If You Control the Description, You Control What it Describes

Charlie Sorrel wrote a great piece for Fast Company: “Why Google Maps Shows You Different Borders, Depending On Where You Are”. We all use digital maps without thinking about the long term consequences of giving a company like Google so much marketshare. And power.

Two key take away quotes:

Take everything on the Internet, even Google Maps, with a pinch of salt.

If you control the description, you control what it describes.



Cherry + Blossoms = Hanami

The big cherry tree this morning at Ikegami Honmon-ji temple, Tokyo

It’s a beautiful day in Tokyo and the cherry blossoms should be peaking today and tomorrow. Get your friends, buy some bento and do some hanami. Enjoy 🌸🍱🍺😊

Apple Maps Nearby Fails in Japan: Comparing the Competition 

Now that my review of Nearby in Japan is out of the way, let’s search a few Japanese categories and see how well each of the “big three” (Apple Maps, Google Maps, Yahoo Japan Maps) perform. The cherry trees are blooming in Tokyo this week so a virtual bento-picnic-hanami outing is a timely theme.

OK let’s go hanami
Searching for cherry trees in bloom might sound impossible but Yahoo Japan Maps has us covered. Their version of nearby has a category for seasonal events such as Hanami, fall leaves and such. Touch the pink cherry blossom icon and viola, not only do we have the nearest places to go hanami, but the map icons also indicate how far along the cherry blossoms are. Easy and fun.

hanami large
L-R Yahoo Japan’s version of nearby gives us a pink icon sakura category which offers places with cherry blossom status icons and an info card with weather forecast and crowded times.
As you might expect Apple Maps and Google Maps can’t help us search for hanami. Google Maps gives us a list of places with hanami in the name and Apple Maps offers to take us to a place called Hanami in Niigata prefecture, a drive across Japan.

hanami 2
L-R Google Maps, Apple Maps search results for hanami. Apple Maps offers to take us to the other side of the Japan which is not very nearby.
Hanami results:
Yahoo Japan Maps = O
Google Maps = X
Apple Maps = X

Next we need to find bento for the outing. Convenience stores all offer packaged, indifferent bento but I want to find a place that has fresh bento made on site.

yahoo japan bento
Yahoo Japan Maps offers a very nice selection of real bento places, with menus. Easy the best list of the three map services.

bento apple
Apple Maps Nearby only offers  a convenience category and a list of convenience stores. Apple’s dated cartoony iOS 6 style map cartography looks bad and needs a refresh.

bento google
Google does not offer a bento category but search offers a decent list of bento chain stores. Google’s map cartography is simple, clean and much easier to read than Apple’s.
Bento results:
Yahoo Japan Maps = O
Google Maps = ∆
Apple Maps= X

On the way back from cherry viewing it would be nice to have another drink or two. Here’s what Yahoo Japan Maps, Google Maps and Apple Maps offer us.

izakaya yahoo japan
Yahoo Japan has a Izakaya/Bar category of course. The Yahoo Japan map view offers a neat feature of greyed out place icons indicating they are not open yet.

izakaya google
Google Maps has a Izakaya nearby category too and their map cartography really is the best of the lot. The Google nearby search lets you set proximity and time of day as well.

izakaya apple
Nearby does not have a Izakaya category but search does offer a decent list of  izakaya places. The grey colored “not open yet” text in list view is impossible to read.
Izakaya results:
Yahoo Japan Maps = O
Google Maps = O
Apple Maps = ∆

Finally, after a day of debauchery there is nothing like a nice soak at a sentō (public bath).

sento yahoo japan
Yahoo Japan Maps does not have a Sentō category, search offers a serviceable list but the Yahoo Japan Map UI here is difficult to use.

sento google
Google Maps search result is beautifully translated to the map view. Google also uses the native Japanese ♨️ icon to denote a real hot spring. Well done.

sento apple
Apple Maps Nearby offers a category but the search results are massage places, not sentō.
Sentō results:
Yahoo Japan Maps = ∆
Google Maps = O
Apple Maps= X

Final results (Hanami, Bento, Izakaya, Sentō):
Yahoo Japan Maps = O
Google Maps = ∆
Apple Maps= X

Google Maps is the overall standard and only falls short on specialty searches such as cherry blossom viewing. Yahoo Japan Maps is the content king of Japan and delivers smart,  unique, niche map solutions that Apple and Google cannot match. Their only weakness is the UI and slightly slower backend system.

Apple Maps Nearby content is utterly incompetent, as my review made clear. If this is the best the Apple map team can do, they should not add Transit in Japan. They simply cannot deliver reliable, or even useable Japanese content.

Rating System
O (maru) = good
∆ (sankaku) = fair
X (peke) = NG/failure


Is This a Japanese Product or Just Some Westerner’s Idea of One? A Review of Apple Maps Nearby Search in Japan

Every summer a friend sends me a box of onions from his farm in Sado. They are delicious but it took me years to learn not to leave them in the box. Fresh onions retain a lot of water and need to be hung carefully to dry. Otherwise they rot.

Digital maps are like an onion. At the center sits the map framework and engine surrounded by layer upon layer of different databases. Apple builds and controls the center, the various outer layers of data content are bought from 3rd parties. Building a database that makes it all work, is a lot of work. It requires constant input, review, inspection and confirmation. Otherwise it rots.

Nearby has been reviewed extensively since the release of iOS 9 so this review will ignore the core technology and focus on the unique aspects of Nearby in Japan: the quantity and quality of the Japanese data layers that surround that core. As I did previously, I’ll use the traditional Japanese three rank rating:

O (maru) = good
∆ (sankaku) = fair
X (peke) = NG

Data Quality
Let’s compare the categories of the newly launched Nearby search in Tokyo with a seasoned set. Nearby in Manhattan offers 8 default categories: Food, Drinks, Shopping, Travel, Services, Fun, Health, Transportation. The Food subcategory offers Popular, Restaurants, Groceries, Fast Food, Coffee Shops, Bakeries, Desserts. Drinks offers Popular, Coffee Shops, Stores, Tea & Juice, Bars, Beer, Wine.

new york nearby
Default Nearby search offerings in Manhattan

Tokyo offers just four defaults: Eating/Drinking, Shopping, Entertainment, Travel. The Eating/Drinking subcategory offers three: Restaurants, Ramen, Cafe. Final score: thirteen food & drink subcategories for Manhattan, three for Tokyo.

Tokyo nearby side by side
Nearby offers far fewer categories in Tokyo

Even with this simple comparison it’s clear that Tokyo Nearby has much less content and fewer categories than New York City. Compared with the local competition Apple Maps has far fewer Japanese listings than Google Maps but both are dwarfed by Yahoo Japan Maps, the content king of Japan.

side x side lisitngs
L-R Apple, Google, Yahoo Japan listings for the same area in Asagaya Tokyo. Not only is Apple’s map data outdated, listings are almost zero compared to Yahoo Japan

Apple uses a number of 3rd party data suppliers for Japan: Increment P supplies basic Japanese map data while Yelp JapanBooking.comTripAdvisor, and Kagaku.com restaurant guide subsidiary Tabelog supply most of the Nearby search data.

As you might suspect a big problem is duplicate listings. Apple is simply not doing a basic job of vetting and coordinating multiple 3rd party supplied information. For example Yelp lists the Starbucks in Gotanda, so does Tabelog, both appear in the local Nearby cafe listing. This kind of duplication is everywhere.

Duplicate SB
Yelp and Tabelog duplicate listings for the same Starbucks

Apple has to do a better job of coordinating and vetting their 3rd party information if they want to deliver a viable map service in Japan. If you use Nearby search in Japan stick with the Tabelog listings as they are the most accurate and Tabelog does a good job keeping them up to date. Yelp, Booking.com, TripAdvisor Japanese listings are hit or miss so be careful.
Data Quality Rating: ∆

Getting information is the first step, curating it is next. Curated information, intelligently categorized, tagged and edited by real and knowledgeable humans makes all the difference between useless and great information. Unfortunately this is where Apple utterly fails. Place categories used in Apple Maps are a mess beyond comprehension. Shinto Shrines are “Landmarks”, Japanese sweets (wagashi) are “Desserts”, Tax Offices are “Event Spaces”, Yakitori is “Chiken Shop” and so on.

chiken shop


Why is this important? Simply put, you can’t find anything. Looking for a wonderful wagashi place in Kyoto? You’re out of luck because Nearby only offers Restaurants, Ramen or Cafe subcategories, no place for wagashi. A search only lists stores that have wagashi in the store name. Surprisingly few. You are forced to switch to Google Maps or Yahoo Japan Maps and search there.

The same problem applies to Izakaya. None of the Nearby subcategories contain Izakaya and like the wagashi example a search only lists place names that contain it or places that were intelligently tagged by Tabelog. In this case however, Nearby offers some related on the fly subcategories: Bars, Pubs, Irish Pubs and Wine Bars.


Notice the trend. Only western style categories are listed. We have arrived at the central problem, the black hole: Nearby only offers listings that match an extremely narrow set of western style category names. Japanese categories are missing so Japanese information is completely ignored. Forget looking for such basics as Soba, Unagi, Yakitori, Yoshoku or even Kissaten. You can find these easily with Yahoo Japan Maps and Google Maps.

The likely explanation for this putrid rotten onion mess is that Apple outsources data curation to some company with little or no Japanese ability except Google Translate to categorize all that 3rd party Japanese data. Certainly there is no Japanese editorial oversight because Nearby has no idea who the Japanese customer is or what they are looking for. It seems like Nearby wants to cater to Lonely Planet travelers who know a little Japanese. It forgot that those people already use Google Maps.
Curation Rating: X

The launch of Nearby search is a token step forward for Apple Maps in Japan but a lot is still missing. Apple’s core map technology works fine but the surrounding data layers are rotten. Data quantity and quality is far behind what Google Maps or Yahoo Japan Maps offer.

Apple Maps is almost four years old. In Japan, even with the addition of Nearby, it remains the broken product released in September 2012.

My next post will compare Nearby with the local competition.

Updated: Added a screen shot for Sentō search, added a web link, and edited for clarity.

Apple Maps Nearby Search Launches in Japan (For Real)

After the false start of Apple Maps Nearby Search in Japan last December, the service has finally been launched. As predicted earlier, the canned search service was rolled out in tandem with the iOS 9.3 release. My next post will be a full review.IMG_0725