For example, say I have a table:

Business(BusinessID, Lattitude, Longitude)

All are indexed of course. Also there are 1 million records

Say I want to find businesses closest to 106,5, for example, how would I do so?

If I do

FROM Business
WHERE (Some formula to compute distance here) < 2000

for example, or if I do

FROM Business
TOP 20

In theory the computer will have to compute distance for all biz while in practice only those with lattitude and longitude within a certain range that should be computed.

So how can I do what I want in PhP, or SQL, for example?

I am grateful with the answer so far. I am using mysql and they do not have anything more efficient than the obvious solution. MySQL spatial do not have compute distance function either.

3 Answers 3


If I understand the question correctly (and I'm not sure I do), you are worried about computing "(Some formula to compute distance here)" for every row in the table each time you do a query?

This can be mitigated to a degree by using the indexes on latitude and longitude so we only have to compute the distance for a 'box' of points containing the circle we actually want:

select * from business
where (latitude>96 and latitude<116) and 
      (longitude>-5 and longitude<15) and 
      (Some formula to compute distance here) < 2000

Where 96, 116 etc are chosen to match the unit of the value '2000' and the point on the globe you are calculating distances from.

How precisely this uses indexes will depend on your RDBMS and the choices its planner makes.

In general terms, this is a primitive way of optimising a kind of nearest neighbour search. If your RDBMS supports GiST indexes, like postgres then you should consider using them instead.

  • I used mysql. However, some mysql engine support geopatial though not innodb.
    – user4951
    Jun 14, 2012 at 6:29
  • Am I right that you have no option to change from MySQL? In which case please tag the question mysql Jun 14, 2012 at 10:34
  • Actually I now add auxiliary table of myisam now how do I do this efficiently then?
    – user4951
    Jun 21, 2012 at 2:38
  • Well I can use mongodb. I haven't decided that. However, I am most familiar with mysql.
    – user4951
    Jun 21, 2012 at 8:13
  • 1
    My advice would be to get familiar with postgres if at all posible - compared to MongoDB it is much more similar to MySQL and has a solid history with spatial data, and your comments elsewhere indicate you prefer 'free'. Jun 21, 2012 at 8:16

(Disclosure: I'm a Microsoft SQL Server guy, so my answers are influenced by that.)

To really do it efficiently, there's two things you want: caching and native spatial data support. Spatial data support lets you store geography and geometry data directly in the database without doing intensive/expensive calculations on the fly, and lets you build indexes to very rapidly find the closest point to your current location (or most efficient route or whatever).

Caching is important if you want to scale, period. The fastest query is the one you never make. Whenever a user asks for the closest things to him, you store his location and the result set in a cache like Redis or memcached for a period of hours. Business locations aren't going to change for 4 hours - well, they might if someone edits a business, but you don't necessarily need that to be immediately updated in all result sets.

  • I can't work out from your link whether SQL Server really does index spatial data in a way that is useful for getting a list of nearby points - does it? Aug 1, 2011 at 12:22
  • It looks it doesn't Aug 1, 2011 at 12:34
  • The thing is I am using mysql and I have verified they do not have any algorithm more efficient than what Jack Douglas prescribed. I wonder if mysql will do that sort of thing like caching either. Microsoft SQL is paid and mysql is free
    – user4951
    Aug 2, 2011 at 8:41
  • 1
    Business location will not change all the time, however people's location will.
    – user4951
    Jun 14, 2012 at 6:30

Yelp likely uses GIS

PostgreSQL has the reference implementation for GIS with PostGIS. Yelp may be using MySQL which is inferior in every way. In the case of something like Yelp, they almost certainly keep the coordinates for,

  • The user
  • The potential destinations

Those coordinates are almost certainly in WGS84, and stored as Geography type. In PostgreSQL, and PostGIS it would look something like this,

CREATE TABLE businesses (
  name text,
  geog geography(point)
CREATE INDEX ON businesses USING gist(geog);
.... fill table
ANALYZE businesses;

They would fill that table. Then they grab the WGS84 coordinates from your phone and generate a query, like this with SQL Alchemy (in the case of Yelp),

FROM businesses AS b
WHERE ST_DWithin( b.geog, ST_MakePoint(userLong,userLat) );

For more information see our , and check out Geographic Information Systems @ StackExchange

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