The definitive Map API buying guide
A Map API (Application Programming Interface) provides interaction with various map services for developing location-based applications. Such applications typically include map display, map data visualization and/or routing features.
Map APIs typically consist of three essential services - Tile, Geocoding, and Routing.
Geocoding API (Search API) converts addresses into geographic coordinates. Geocoding APIs typically support various address-like phrases and handle partial or misspelled phrases.
Reverse Geocoding does the opposite - converts geographic coordinates into a human-readable address.
The quality of Geocoding engine reflects in its understanding of the search phrases and proper ranking of suggestions, regardless of the errors and country-specific addressing schemes.
The frequently used term for Geocoding API is Search API.
Under the realm of Geocoding services fall Reverse Geocoding, Autocomplete, Nearby Places, and bulk Geocoding API as the geocoding services' derivatives.
Refer to a Challenges Of Searching Map Data to learn more about how geocoding works and the features of a good geocoding algorithm.
Routing API (Directions, Navigation, Route Planner API) calculates the route and traveling directions between two or more geographical locations. Calculated routes respect various input restrictions (e.g., avoiding toll roads), modes of transportation (car, taxi, pedestrian), and requirements (fastest, shortest path, through EV charging stations).
Routing and Directions API terms are usually used only to calculate distance or duration between two points and display plain routing instructions (e.g., turn left in 2 km) mainly for orientational use cases.
Navigation API typically delivers a comprehensive list of navigation maneuvers - turn instructions with timing, information about lanes that should be taken when making turns, signpost information, and voice instructions. Map matching, Distance Matrix, and Isochrone APIs are derivatives of Routing APIs.
Map matching, Distance Matrix or Route Optimization, and Isochrone APIs are effectively just derivatives of the Routing API.
Refer to a What Is Important In Route Calculation to learn more about features of a good routing algorithm.
Tile API delivers either preset images or metadata information of a particular location (quadrant). Map rendering SDK (the mapping software) is responsible for gathering these preset images and displaying them in a specific manner to render a broader picture of an observed area.
Since certain Map API vendors distribute proprietary map rendering SDK, it's often incorrectly assumed that APIs and SDK are one of the same. Besides vendors' proprietary SDKs, quite good open-source solutions are also available. The biggest benefit of using the open-source map SDK is the ability to switch between Map API vendors easily.
The mapping software or map rendering SDK is a set of tools for map display and interaction, built to facilitate the development bypassing the need to code all the low-level logistics. A map rendering SDK is a non-trivial set of tools since it takes care of both user and map data interaction.
Refer to a Vector vs Raster Tile API to learn more about the differences, pros, and cons between these two main Tile API variants.
Read more about how to choose the best Map API platform:
Check how Compact Maps ticks the boxes of your Map API buying checklist!