Real estate is one of those industries where maps are really useful. My clients and friends who practice real estate often tell me that many home searchers start by thinking about what neighborhood they want to live in. Maps are useful there.

Google Maps, for the past several years, has been powering that capability on websites. Maps to show neighborhoods and transportation routes. Maps to show economic value. Maps to show specific properties for sale or recently sold.

In April, Google announced that there would be changes to the terms of the API (application protocol interface — the technology that is used to access Google Maps data) for Google Maps this October. It’s October. It’s been a great free ride bringing some useful functionality to real estate websites.

Let’s review what the new rundown is for using Google Maps:

  • The first 25,000 map loads per day for each API is free (2,500 if they’re using the "Styled Maps" feature).
  • If you consistently exceed the limit, a warning will be shown on maps that you’re using.
  • Maps using the newest API versions will be $4 per 1,000 above 25,000 map loads for regular and "static" maps.
  • Google Maps called in using Flash won’t be able to exceed the usage limits.
  • Google reserves the right to display advertising on Google Maps.
  • To get past these issues (with the exception of using Flash beyond 25,000 Google Map loads per day) Google suggests signing up for Maps API Premier.

The downside of all of these mashup technologies

Google Maps has been one of those perfect bits of technologies. Maps are so useful in so many ways, and making them free has spawned a number of great location projects for the Web.

Mashup projects tend to be really useful: Two or more bits of technology are "glued" together using APIs to put their data in context with one another and the end result is greater than the sum of the parts.

Real estate is a natural fit for a map-focused mashup: Real estate data from the multiple listing service or other source put into context with an abstract representation of the territory (aka a map).

There are a variety of challenges with any mashup, but the primary one is keeping access to all the core technologies available.

The change in the Google Maps API terms of service is a change in the level of access to a core technology for real estate mapping mashups. It isn’t the end of the world and the sky isn’t falling, but this is a serious change that I’m sure has a few people working a longer week or two as a result.

All mashups are susceptible to losing access through any of the following:

  • service goes out of business;
  • service goes beyond acceptable price range;
  • service changes data format that no longer meets project needs; or
  • Service has data or technology failure and goes offline.

For these reasons, deploying mashup technology always contains a higher level of risk than developing your own technology that you control yourself.

However, as we know, a free or low-cost solution may be the best way to test or quickly launch something. So it’s a classic balancing act.

Balancing control with cost or balancing security with speed — either way it’s the challenge of making new stuff with technology. Google’s change to the Google Maps API just highlights this issue.

Some thoughts about real estate and Google Maps API changes

These are some initial rough thoughts on the recent change. Please keep in mind I haven’t made extensive calls to all the technology providers in the real estate industry. This is just a list of questions:

  • Maps and location data are pretty integral to the online real estate industry. Is this the sort of technology that should be outsourced?
  • 25,000 API calls doesn’t sound like a lot, but for proprietary real estate content management systems and WordPress plug-ins, that can add up fast across all the sites using them. Something tells me that every real estate website owner will be needing to get their own Google Maps API account.
  • Using Google Maps with Flash seems to be pretty heavily depreciated in this change. Do real estate systems that rely on Flash and Google Maps have an adequate plan to adjust?

It may seem that the domination of the space by Google Maps for the past few years resulted in a closed case on which maps are used and who gets to determine the terms of service. But development in mapping technologies is just starting to warm up.

The growth of ubiquitous interface — the ability to access computing resources anywhere — is changing how we interact with the world around us and how we interact with computers. This includes how we use mapping technologies.

All of the big technology players are continuously pushing forward with their own mapping projects so as to avoid complete reliance on one provider. Perhaps the real estate industry should consider doing the same.

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