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Finding Your Way with Static Maps

Since the introduction of the Google Maps service in 2005, online maps have taken off in a way not really possible before the invention of slippy map interaction. Although quickly followed by a plethora of similar services from both commercial and non-commercial parties, Google’s first-mover advantage, and easy-to-use developer API saw Google Maps become pretty much the de facto mapping service.

Map of Bethlehem, Israel

It’s now so easy to add a map to a web page, there’s no reason not to. Dropping an iframe map into your page is as simple as embedding a YouTube video.

But there’s one crucial drawback to both the solution Google provides for you to drop into your page and the code developers typically implement themselves – they don’t work without JavaScript.

A bit about JavaScript

Back in October of this year, The Yahoo! Developer Network blog ran some tests to measure how many visitors to the Yahoo! home page didn’t have JavaScript available or enabled in their browser. It’s an interesting test when you consider that the audience for the Yahoo! home page (one of the most visited pages on the web) represents about as mainstream a sample as you’ll find. If there’s any such thing as an ‘average Web user’ then this is them.

The results surprised me. It varied from region to region, but at most just two per cent of visitors didn’t have JavaScript running. To be honest, I was expecting it to be higher, but this quote from the article caught my attention:

While the percentage of visitors with JavaScript disabled seems like a low number, keep in mind that small percentages of big numbers are also big numbers.

That’s right, of course, and it got me thinking about what that two per cent means. For many sites, two per cent is the number of visitors using the Opera web browser, using IE6, or using Mobile Safari.

So, although a small percentage of the total, users without JavaScript can’t just be forgotten about, and catering for them is at the very heart of how the web is supposed to work.

Starting with content in HTML, we layer on presentation with CSS and then enhance interactivity with JavaScript. If anything fails along the way or the network craps out, or a browser just doesn’t support one of the technologies, the user still gets something they can work with.

It’s progressive enhancement – also known as doing our jobs properly.

Sorry, wasn’t this about maps?

As I was saying, the default code Google provides, and the example code it gives to developers (which typically just gets followed ‘as is’) doesn’t account for users without JavaScript. No JavaScript, no content.

When adding the ability to publish maps to our small content management system Perch, I didn’t want to provide a solution that only worked with JavaScript. I had to go looking for a way to provide maps without JavaScript, too.

There’s a simple solution, fortunately, in the form of static map tiles. All the various slippy map services use a JavaScript interface on top of what are basically rendered map image tiles. Dragging the map loads in more image tiles in the direction you want to view. If you’ve used a slippy map on a slow connection, you’ll be familiar with seeing these tiles load in one by one.

The Static Map API

The good news is that these tiles (or tiles just like them) can be used as regular images on your site. Google has a Static Map API which not only gives you a handy interface to retrieve a tile for the exact area you need, but also allows you to place pins, and zoom and centre the tile so that the image looks just so.

This means that you can create a static, non-JavaScript version of your slippy map’s initial (or ideal) state to load into your page as a regular image, and then have the JavaScript map hijack the image and make it slippy.

Clearly, that’s not going to be a perfect solution for every map’s requirements. It doesn’t allow for panning, zooming or interrogation without JavaScript. However, for the majority of straightforward map uses online, a static map makes a great alternative for those visitors without JavaScript.

Map of London

Here’s the how

Retrieving a static map tile is staggeringly easy – it’s just a case of forming a URL with the correct arguments and then using that as the src of an image tag.

<img src="
	width="540" height="280" alt="Map of Bethlehem, Israel" />

As you can see, there are a few key options that we pass along to the base URL. All of these should be familiar to anyone who’s worked with the JavaScript API.

  • center determines the point on which the map is centred. This can be latitude and longitude values, or simply an address which is then geocoded.
  • zoom sets the zoom level.
  • size is the pixel dimensions of the image you require.
  • maptype can be roadmap, satellite, terrain or hybrid.
  • markers sets one or more pin locations. Markers can be labelled, have different colours, and so on – there’s quite a lot of control available.
  • sensor states whether you are using a sensor to determine the user’s location. When just embedding a map in a web page, set this to false.

There are many options, including plotting paths and setting the image format, which can all be found in the straightforward documentation.

Adding to your page

If you’ve worked with the JavaScript API, you’ll know that it needs a container element which you inject the map into:

<div id="map"></div>

All you need to do is put your static image inside that container:

<div id="map">
   <img src="[...]" />

And then, in your JavaScript, find the image and remove it. For example, with jQuery you’d simply use:

$('#map img').remove();

Why not use a <noscript> element around the image? You could, and that would certainly work fine for browsers that do not support JavaScript. What that won’t cover, however, is the situation where the browser has JavaScript support but, for whatever reason, the JavaScript doesn’t run. This could be due to network issues, an aggressive corporate firewall, or even just a bug in your code. So for that reason, we put the image in for all browsers that show images, and then remove it when the JavaScript is successfully running.

See an example in action

About rate limits

The Google Static Map API limits the requests per site viewer – currently at one thousand distinct maps per day per viewer. So, for most sites you really don’t need to worry about the rate limit. Requests for the same tile aren’t normally counted, as the tile has already been generated and is cached. You can embed the images direct from Google and let it worry about the distribution and caching.

In conclusion

As you can see, adding a static map alongside your dynamic map for those users without JavaScript is very easy indeed. There may not be a huge percentage of web visitors browsing without JavaScript but, as we’ve seen, a small percentage of a big number is still a big number. When it’s so easy to add a static map, can you really justify not doing it?

About the author

Drew McLellan is a developer and content management consultant from Bristol, England. He’s the lead developer for the popular Perch and Perch Runway content management systems, and public speaking portfolio site Notist. Drew was formerly Group Lead at the Web Standards Project, and a Search Innovation engineer at Yahoo!. When not publishing 24 ways, he keeps a personal site about web development, takes photos, tweets a lot and tries to stay upright on his bicycle.

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