Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Google Maps and Baidu Map in China

A couple of months ago there were reports that Google was "in talks with the Chinese government about its online map product" after Google had missed one deadline to apply for the newly required state license to operate an online mapping service in China.  Reportedly, the new license was to ensure maps did not reveal information that was considered sensitive to China's national security.  While some of Google's services in China, such as search, now redirect to servers in Hong Kong, Google Maps currently remains "in China".

Since those initial reports, I've noticed some curious patterns in my research on Chinese youth (those approxiately 18-25 years old) that made me wonder if there is something more to the story, as there often is in China.  I'll provide an overview of what I noticed in my research, some comparisons of Google's and Baidu's online map services, and a few comments on what I think this all may say regarding the above mentioned and more recent news about Google Maps in China.

In short, I've seen some indications that younger people across a number of regions in China (2nd tier cities and smaller) prefer Google Maps over the online map service offered by Google's main competitor in China, Baidu.

There are four things in what I've heard from younger people that particularly stand out.  One, a strong preference for Google Maps can be expressed even when the person rarely or never uses any of Google's other services.  Two, some were very animated when talking about Google Maps -- it seems to have really connected with them.  Three, I have heard the same thing from people in a variety of regions ranging from Shandong in the east to Sichuan in the southwest.  Four, it has been uncommon for someone to express an overall preference for Baidu Map.

Given the nature of the interviews (very exploratory in nature and no observation of people actually using online maps), I can't be sure of "why" this may be.  Some youth commented that Google Maps was easier to use while others mentioned the richer visual imagery available.  I'd want to do more in-depth research before commenting further.

To provide a sense on some of the reasons youth may prefer Google Maps over Baidu Map I'll make some comparisons.

To start, Baidu has a relatively new view for its map service that has even caught some attention in the US.

Baidu Map's 3D view of the Xujiahui District in Shanghai

This hand-drawn 3D view includes quite a bit of detail.  Above is a part of Shanghai were I've lived and worked.  The 3D view received some positive comments in the US such as "the maps are pretty rad" by Nicholas Jackson of The Atlantic. titled a post "Baidu beats Google when it comes to mapping" and Jason Chen at Gizmodo expressed hope that Google would create similar maps.

So, should Google be jealous or concerned?  While I appreciate the appeal and possible applications of Baidu's 3D view, overall I don't believe Google has much to worry about at the moment.

Baidu's 3D view is lacking in several important aspects.  One, even in a major city such as Shanghai, only the very central districts are covered.  See here for what is found just next to the region shown above:

I can say with great confidence that those blank regions are very urban regions and not fields or beach front.  IKEA must be disappointed that its building so narrowly missed being included -- it's located just to the left of the highway intersection in the center of the image.

Another limitation can be seen in the details. It appears that not all of the buildings are up-to-date.  For example, one area shows an "under-construction" building that was completed a number of years ago.  I'd be curious to know what Baidu uses as a source to guide visual design of the map.  Given the vast amount of construction and rebuilding in China, regularly updating the map would be all the more important.

Another issue is that the 3D view is not aligned with the regular map view.  When toggling between the two views the scene is rotated by about 20-30 degrees -- a somewhat disorienting experience both due to the change and to the resulting unusual orientation of the map (north is no longer straight up).

Even with these limitations, Shanghai is "lucky".  Another key issue is that the 3D view is not available at all for most cities in China.

So, how do Google Maps and Baidu Map compare in the majority of cases where Baidu Map does not offer 3D view?

For one example, take a look at Zigong in Sichuan province -- a city where I heard some youth express their preference for Google Maps.  Here is a map of a section of Zigong as seen through Google Maps China-based service:

Zigong in Google Maps

Here is a map at a similar zoom in Baidu Map:

Zigong in Baidu Map

As you can see, there are some significant differences, but you may notice something particularly different -- the river.  On Baidu Map it abruptly stops at either end and extends to a region in the east where Google Maps shows no river.  Maybe Baidu Map is correct and it's really a narrow lake or the river travels underground in parts.

How to know for sure?  Well, there's no obvious way on Baidu Map, but on Google Maps one can easily switch to the satellite view (I should note it now appears to be well aligned with the map view, which wasn't the case earlier for Google's maps of China):

Zigong in Google Maps' Satellite View

Unless Google is manipulating the satellite imagery, it's readily apparent their map of the river is far more accurate.

There are a variety of comparisons one could make between Google's and Baidu's online maps and Google Maps doesn't always come out on top.  For example, when I was in Dunhua, Jilin province (see here for some scenes of Dunhua) I noticed several differences because Google Maps was missing a street I needed to find and it appeared on Baidu Map.  I further noticed they didn't agree on some street names and I walked around to see who was correct -- based on the street signs it was Baidu Map.  However, Google Maps had identified some landmarks such as a park that were not identified on Baidu Map.

What about maps for outside of China?  Well, Baidu of course has maps of other locations, such as North America.  However, the level of detail may surprise you:

All the detail you need for North America

The above map in Baidu is as detailed as it gets.  Zoom in any more and all you will see is a screen of grayness.  Too bad, I was really looking forward to seeing if the Mississippi River remained intact.  Other non-Chinese parts of the world have a similar amount of detail.  Seeing Baidu Map's different levels of detail for China and elsewhere reminded me of famous map of a New Yorker's view of the world.  You can explore Google Maps' view of North America yourself if you question whether it provides any more detail than above.

It would be complex to do a full comparison of Google Maps and Baidu Maps coverage of China in terms of streets, places, services available, etc.  However, while neither is perfect, typically any missing or mistaken information I've noticed on Google Maps does not involve large scale errors so obvious as missing large sections of a river.   Furthermore, the coverage of China by the satellite view of Google Maps, even if only including detailed views, readily appears to be far greater than that of Baidu Map's 3D view.

Google clearly offers an experience on online maps that in some respects Baidu simply can't match right now.  This plus what I've heard from Chinese youth makes me strongly suspect that Google is noticing Google Maps is receiving significant attention in China.  In fact, they may not be the only ones in China aware of this.

I think these points are key for two main reasons.

One, the relative strength of Google Maps may be another reason why Google is reportedly being asked to jump through new hurdles to maintain the service in China.  As discussed in an earlier post about Google's problems in China (see here), any success Google finds in China may motivate others to make life more difficult for it because better connected Chinese companies will be "losing out".

Two, it may explain why Google is now reportedly planning to partner with a Chinese company to ensure they can keep their obtain the map license in order to meet new requirements Google has reportedly been willing to partner with a Chinese company in its recently submitted application for an online map license.  Google may believe that they have something special with Google Maps in China and are willing to make a pragmatic choice in order to keep it as fully operational as possible in China.  Creating a partnership with the right company in China would not only help Google Maps meet China's new rules but also possibly help better protect Google Maps in the future since a more local (and possibly better connected) company would be involved.  If this is true it may be an important hint about Google's outlook & strategy for moving ahead in China.

Finally, regardless of the motivations behind the new rules for online maps in China and how Google is responding, the difference in what Google Maps can offer in comparison to Baidu Map is both vast and important.  In an upcoming post I'll write about another company that would like to establish a strong online presence in China and who can also provide something desired by many Chinese yet not currently available through any Chinese company.  In their own way, like Google they don't have blank maps for most of the world.

Added Note:  For more details see the post: Google and the New Rules for Online Map Services in China

2nd Added Note:  For how Bing Maps compares as well plus additional analysis of Google Maps and Baidu Map see: Maps in (and of) China: Baidu, Bing, and Google

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