Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Maps in (and of) China: Baidu, Bing, and Google

In an earlier post I compared Google Maps and Baidu Map.  There were several key areas in which Google Maps was clearly superior even though Baidu Map has what some find to be a very visually appealing hand-drawn 3D view.  Combined with some of what I've found regarding the impressions of Google Maps held by Chinese youth I suggested that there could be a lot at play in Google Map's recent application for a license to continue operating in China.  If you didn't read the post taking a look at it here will provide more context for the following.

I've since received feedback from a few people indicating they like to use Microsoft's Bing Maps for some of their needs in China.  I'll take a look at how it stacks up to Google Maps and Baidu Map using the same metrics as before.

Here is a section of Zigong, Sichuan province, the same as used in the earlier post, in Bing Maps:

Zigong in Bing Maps

In comparison to either Google Maps or Baidu Map, Bing Maps shows very little detail for Zigong.  For example, the map shows none of the many roads in this area.

The level of detail in Bing Maps for Zigong is similar to many other places I've checked in China, including Shanghai.  While Beijing appears to have a bit more detail, including some streets, and Hong Kong is very detailed, they are not typical of other cities.  Needless to say, based on this it would seem that Bing Maps would be very limited in its usefulness in Mainland China.

However, there's an important piece of information I haven't mentioned.  The map above is from the version of Bing Maps for the US (I will now refer to it as Bing Maps US).  If you go to the version of Bing Maps for China at (I will now refer to it as Bing Maps China) you'll see a very different level of detail.  Here's a map of approximately the same area as above, but seen in Bing Maps China:

Zigong in Bing Maps China

The detail of streets at this level of zoom is obviously much better and compares to Google Maps and Baidu Map.  And unlike Baidu Map, it accurately represents the river.  In that respect Baidu Map has been outdone on its own turf by two non-Chinese companies.

To be clear, all of the examples from Google Maps in the earlier post were from the version of Google Maps for China (I will now refer to it as Google Maps China).  So, in the version for the US (I will now refer to it as Google Maps US) is the view of Zigong sparse in details similar to Bing Maps US?

Zigong in Google Maps US

Not at all.  The above view of Zigong in Google Maps US appears to be the same map as seen in Google Maps China except that English or pinyin (a way to write Chinese words using the Roman alphabet) is also included depending on which is the most appropriate (not always an easy decision, a topic for another day).

In fact, if you zoom in a bit more, you'll see that it even provides other important details in English such as those seen here:

Google Maps doesn't miss the McDonald's and KFC

Yes, indeed Zigong has a McDonald's and KFC just where the map shows.  I walked by them several times while I was in Zigong (though, there are some local specialties I'd highly recommend instead, a possible subject for a later post).  There are also several local business shown on the map as well.  I can't be sure of their accuracy but I can say that more exist than what is shown.  However, neither Baidu Map nor Bing Maps China shows a larger number of businesses in the area and neither offers any information in English.

Is everything there looking better for Google Maps US?  No.  A not-so-small street next to the KFC is missing from the map.  It's also missing from Bing Maps (the more I explore Baidu Bing Maps China and Google Maps the more it appears that at least in Zigong they are using very similar if not identical sources for street data). 

However, here is slightly overlapping section of Zigong as seen in Baidu Map:

Baidu Map captures a street missing in Bing Maps and Google Maps

The traffic light symbol at the intersection in the lower right is where KFC is located.  The road that extends diagonally up to the left is part of what is missing on Google Maps and Bing Maps China.  It seems to deserve being placed on a map and is not just some tiny side street.  I'm rather confident about that since I walked on it several months ago.  Fortunately, I also have a photo of it:

A street that most certainly exists

At another point on the road is this view:

A view of a section of Zigong

There are numerous apartment complexes and small businesses along the road including these:

More of the street in Zigong that certainly exists

As I mentioned in the earlier post, I've found mistakes or omissions in both Google Maps and Baidu Map in various locations in China, but I have not yet noticed any issues in Google Maps that equaled Baidu Map's mangling of Zigong's river.

Regardless, where I claimed Google Maps was most clearly superior to Baidu Map was in its coverage of regions outside of China.  While I shared what North America looked like in Baidu Map (reminder, mostly just grayness without any features) I didn't share a view from Google Maps because I assumed it would be obvious that it was much better.  That may not be the case anymore so to resolve any doubts here is North America as seen in Google Maps China (

North America in Google Maps China

After zooming in quite a bit more, here is a map of the city where I did my undergraduate & graduate studies long ago:

The Baltimore, Maryland area in Google Maps China

Many of the locations on the map are identified in both Chinese and English.  If people in China know of Dundalk by its Chinese name and want to find it that they can do so with Google Maps.  While some in Baltimore may scoff at the idea that people in China would ever need to do this, Dundalkers may feel otherwise.

If you zoom in more, the map is almost entirely in English.  However, my old alma mater does have its name in Chinese provided: 约翰霍普金斯大学 (I need to get that on a sweatshirt).  While Google Maps China doesn't provide the same degree of translation as found in the coverage of China by Google Maps US, its coverage of the US is clearly vastly superior to Baidu Map.

Since Bing Maps shows a very different view of China depending on whether one uses the version for the US or China, one could be particularly suspicious about how North America would appear in Bing Maps China.  Here is what it offers:

North America in Bing Maps China

That's as detailed as it gets.  Zooming in actually causes rivers such as the mighty Mississippi to disappear and for most locations the viewing area will be entirely filled with a light beige color.  There is no mention of the USA but there is a label for Washington, D.C.  It's a little more detailed than Baidu Map but not much more and still of rather limited use.  And Dundalkers you're not alone in being swiped from the face of the earth.  The rest of the world outside of China is equally lacking in detail.

There could be a variety of reasons as to why Bing Maps US and Bing Maps China are each lacking detailed coverage of areas that are offered in the other -- for example, the effort it would take to translate maps, licensing issues, etc.  I've noticed some curious patterns in the global coverage in Bing Maps US that add further intrigue to the issue (I may share these in a later post) so I'll refrain on making any bets for now.  If anyone from Microsoft would like to offer their thoughts I'd certainly be interested to hear them.  Whatever the reasons, the lack of coverage in both cases could lead to some disappointing moments for people using Bing Maps and could hurt its chances in being used by other online services (such as for global hotel reservations).

Since much of what I've shared pivots around what is inside and outside of China, I'll briefly touch on an important related issue for map services in China -- the borders of China.  Here is "China" in Bing Maps China and Google Maps China:

China in Baidu Bing Maps China

China in Google Maps China

Notice that in both there is a dashed line around the South China Sea and around Taiwan to presumably make it clear they are parts of China.  To say the least, these are both areas where any such claims China may make are under significant dispute.  The dashed lines do not appear in Google Maps US and Bing Maps US.  The China-based versions seem to indicate how both Google and Microsoft are trying meet the Chinese government's regulations for map services.

As I mentioned in another post, I think companies such as Google and Microsoft can serve an important role in better connecting the Chinese people to the outside world, helping them to better understand it, and helping the world to better understand China.  I think it can be worthwhile even if it means a significantly higher level of censorship than typically practiced or, as in the cases above, adding in some dashed lines. 

As I mentioned in yet another post, Microsoft Bing's new partnership with Baidu may be of value in this regards (while also possibly putting Google Search in more peril of being blocked).  However, in its current form Bing Maps China won't greatly help in achieving any such lofty goals.

Of the map services in China I've reviewed, only Google Maps effectively offers people in China a detailed view of the US and people in the US a detailed view of China.  This isn't only good for helping people learn more about the world, but also good for Google's business.

Again, Google's strength in its map services in China may mean it will face some special challenges.  For now, both Google and Microsoft continue to wait to see if licenses will be granted for their map services in China.  How that plays out may shed some light on the differences between them. 

Regardless, based on what I've seen it's not hard to imagine what Baidu is hoping for.

Disclosure:  I worked at Microsoft China in the past.  My work did not cover Bing Maps.


  1. Excellent review of these mapping services! My biggest challenge with using Google Maps US in China is the fact that the maps and the satellite imagery do not align. This makes it difficult for me to find the address of a place based on my memory of the landmarks around it.

    Again, thanks for such a well-researched article.

  2. Thanks! In my earlier post on Google Maps and Baidu Map here I pointed out that the maps and satellite imagery now do align (unlike before). Check out Google Maps again and see for yourself.

  3. The biggest issues I find being 'in' China, using a VPN the likes of Bing auto select my country and language which is always very annoying, Google's new maps (from outside China) do not make it easy for me to plan a journey as they think people drive to the letter of the law (lol) and any roadworks info they have is outdated and adds many Km's to the journey (esp. if I'm cycling for eg).

    Only Google maps allow me to fully use the map via English/Pinyin.
    Baidu should be better for accurately showing me which roads are busy etc.
    Bing maps in English for anything in China are a waste of time.

    The only 'best' solution is knowing the district & some guesswork and using a combination of all - a real headache!

    It's not as though we are trying to steal any info, we just come from a culture used to using maps to help us get around etc (one that isn't common in Chinese culture).