Geocode Lookup | Find Latitude and Longitude for an Address
A Geocode lookup is the process to perform in order to obtain the latitude and longitude coordinates that correspond to the physical address of a location. The easiest way to get the geocodes for an address is to enter the address into geocoding software. There are a number of geocoder services and geocoding apis available.
Asking what software to use in order to find the latitude and longitude for addresses is kind of like asking where to find a good sandwich. The answer is, it depends on what kind of sandwich are you wanting to eat. Different sandwiches will have different ingredients, and different qualities The same thing is true when you want to find a service that provides geocodes.
There are a number of software providers that offer geocoding as a service, and they vary in strengths and weaknesses. SmartyStreets is one such provider. Here are a few of our geocoding services that we think you might like.
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Some geocode services use parcel centroid geocodes, and estimate the geocodes of a particular location within a margin of error. Other geocoding service providers offer "rooftop level" accuracy, zeroing in on the exact location. Some can give you geocodes in seconds, while others may take days. Some geocoding services also take an extra step and validate the address before geocoding it, ensuring that the location is real. And of course, prices vary among all of these offerings.
In the rest of this article, we’re going to detail some things to consider when looking for a sandwich geocoding service provider.
Table of Contents
- Find Latitude and Longitude for an Address
- Geocoding Accuracy
- Turnaround Time
- Batch Geocode and Geocoding APIs
- Storing Geocodes
- Address Validation
- Making a Decision
Find Latitude and Longitude for an Address
Finding the latitude and longitude of an address is as simple as using a geocode finder. SmartyStreets offers a geocode lookup software and you can try for free right now. Just visit our online geocode service demo. The geocode will be displayed in the “Metadata” column that is returned.
Geocodes are determined in one of two ways, and knowing which one you need is a very important factor in choosing a service.
The first and less accurate type of geocoding accuracy are parcel centroid geocodes. Parcel centroid geocoding estimates a geocode using math that sounds fancier than it really is. Basically, you take two or more points with known geocodes, such as the corners of a property. Then, you approximate the geocode in the middle. Using this method you find the center of a parcel. Hence, parcel centroid.
Obviously businesses and homes are not always built in the middle of a property, but are built instead at the whims of human beings. That means that geocodes generated by parcel centroid geocoding are less accurate than locating the exact rooftop of each building. But, taking this approach requires less effort and fewer man-hours to determine, thus reducing costs.
The second type of geocodes are rooftop geocodes. These are geocodes that pinpoint the actual location of the rooftop for a home or structure. Rooftop geocodes are the gold standard of geocoding.
Generally, rooftop geocodes start life as parcel centroid and are then refined by using additional data points and calculations to align with the home or building on the parcel.
Accuracy of Geocoding Services
Even though rooftop geocodes are far more accurate than parcel centroid geocodes, many commercial geocoding companies offer parcel centroid geocodes but pretend they are rooftop accurate. Just because someone says they have rooftop geocodes doesn’t mean they are really that precise.
Why would a company do this? The answer has to do with pie. Have you ever seen a sign in the window of a diner exclaiming, “World’s Best Pie!”? Common sense says the restaurant doesn’t really provide the best version of pie on the planet.
More likely, their sign is a gimmick designed to get customers in the door. It turns out that stating, “11th Best Pie In The South Western Quarter of Tuscaloosa!”, just doesn’t move pastries.
Geocode lookup services advertising “rooftop accurate geocodes” may be no better than a gimmicky sign. Their geocoding tools may not even be able to hit the “broad roof of a barn”. Literally.
This screenshot is literally a big red barn. Broad roof and everything.
As you can see this self-proclaimed rooftop geocoder doesn’t hit the roof. In fact, the pin isn’t even within a 50-foot radius of the roof.
Here is another “rooftop” geocode providing results for the same barn.
The pin from this screenshot is half mile down the road from the barn. Both of these geocoders failed to hit the “broad roof of a barn”.
Commercial geocoding companies feel they can pull the wool over your eyes because around 80% of homes in the US are built near the center of the parcel. The same could be said in the case of international geocoding. That means that faking rooftop geocodes is pretty easy if you test properties in large cities and those with smaller standard parcels.
Geocodes offered by these providers fall apart once you look at large or irregular parcels. They get worse when you examine properties with more than one large structure like homes with nearby barns or detached garages.
Whatever your purpose, we bet you want bullseye accuracy with your geocodes. A 47-foot geocode inaccuracy could be as bad as missing the pool by 4.7 feet during your signature swan dive. Ouch.
So, what can you do?
The simplest thing to do is to geocode a bunch of addresses using a geocoder that you are considering. Every geocode service will allow you to test their accuracy before you commit. Grab several addresses from your stack and test addresses until you are satisfied that their accuracy is up to snuff. Use parcels that are large and non-conforming. Push the limits of their accuracy. You will quickly come to find which geocoding providers are really rooftop accurate and which are in the business of marketing gimmicks.
For starters, you can test our hyper accurate US rooftop geocoder to geocode addresses. We think you will be happy with what you find.
Let's talk about cookies, and not just because they're delicious. They're a good metaphor for many things in life, and geocodes are no exception. Specifically, cookies have a lot they can teach us about how geocoding speed can be affected by processing method, and volume of requests. We'll start with the basics.
Pre-made vs. From Scratch
If you're the culinary type, you'll probably be mixing the cookie dough on your own. If you're not, you might buy some premixed cookie dough from the store. Doing that might save you 15 minutes. Geocodes are a little like that; some companies will process a geocode "from scratch." Other companies will provide you with geocodes that come from a precompiled geocode list. Processing geocodes from scratch takes more time and doesn't necessarily give you a higher quality product, just like in our cookie example. So that's the first thing that might impact how long it takes to get your geocodes.
Batch Geocode and Geocoding APIs
Batch geocoding is a feature that allows users to submit addresses in bulk to geocode all at once. Submitting thousands or millions of geocodes at once though a spreadsheet or CSV list upload can save time over processing geocodes one at a time.
Geocoding APIs are Application Programming Interfaces that allow users to create an application that links up with the Geocoding provider’s dataset in order to automate internal and web based geocode requests. A geocode API also allow you to pick and choose what data-points you want to receive and customize how they are displayed. This means that geocoding APIs can also be useful for customer facing applications to allow your users to get geocodes directly.
Now, there's the question of how many cookies you want. You're not likely to want just one cookie (honestly, who stops at one?). So you're going to be making a lot, and that's where things start to slow down. There's only so many cookies you can fit onto a cookie sheet and only so many sheets you can fit into the oven to be processed at a time. Computers are the same way. The more geocode batches you enter into the computer, the longer it may take to process them.
What happens is the processing power is divided amongst requests that come in, slowing down the overall progress of everyone's work. Taken to the extreme, the process can crash from overfilling the oven overloading the computer.
To avoid this problem, sometimes a company will prevent the submission of "batches" through their upload process and won’t offer a geocode API, offering only one-at-a-time or non-automated requests.
Those that do offer a bulk geocoding service may put a cap on how large a batch or list can be or how many batches can be run through at once. Sometimes batches aren't even processed when they come in, but are instead queued for later processing, and then emailed back to the customer.
If you want to process more than a single geocode, you would be wise to look for a provider that is going to allow you to process batch geocodes in large quantity lists and won’t queue your request. Likewise, finding a provider that offers a geocoding API will enable you to create automated workflows with limited upkeep.
The technology that powers SmartyStreets allows us to process addresses immediately by spinning up new servers according to the volume of requests we receive. This allows you to take care of your geocodes in minutes or even seconds instead of days.
Without optimizing for speed, a list of 10,000 addresses can be completed in about 30 seconds. With optimizing for speed, we have achieved a sustained 70,000 lookups per second. That means a small list of 20 million addresses would only take about 5 minutes. Learn more about why you should use SmartyStreets.
Imagine you're a little kid in your parents' house, and you just finished baking cookies as a family. You reach for five cookies, but mom says you can't eat that many or you'll have a tummy ache. She gives you two, then says you can have more tomorrow. Limiting consumption or usage like this is called "throttling."
A company may cap off your individual requests with a limit per second or per day, or anything in between. Just like you can't eat all the cookies in one sitting (challenge accepted!), your geocoding software may not allow you to have all your geocodes processed at once. Take the Google Maps Geocoding API as an example: they halt any progress beyond 50 requests per second calculated as the sum of client-side and server-side queries. If you wanted to geocode 30 million (we have users submitting over 20 billion addresses monthly) it would take more than a hot minute to get your geocodes if you relied on Google. By contrast, SmartyStreets offers processing speeds of over 50 million records per hour. Using a company that throttles your processing speed is like having an oven in the kitchen, but being forced to use a toaster oven instead.
To sum up, how fast you get your geocodes can be impacted by:
- The presence or lack of a static geocodes list (buying the dough vs. making it)
- Batches (full sheet of cookies? If yes, how full?)
- Throttling limit (are you using the full oven, or just a toaster oven?)
- Queuing and processing delays (do the cookies go right into the oven?)
This list is not comprehensive, but these are some important factors that vary from service to service, and they should be considered when trying to decide who to choose for your geocoding needs.
So make sure you know how you want to bake your cookie (batches).
Once you have baked all your cookies, now comes the fun part of eating them! But, if you baked 5 million cookies, chances are that you and your friends are probably not going to eat those millions of cookies in some kind of crazy, sugar-fueled cookie bender this weekend. You probably want a few cookies today, some tomorrow, some a month from now and maybe you want to freeze some of those cookies to eat in a few years. After all, these cookies have a long shelf life.
Many commercial geocoding companies aren’t going to allow you to store your geocodes. They want you to keep coming to them for geocodes every time you need one. So, they create a Terms of Services that forbid you from pre-fetching, storing or caching geocodes.
This means that even if you have a database of homes that your company insures, you wouldn’t be able to include those geocodes in your database for examination at a future date. You would need to obtain those geocodes all over again when you needed them. Wouldn’t it be a shame to have to throw away all your 5 million cookies before you really have the chance to enjoy them?
Logic suggests using a geocoder that allows you to hang onto those geocodes for when you need them even if that isn’t today. SmartyStreets does allow you to store your geocodes. Checkout the Data Ownership section of our Terms of Service for more details.
Another important factor in choosing from geocoding services is the issue of postal address verification. It's easy to assume that "rooftop level" accuracy in geocodes is the most reliable data available. After all, if everything was geocoded by hand, doesn't that mean they know where everything is? If the service can tell you right where something is on a map, then that's the highest level of validation possibly available, right?
Well, there's a problem with that point of view. What happens if someone gives the geocode service an address that doesn't exist? Unfortunately, mapping services like Google and Bing will respond by providing a fabricated geocode. In other words, they tell you where the geocode would be if that address were real. So, the latitude and longitude coordinates on the map are real, but the address isn't. If you're trying to send something to that address, even though you have a geocoded location, the delivery service may not deliver it because the address isn't valid.
Even though many mapping services provide "rooftop level" geocodes, if they don't validate the address there's no way to tell if the address is real. To avoid showing up at a theoretical doorstep, you need to validate the address first, then geocode it and Google doesn't offer address verification.
Address validation is the process of checking an address against an authoritative mailing database to see if it's real. If the address matches one in the database, it is "validated." In other words, it's an actual location that currently receives mail from the USPS (or applicable international postal service). It's a handy trick that some geocoders use to make sure they don't hand you back bad information.
It's something you might want to consider when choosing a geocode service—how difficult would it make things for you if your delivery person drives up to the GPS lat long coordinates of an empty lot?
Making a Decision
Using the information presented here, you should be able to build some guidelines that allow you to make an informed decision as you search among geocode services. It's dangerous to go alone! Take this:
Questions to Consider when Selecting a Geocoding Service
- Can you test the accuracy of their geocoder? Are they really rooftop accurate?
- Do they allow you to check multiple addresses at once via batch upload or geocoding API? If so, how many?
- Do they allow you to store the geocode yourself? For how long?
- Do they limit how many requests per second or per day?
- What is the turnaround time on getting geocodes?
- Do they validate & provide address standardization?
- Are there queuing and processing delays?
That way, you can get the sandwich you're hungry for. And maybe some pie and cookies on the side.
Since you are interested in how to find the latitude and longitude coordinates for addresses, you may also be interested in how to turn a set of coordinates into an address in a process called reverse geocoding.