Google Bets (Again) on QR Codes

Will Its Big Local Play Help the Technology Take Off?

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Google is making some big moves in local advertising lately.

A couple weeks back the search giant added a mobile couponing option to its Google Local Business Center listing. This means that when a mobile web search lands you on a business's "Place Page," you can get a coupon that is redeemable straight from your phone (no need for printing).

Now, Google has launched a new effort to send window decals to over 100,000 local businesses in the U.S. that have been the most sought out and researched on and Google Maps.

They're calling these businesses the "Favorite Places on Google" and you'll now start to find them in over 9,000 towns and cities, in all 50 states. You can also explore a sample of the Favorite Places in 20 of the largest U.S. cities at

Each window decal has a unique bar code, known as a QR code that you can scan with any of hundreds of mobile devices -- including iPhone, Android-powered phones, BlackBerry and more -- to take you directly to that business's Place Page on your mobile phone. With your mobile phone and these new decals, you can go up to a storefront and immediately find reviews, get a coupon if the business is offering one or star a business as a place you want to remember for the future. Soon, you'll be able to leave a review on the mobile page as well, just like on your desktop.

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So just as businesses display a Zagat or Michelin sticker as a badge of honor, the Google sticker could come to be a more organic quality indicator as well as a link to a lot more information about a place. Creating links to Google in the real world is something they've also attempted with their Google Maps markers. The stickers seems a lot less obtrusive.

Citysearch pilot-tested a similar program in San Francisco back in March of 2008. In that trial, 500 businesses reviewed by Citysearch placed printed Scanbuy's brand of bar codes in their windows. Scanning the photo with Scanbuy's software would send you to the business' corresponding Citysearch page where you can read reviews and other information.

Around the same time, QVC and Case Western University did some trials in which students could scan QR codes on outdoor print signage. These codes let users get campus bus arrival times, order magazines, enter sweepstakes and get text alerts from USA Today, among other applications.

As Ad Age reported, Google also dabbled with QR codes in newspapers last year: "Google has already seen results from a recent test campaign conducted in three markets with jewelry retailer Blue Nile. Each ad contained a QR code and a response tag, and was tested against the same ads without the tags. The code-enhanced ads ended up driving 6.5 times more revenue than the ads without."

Despite these tests, QR codes have decidedly not caught on so far in the U.S. While a more concerted effort by Google could change this, they need to try harder than they did with newspapers. One good thing is you can use any QR reader to decipher their codes.

They are also giving away 40,000 Quickmark QR Code Reader apps for the iPhone, which normally cost $1.99 apiece, to promote it.

John Hanke, VP of Google Earth, Maps, and Local, told Techcrunch that Google Maps on mobile phones will also start including businesses as points of interest. (You may have started to see this already and wondered why certain business were featured.) Google calls these "smart maps," and they are based on a business's PlaceRank, which tries to figure out how prominent a place is based on factors such as references on the web, reviews, photos, how many people know about it, how long its been around.

Google has nothing to lose by trying this, and they know that both local and mobile are their future. Typing into a little search box is annoying on a mobile phone, and new "mobile paths" like shortcodes, QR codes and image recognition may soon replace text-entry search altogether. By helping businesses add these new calls-to-action that lead to Google's Place Pages -- as well as beef up their mobile presences with mobile coupons -- they are attempting to own this emerging space.

Overall, this is good news for the mobile industry -- Google can help push adoption of these technologies -- but there is still the barrier of cost. QR decoding requires data, which requires money. Will people be willing to pay money (albeit tiny amounts) to read what is ostensibly an ad? Or will Place Pages provide enough value (through information, maps, reviews and now coupons) that people won't even think twice about it?

Allison Mooney is VP-emerging trends at MobileBehavior, an Omnicom Group Company, and runs their blog Next Great Thing.
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