members.

    Wrote a diddy about it here:

    Share the love! 🙂

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