Is a Tweak to Chrome's Search About to Upend Proximity Marketing?

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Proximity marketing has huge potential but has yet to find its stride. But that may be about to change, thanks to the world's most popular mobile browser.

In the latest version of Chrome for iOS, Google is testing a feature that gives brick-and-mortar retailers a simple, inexpensive and direct connection to nearby shoppers' smartphones. Shoppers using this version of Chrome who tap into the search bar, which Google calls the "OmniBox," will discover content on the "Physical Web," an open source project to allow interaction with smart devices.

As it is, the test feature is hidden behind flags in Chrome that are typically found by software developers, hard-core search marketers and extreme tech hobbyists. But if the Physical Web is added to the OmniBox for every Chrome user, IT would make Physical Web content an integral part of everyday search. In effect, Google would be saying, "I know you want to search for something, so just in case what you seek is in your immediate environment, here is what's nearby. If not, go ahead and type your search term without interruption."

The Physical Web uses digital "touchpoints," typically Bluetooth beacons that broadcast a website URL. These touchpoints are then associated with things and places in the physical world, where smartphones can discover them.

Better than beacons

Beacons have been tried before in brick-and-mortar retail, but they never took off with Apple's predominant iBeacon protocol. Dozens of retailers -- including Macy's, Rite Aid, Target and Walgreens -- deployed thousands of beacons. But each retailer required their own app for shoppers to download. That's a lot of apps.

Moreover, the technology tracked people and pushed messages based upon metrics like visit frequency or dwell time. No matter how many times marketers say "we are going to send you just the right message at just the right time," background tracking and push messages will always feel creepy to many consumers.

On the other hand, if the Physical Web is adopted into Chrome, the browser would be all anyone would need. With more than a billion users each month on both Android and iOS, Chrome represents the world's largest mobile browsing audience. It's growing at more than double the rate of the No. 2 browser, APPLE's Safari. (AS of January 2017, Chrome had a 53.15% share of the mobile browser market, Safari came in at 32.44% and third place, held by Android browser, is not even close at 6.58%.)

Imagine shoppers who touch the OmniBox immediately seeing search results for nearby beacons. In effect, they would have direct access to content, information and digital interactions most relevant to their context. This could include live chat support, product videos or reviews, coupons, in-store promotions and more.

No need to download any other apps; no background tracking or push messages. Physical Web touchpoints are discovered using a tried-and-true search tool, except with results based on proximity rather than on search term.

A boon for retailers

For brick-and-mortar retailers, every in-store shopper holding a smartphone is a great opportunity -- or a lost one. If your in-store customers are using their smartphones for research, there's a good chance they're looking at Amazon or another competitor. Think about that: your competitors having your customer's attention while they are in your store.

If Physical Web search results receive the premium ranking of being the first content seen, then these marketing rights should go the owner of the physical location where the beacons are placed. Taking advantage of these rights is a no-brainer.

It is important, however, for content displayed on the Physical Web to be something shoppers will value. Just like in searching the web, if the results aren't interesting, they will be ignored.

The mobile engagement question has stumped retailers for years, especially regarding shoppers who are physically present during micro-moments, when their intent to learn or buy something is high.

Maybe Google has found the answer: Just let shoppers tell us what they want with their search selections. After all, this approach works for the rest of the web.

Keep an eye on Chrome. You can bet your competition will.

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