Google Barcodes and Place Rank Transforming Local Search

A couple of days ago, the Official Google Blog announced a new way of learning more about locations that you come across, using mobile phones that are capable of taking pictures of, or scanning barcodes.

The post, Explore a whole new way to window shop, with Google and your mobile phone, describes how Google is sending out window decals to “more than 100,000 local businesses in the U.S.” that people can scan or take pictures of with their mobile phones to learn more about those businesses.

Image from Google Barcode Patent showing placement for barcodes for a restaurant, a parking lot, an office building, and a city park.

A patent application assigned to Google was published today which provides a fair amount of detail on how a system like this might work, and goes beyond the use of barcodes for businesses to include parks, government buildings, attractions, and landmarks, as seen in the image above from the patent filing.

Taking a picture of a barcode might result in the display of more information on a phone’s screen, or an audio message. The content returned in response to someone scanning one of these barcodes could include other things such as maps, coupons, advertisements, reviews, and more.

Image from Google Barcode Patent showing a server system communicating with a phone over a wireless network, providing information advertising, and a coupon to the phone's user.

The patent application is:

Machine-Readable Representation of Geographic Information
Invented by Arnaud Sahuguet
US Patent Application 20090303036
Published December 10, 2009
Filed June 10, 2008

Abstract

A computer-implemented location identification method involves obtaining a digital image of a machine-readable representation encoded with a geographic location identifier that is associated with a geographic location, decoding the image of the machine-readable representation to produce the geographic location identifier, and presenting content related to the geographic location and identified using the decoded geographic location identifier.

One question that needs to be asked, is why would Google rely upon stickers for a system like this instead of using something like Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) information, or cell phone triangulation, or some other method that would negate the need for someone to take an actual picture?

We’re told in the patent filing that GPS systems have some limitations, such as:

  • Subscription to a GPS navigation system may be expensive, and difficult to use
  • GPS Functionality requires unobstructed skyward views, which may not be possible in some places, like metropolitan areas with skyscrapers
  • Privacy concerns with GPS may keep some people from using a device that permits precise tracking of their location without their consent

Barcodes like the kinds found on the stickers that Google is sending out to businesses might not just be found in the windows of businesses, but could also be located on the pavement of parking lots or on signs associated with those lots, near the entrance to an office building, on a traffic light pole, at or near the base of a monument, or in many other places.

The barcodes could include text explanations of how they might be used, and could also use non-visual components such as Radio Frequency (RF) tags, for handheld devices that can read those.

We’re also told in the patent application that privacy concerns could be addressed by letting the user of a phone or other kind of handheld manually control when they wanted more information about the barcode or RF tag.

The barcodes could also be used by people to provide them with maps of their locations, which they could zoom in and out to view what else might be around them, whether on a city block level, or a larger portion of a city, or state. It can also show other possible “areas of interest,” such as parks or restaurants, post offices, capitol buildings, etc.

If you want to find other nearby restaurants for example, you might run a restaurant locating application on your phone to find other restaurants that might offer similar fare. You might also be able to locate advertisements, promotions, coupons, and reminders for other nearby destinations.

As I mentioned quickly above with the use of barcodes possibly placed on the pavement of a parking log, barcodes aren’t limited to window stickers but could also be affixed to “paper, plastic, wood, metal, or any other appropriate material.”

While Google is mailing out stickers to a large number of businesses, the patent tells us that recipients of such barcodes might be able to receive them electronically, so that they can print them out, or generate them in some other fashion:

As one example of the process just described, an organization, such as a franchisor, may identify a number of different geographic locations, such as the locations of various restaurants within its franchisee network. A mailing list for the restaurants may be imported into an application which may then convert the address information to a two-dimensional barcode, and may print the two-dimensional barcode along with the address information in a human-readable format.

For example, the two-dimensional barcode can be printed on a sticker and the human-readable address may be printed on a mailing label so that the two-dimensional barcode can be mailed to the appropriate restaurant. The items may be accompanied by instructions telling a manager at each restaurant where to post the two-dimensional barcode (e.g., near a front door, on a promotional poster).

In another example of the process, an entrepreneur may visit a web site for a promotion (e.g., a COCA-COLA.RTM. sales promotion) and may use a mapping interface to locate her store on a map. The web site may then generate a screen containing a two-dimensional barcode for the location that the person may print out on a home or business printer, such as onto an adhesive label. The web site could also instruct her what to do with the label.

How did Google decide which businesses to include in their initial mailing of stickers?

The more than 100,000 businesses are supposedly the “local businesses in the U.S. that have been the most sought out and researched on Google.com and Google Maps,” which Google is calling Favorite Places on Google.

Ash Nallawalla wrote a post, Google PlaceRank in the wild, about Google’s favorite places’ selections, noting that John Hanke, Google VP of Google Earth, Maps, and Local, mentioned in a Techcrunch quote that “Google will be adding these businesses incrementally,” and that “They are selected based on their PlaceRank.”

The very detailed post from Ash looks at some of the different ranking factors that Google may be looking for when deciding upon the PlaceRank. In doing so, he points to a post of mine from 2007, Google’s Place Rank and Interestingness – Ranking Geographic Entities in Maps/Earth for Display, which describes Google’s patent filing on Place Rank – Entity Display Priority in a Distributed Geographic Information System.

It’s interesting to see the processes behind that older patent filing used together with the barcode system described in this newer patent application in a way that could expand Google’s ability to provide local search information in a significant manner.

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42 thoughts on “Google Barcodes and Place Rank Transforming Local Search”

  1. Wow… this is the next generation of methodologies to connect businesses with potential customers. Combining mobile technology with a business database of information – easily accessed – would be a great way for businesses to reach out to consumers. Barcodes would make it so easy that the user wouldn’t even enter any location information.. just scan it!

    Wild.
    Thanks for this!

  2. I am a real fan of location based services, which I believe can be quite powerful with this kind of information mash-up – but I really doubt that the small and local stores, restaurants … are able to catch up with this kind of technology. If you would really try to make it a marketing and sales tool than someone has to feed “relevant” content like special offers, opening times … into the database. My fear is that it will be mainly static and will not have the power it could have due to the lack of knowledge and resources. We will see :-)

    Cheers – Daniel

  3. If used properly, this could be a fantastic tool for many businesses. How this tool will be used is yet to be seen … but you can count on some amazingly creative uses in the near future.

  4. Interesting. Yeah, I just hope that this will be used properly. Thank you for sharing this wonderful information.

  5. Once more, great post. Really like your way of describing things. I’m really looking forward to the increasing usage of barcodes. Even considered accounts with barcodes as their twitter profile pic as fun and innovative, but this is a complete new level. Awesome!

  6. Bar codes don’t seem like the best way of doing this… I would think that some kind of RF technology (like what they use for theft protection in stores) would be better… but then again…

    I suppose if you used something that was automatically downloaded by the phone without the user actively asking for it by aiming the phone at the barcode it would turn into a spamfest very quickly.

  7. They’ve used barcodes with mobiles in Japan for some time. So you can walk past a restaurant scan the bar code which brings up the menu on their website for you to read as you walk. This is an interesting new twist to the technology and will be watching keenly from over here in the UK.

  8. Hi Denver SEO,

    It really does make sense for Google to pay more attention to combining mobile web technology with local search – so many people now carry phones around that can access the Web, and the numbers are growing significantly. I’m keeping my eyes open for decals on storefront windows for my first sighting of one of these.

  9. Hi Daniel,

    I was looking through my local chamber of commerce business directory guide earlier today to see how many of the businesses listed included web addresses, and I was a little disappointed that more didn’t. I also looked a few up to see if they had verified their business listings in Google, and only a few of the ones I checked had.

    I’m wondering if something like Google’s mass mailing of window decals might be a tipping point, that might make more business owners start thinking about using the Web, and services like Google Maps – you don’t need a web site to be included. As for determining what kind of content should be shown when someone looks up a barcode, it’s possible that something might be developed through Google Maps to help business owners have some control over that content – I guess we need to wait and see. :)

  10. Hi Mauibob,

    I do think there are lots of opportunities for something like this – I’m looking forward to seeing how Google tries to building upon the process.

  11. Hi Luigi,

    You’re welcome. I think there are some possibilities that this process could be misused. My mind is freezing up when I start thinking about window decal spam (it doesn’t want to go there.) I’ve had my car windshield stuffed with brochures when parking at the supermarket in the past – I’m envisioning those pamphets starting to include barcodes on them as well. I won’t go on…

  12. Hi Sascha,

    Thanks. It’s a lot of fun when a patent comes out at the same time that the company publishing it takes some kind of action on the patent, like this one on barcodes. My post on Place Rank was written two years ago, and it wasn’t clear whether or not Google was using it with Google Earth and Google Maps.

  13. Hi Jimbo,

    Good point on mobile technology in Japan. I know there’s been a lot of experimentation and use of mobile devices with search and with barcodes there. I’m excited to see the tie-in with phones and local search.

  14. Hi Buzzlord,

    The patent filing does mention that RF tags could be used as well as decals, and it’s possible that it might be more effective that way. But I’m guessing that Google wants the visibilty that window decals might bring, as a way of letting people learn about the technology. RFID tags are intended to be unobstrusive, and they wouldn’t capture people’s attention the way that barcodes would.

  15. Hi Digital Success,

    This does bring the online world more concretely into the offline world. I’m both excited and concerned about what we might see in the future from the use of decals like this.

  16. I feel that Google is getting more like “Big Brother” every day, they are getting into to many things that are becoming part of our lives.

  17. Hi reactorr.com,

    I’m wondering if we will see radio frequency IDs from Google with stickers in the future. The patent filing does mention them, but there have been a lot articles and publications that raise privacy concerns about their use. I don’t know if those concerns would come into play in a system like this.

  18. Hi Graeme,

    With some of the things I’ve seen in some patent filings from the search engines, I have had a sense of Big Brother washiing over me. If you’ve seen the movie “Minority Report,” you might wonder if some of the things in that movie, such as individualized in-store and billboard advertising based upon retina scans might be something that we do see in the future.

  19. I am not sure that this new search technology is going to be a big traffic driver to businesses. It is an interesting novelty and may ultimately make Google search more powerful, but I don’t see it being a big traffic driver for businesses.

  20. Hi People Finder,

    If anything else, it has the potential to make Google more visible offline. It’s going to be interesting to see how many businesses actually put those stickers up in their windows.

  21. I just receive my Google sticker thing in the mail for the company that I market. So I had to hit up the internet to see what kind of buzz it was generating. Since I represent a glass fabricator I do now know how helpful the window decal will be but we will give it a shot.

  22. Hi John,

    Thanks – it’s interesting to hear the initial thoughts of someone receiving a decal.

    It’s going to be interesting to see how much of an impact the decals might have. 100,000 decals might seem like a lot, but I’m wondering what percentage that is of businesses located in the United States. How frequently will be actually see Google decals in the windows of the stores and offices and restaurants we visit? Where will those point to? If Google acquires Yelp, which is a very recent rumor, would sending people who scan decals to a Yelp page for a business make sense? Or will they be sent to the Google Place Page for that business? Or somewhere else entirely?

  23. We received one of the “Favorite” local vendor stickers for our window. We have offices in every State, and used to be listed when searching for every one of them in google. Not spam addresses, real local offices in every State for our customers, so we got the listings verified and showed up on results. Took a lot of work. The interesting thing is that we’ve been totally dropped on all search locally and then we get this sticker as one of the favorites. Haven’t done anything different….

    Guessing the whole algorithym of local maps has changed along with the stickers??

    Any thoughts?

  24. Hi Dean,

    There’s a real irony to your situation. I believe that I read something similar happening to another business that received a Favorite Places sticker only to disappear from local search results around the same time. In that case, the business asked about the problem at the Google Maps Help forum, and I think the reason why they disappeared was because of some kind of error, that was identified and resolved when they posted about it in the help forum.

    There may be some connection between how a business is ranked in Google Maps for different queries, and how the “Favorite Places” were determined, but I don’t believe that they are the same algorithms from what I’ve read and seen. While some of the signals that Google looks at to determine whether or not you are a “Favorite Place” may help in how your site ranks in local search, the local search ranking algorithms look at a number of other signals as well.

  25. Hi Sean,

    Good to hear. I don’t know if being given a sticker will help with your ranking in local search, but if more people see the stickers, then we may have more people using local search – and you may have more people looking your site up online.

  26. If you would really try to make it a marketing and sales tool. I am really a fan of location based services, which I believe can be quite powerful with this kind of information mash-up – but I really doubt that the small and local stores, restaurants etc. are able to catch up with this kind of technology. My fear is that it will be mainly static and will not have the power it could have due to the lack of knowledge and resources.

  27. Hi Marco,

    You might be right, but I think that businesses that are able to catch on to the technology may find some advantages in doing so. And that may spur others into learning. It’s really in Google’s best interest to make this process as easy as possible so that many businesses do participate.

  28. I had the same problem as Dean with one of my clients. Before the Caffeine upgrade they ranked exceedingly well for local search, now they are on page four. I really don’t know what to do about it since I can’t find any reason for this sharp of a decrease. Bill, do you have any ideas on why caffeine caused them to slip so much? Any major variable of the search algorithm which has become useless in the latest upgrade?

  29. Hi Sean,

    The focus of Caffeine wasn’t so much to rank pages, but rather to index content more quickly, and possibly to allow Google to focus upon adding other ranking mechanisms that require more speed and memory.

    My latest post was in Google’s index within a minute of being posted, which was pretty impressive.

    As for how caffeine might have influenced local search results, it’s possible that other issues besides caffeine were to blame. Usually ranking drops can happen for at least four reasons:

    1. You’ve changed something on your site
    2. Your competitors have changed something on their sites
    3. Sites that may have linked to you or mentioned your site may have disappeared, dropped in rankings, or been discounted in some way
    4. The search engine may have made changes to the way that it ranks pages.

    Local search rankings can also be influenced by other factors. You might get some additional ideas on things to look for in my posts on Location Prominence and Location Sensitivity.

    It’s also possible that a combination of the above may have also played a role.

    Without seeing the site and search results in question, as well as learning something about the efforts behind getting it to rank in local search results, I’m not sure that I can tell you much about the dropoff that you experienced.

  30. >>One question that needs to be asked, is why would Google rely upon stickers for a system like this instead of using something like Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) information, or cell phone triangulation<<

    If you are standing in a mall, there may be 10 stores within the margin of error of GPS and not everyone has GPS on their phone (while nearly all phones have cameras now). But I think Google is scratching for innovative ways to differentiate its search service (especially mobile). I wonder if this move is not IP driven in that the sticker / bar code technology was deemed patentable whereas the GPS technology was not. If Google has enough leverage to make the bar code stickers in merchant windows ubiquitous, then they hold a unique search feature that drives users to their mobile service.

  31. Hi jjray7,

    The patent filing itself gave us three decent answers to that question, and I think they aren’t bad ones. It’s possible that the GPS technology wasn’t patentable, but it’s possible that they could also use the technology, as well as RFID technology, which is mentioned in the patent a few times.

    I haven’t seen many stickers in the windows of merchants around me. Wonder if that will change in the future.

  32. I know this is kind of an old post but have you seen any follow up information on the use (numbers) of the Quick Reference codes. I see them on store fronts once in a while. I’ve been slightly tempted but haven’t yet pulled out the phone for one of these bad boys yet (QR codes), this includes things other than Google Places as well.

  33. Hi Localviz,

    I really haven’t noticed the QR codes in too many places. It’s definitely worth doing some research to see who else is adopting them, and might be a good idea for a future blog post…

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