The "Fast Lane" Answer
If you need latitude/longitude coordinates that are associated with a physical address, what you're looking for is a geocode. If you're looking for someone who can generate a geocode from an address you give them, you're looking for a geocode provider. And if you're looking for someone who knows a lot about where things are, Google is probably the first name that comes to mind.
That doesn't necessarily mean they're the best, though. At least, it doesn't guarantee they are the best for you.
What's important for you to know is that you have options. We, SmartyStreets, are one of those options, but that doesn't automatically make us more suited to your needs than Google. Whether any provider is the "best" really depends on your needs. So here's a shortlist of some popular names in geocoding, followed by some more wordy explanations of why they might be a good fit for you.
Popular providers include the following:
A quick breakdown of the things we look at:
- Accuracy: How close can the provider get you to the bullseye?
- Speed: How long would it take them to turnaround, say, 100,000 requests?
- Validation: Do they make sure the geocode matches a real address?
- Maps: Can the provider map the geocode for you?
- Limitations: What kind of restrictions does the provider put on usage?
- Price: They're subject to change over time, obviously, but what can I expect from a given provider?
P.S.—If you're looking for a more, shall we say, long-winded rejoinder on a question very similar to this, you can take the long walk off that not-so-short pier here.
The "Scenic Route" Answer
Now, on to the providers.
Google's a pretty big fish to fry. They're a big company with a big name, big clientele, and a big list of features they support. Are they right for you? They might be. Let's look at some highlights:
- Accuracy: Google uses a level of accuracy called "rooftop level," which is a professional way of saying "We know where your geocodes live." Geocodes of this accuracy have been determined by actually visiting the physical location of the geocode. It's time-intensive, so it's usually expensive, but it's the most accurate.
- Speed: Free accounts get just 5 requests a second, paid accounts as much as 10 per second. There's also daily limits, although the paid version is considerably higher than the free version in this regard. In either case, turnaround time at those limits for a big batch—say, 100k requests—is going to be around 5 ½ hours (or about 2 hrs and 45 minutes if you're a paying customer).
- Validation: Google does not validate addresses. In other words, they don't tell you if an address is real or not before telling you where it is (or where they estimate it would be, if it were real).
- Maps: Here's the obvious one—Google does maps. As in, lots of maps. As a matter of fact, the API suite that the geocoding service is a part of is called "Google Maps for Work," and there's a long list of features included. The downside? It's all or nothing. More on this on the next line.
- Limitations: Google has a number of restrictions on their service and their data. Two notable ones are the following: First, geocodes from Google are only to be used through Google Maps. It's kind of like making a return for in-store credit: yes it's money, but it can only be used there. Second, you're not allowed to keep the geocodes, at least not long-term. You can cache them temporarily, but after that you gotta dump 'em (like that no-good ex of yours). There are other limitations, but these are two of the big ones.
- Price: Google's not cheap, at least not in comparison to others on this list. That said, they're well below the most expensive here, too. We gave them $$$ out of $$$$ dollar signs, because they're higher than all but one on the list.
- Accuracy: OpenCage uses interpolated geocodes—a word which, in this application, means "Still accurate enough to meet your needs, but way cheaper." Interpolated geocodes are what we call "block level" accurate, and for most everyone, it's probably as accurate as you're going to need.
- Speed: They throttle usage to 2,500 requests a day for free users, and one request a second for everyone, so even if you're a paying customer it'll take you the better part of 28 hours to process a batch as big as 100,000.
- Validation: Like Google, they do not validate the addresses that they geocode. So, like Google, the geocode they give back to you may be for a real address, or it may not be.
- Maps: OpenCage doesn't offer mapping.
- Limitations: Usage is largely open and unrestricted (hence "OpenCage"). They even offer a data management service in conjunction with their geocode and mapping services.
- Price: On our scale from $ to $$$$, OpenCage rates a ? due to the lack of public price listing. If you're looking for more information, you'll have to talk with their salespeople for a quote.
- Accuracy: If there's a heavyweight in the accuracy corner that can stand up to Google, it's Loqate. Their geocode accuracy is global. The reach and the completeness of their "rooftop level" accuracy can't be overstated; it really is their bread and butter. They're so good, other address validators and geocoders feed off of their database to see if international addresses are real.
- Speed: Loqate is pretty slim with the information they hand out to the public. They do batch processing, so you don't have to hand in your addresses one at a time. Beyond that, though, if you want to know how snappy their turnaround time is, you'll have to go through their phone tree and get a quote.
- Validation: Loqate does offer address validation, and it's as accurate as their geocodes.
- Maps: They don't offer mapping services.
- Limitations: They've got some, but you have to connect with them to find out what they are. In fact if there is one obvious drawback to their system, it's how aloof and mysterious it is.
- Price: With the highest prices on the list, Loqate comes in with a full $$$$ rating.
- Accuracy: Interpolated geocodes
- Speed: The only throttle on Geocodio's service is the 2,500 request per day limit to free users . . . who can sidestep that by paying for more after that. You can give them addresses as fast as your hardware can handle, and they can give them back as fast as theirs can pump it out.
- Validation: Like Loqate, they do a lot of things. Unfortunately address validation is not one of them.
- Maps: Nope.
- Limitations: In their words, as written on the homepage of their website: "None. Zip. Zero. Zilch."
- Price: $$ for this one.
- Accuracy: "Rooftop level;" well, "rooftop"-ish. Their geocodes sometimes struggle with issues of reliability.
- Speed: TAMU works a unique, credit-based system where, whether you're a paid user or a free user, you have to refresh your lookup credits to continue geocoding. It's kind of like putting another quarter into the arcade to keep playing. Only service-level agreements avoid this restriction.
- Validation: TAMU does offer validation, but it's an entirely separate service, complete with its own website. The geocoding website doesn't even link to its sibling site. They do, however, offer address parsing and standardization as part of the geocoding package.
- Maps: Nope.
- Limitations: TAMU requires a citation and a link to them on any data you display online that they gave you.
- Price: TAMU only gets $ as it's the lowest price on the list by a landslide.
- Accuracy: Interpolated and rooftop geocodes available for the entire planet. Accuracy varies only according to what's available for the country in question.
- Speed: We make the Kessel run in under 12 parsecs. Our API can easily process 100,000 addresses in under 5 seconds. We just tried it. Like right now. And again. And again. We could literally do this all day.
- Validation: Oh goodness, yes. This and geocodes are our specialty.
- Maps: Mapping's not our thing.
- Limitations: None. You paid for the data, so it's yours.
- Price: $$ for us. We're not the bottom of the list, but we're one of the most affordable options, and we bend over backwards to make your money worth it. We promise you won't be disappointed.
As mentioned above, this list isn't really meant to be exhaustive, either in the providers listed or in the attributes examined. Really, there's no substitute for doing a little door-knocking and finding out what each provider has to offer yourself. Still, we hope we were able to give you head start.
For a more in-depth (as in, "Seriously, get comfortable before settling in to read this one") look at some of these factors—and specifically how they apply to the APIs offered by these companies—we've got you covered. If you found this article at all helpful, you will likely find the information over there valuable as well.
Again, though, be warned. Hit the bathroom before you start that road trip.