Google last week began taking on Yelp, Urban Spoon and other offerings that deliver crowdsourced information about local businesses and points of interest. The move is about to give QR codes a long-needed shove into the mainstream.
QR, or quick response, codes — those odd-looking mobile barcodes that resemble a kind of tiled Rorschach — have a long and uninspiring history in the U.S. The first consumer-facing mobile barcode app first appeared in the U.S. more than 10 years ago as a way to enable users to access online information from their phones without having to manually enter URLs. The concept has taken flight in Japan, where users long ago became accustomed to snapping a photo and submitting it to receive mobile content, marketing pitches or product information. But QR-based efforts have floundered stateside, lacking both a standardized barcode format and consumer awareness, among other factors.
Google is working to change that, though, and in a big way. The Internet behemoth last week began sending out 100,000 window decals — each with a unique image — to more than 100,000 local American businesses that are among the most looked-for on Google.com and Google Maps. The company launched “Favorite Places on Google,” allowing consumers to scan the QR code with their phones to be automatically directed to a Google web page dedicated to the business. The service is supported by Android devices as well as BlackBerry handsets, iPhones and other gadgets with barcode-scanning apps.
“Favorite Places” pages can include user reviews and mobile coupons, and users eventually will be able to create their own reviews from the phone. Google plans to send out “new waves of window decals to qualifying businesses,” growing its potential ad business (by increasing its number of web pages and strengthening relations with potential advertisers) as it cultivates the soil for a new social network based on local business information.
After years of fits and starts — mostly fits — in the QR space, Google’s timing may be perfect. While few handsets are sold with embedded barcode readers, the explosion of app stores will make it easier for consumers to seek out and download software to use QR codes. Retailers are sure to embrace the codes as a way to participate in a novel marketing concept and create stickiness with tech-savvy consumers as they boast about being one of Google’s chosen few. And Google will surely use its ubiquity on the web to tout the new offering, making consumers aware of the benefits of QR codes for the first time.
There are still hurdles to overcome, of course. The majority of U.S. consumers carry feature phones — not smartphones — so developers must find ways to bring barcode-scanning capabilities to lower-end handsets. And retailers will need to be able to show consumers not just how to use QR codes, but why they should be using them. Vendors should leverage not just user reviews but also mobile coupons and other phone-friendly marketing ploys to encourage consumer interaction. And retailers who aren’t deemed fit for Google’s elite circle should be ready to leverage QR codes on their own, directing potential customers to their mobile-friendly web sites. Because if Google’s effort gets legs, it won’t just be “Favorite Places” that get a lift from QR codes — it will be any business that is ready to take advantage of the not-so-new mobile marketing tactic.