Get Ready For Next Gen Search By Exploring The Google-Initiated Physical Web Project
Someday, every device you can imagine will be connected. Contributor Daniel Cristo explains the new open-source project and imagines how marketers will use it.
In 1990, Tim Berners-Lee developed a way to connect text documents stored on different computers together via hyperlinks. That project was named the World Wide Web, and is responsible for much of how we use the internet.
A few days ago, Google unveiled The Physical Web, an open-source project to connect smart devices in different physical locations to users. This could have a huge impact on the internet, search marketing and our everyday lives.
What Is The Physical Web?
Before your phone was smart, it was dumb. Just a piece of plastic meant to dial a number and talk to someone. How boring!
Today’s phone is an entirely different beast. With a touch screen, camera, the internet and millions of apps, your phone is a multi-functional personal assistant. But why stop at the phone? Why not make everything smart?
Smart cars, smart refrigerators, smart vending machines … it seems like all these rather common machines are getting an IQ upgrade.
But to tap into the newly-found intelligence, you’ll need to download that device’s app to your phone or tablet.
Downloading apps to control your appliances is fine for now, when there are still only a handful of internet-connected things; but, what happens when everything is connected?
Are you going to want to download 50 apps to experience an “enhanced shopping trip” through the mall? Probably not. That’s why Google is building the Physical Web — a way to for users to interact with smart devices without requiring an individual app for each one.
As Google says on the project page:
[blockquote]We need a system that lets you walk up and use a device with just a tap. The Physical Web isn’t about replacing native apps; it’s about allowing interaction for the times when native apps just aren’t practical.[/blockquote]
How Does It Work?
Open up the wireless settings on your computer or phone, and you’ll likely see a long list of available wireless networks you can connect to. These networks act like beacons, broadcasting a signal to any device within range. The Physical Web will work in the same way.
Smart devices, like a vending machine, will act as beacons, announcing their ability to connect to any nearby smartphone or tablet. As a user walks up to the smart vending machine, he or she will simply select the vending machine’s connection from a list of available devices.
Once connected, users can interact with the vending machine through their phone without needing to download a special vending machine app.
Google’s plan is to build this functionality into its Android operating system.
How Does This Affect Search?
Let’s say that the Internet of Things really picks up, and in a few years, every store, every TV screen and every gumball machine in the city you live in gets connected. You’re walking down the street looking for a good spot for lunch, and you fire up your Physical Web Browser to see what your options are.
All of a sudden, you’re bombarded with hundreds of internet-connected devices in your area to choose from: bus stops announcing the next train arrival, stores pushing coupons, radio stations to listen to, billboards showing ads, even parking meters and vending machines.
This is where search comes in. And who better to help you with your search than Google, the brains behind the inception of the Physical Web project.
Now as SEOs, our job is to optimize results for everywhere a search is taking place. In this case, a search is happening from a mobile device, and the competition is a list of smart devices in the area. How will rankings be determined and how will optimization happen?
It’s not yet clear, but here are a couple of telling paragraphs from the initial documents, authored by Scott Jenson, a Google employee in product design:
“If we’re successful, there will be many [smart devices] to choose from and that raises an important UX issue. This is where ranking comes in. Today, we are perfectly happy typing ‘tennis’ into a search engine and getting millions of results back, we trust that the first 10 are the best ones. The same applies here. The phone agent can sort by both signal strength as well as personal preference and history, among many other possible factors. Clearly there is lots of work to be done here. We don’t want to minimize this task, but we feel that this simple signal strength ranking can get us very far for the first few versions of this project.
[Regarding spam], search engines today have this issue and are fairly effective and displaying the correct web sites in your search results. That same approach would apply here. Combine that with historical results of who clicks on what and it’s possible to build a fairly robust ranking model and only show the proper devices. However, there is likely much more we can do here and we hope to encourage other ideas on how to solve this problem in a more robust way.
Your job is to make sure that your client’s smart device shows up first on that list; but, before we get caught up in how the future algorithm will work, or how we might track rankings and click-throughs, we first need to get familiar with how the Physical Web works.
Learn How The Physical Web Works
Now, unless you’re a developer, the project may not be very useful as of yet, but it’s worth connecting with your favorite developer to investigate further together and brainstorm some possibilities.
A few things to know for now:
- Mobile App: The mobile app is to be available both for Android and for iOS, though the organizers say it, “tries to not feel like an app. It works in the background so you don’t need to use it actively. It just silently monitors beacons that you can browse when you’re interested.” The idea is that, eventually, it will be a part of every device. (The Android version is currently available but the iOS version is still under internal review.)
- Notifications: Importantly for marketers, the project is founded with the idea of there being no proactive notifications — no push messaging. This means that, as in search, the user will need to virtually look around to see what beacons are nearby. Not having push could be disappointing; but then again, it means the user is in charge and connections will be a strong signal of user intent. That said, the organizers say users will be able to opt in if they’d like to receive notifications.
- Wireless Technology: For testing, the Physical Web will be based on Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE). It won’t likely be the only wireless method used in the long run, but it’s the most ubiquitous and easiest to use to start.
- Web Address: The basic building block of the Physical Web, like the current web, will be the URL.
Head over to physical-web.org for an overview of the project. Then swing by GitHub and download the existing code. Remember that it’s not a Google product, but rather an open source project that Google (apparently the group responsible for the Chrome browser) is contributing to.
Keep an eye out for updates to the Physical Web project as it comes along. You might find yourself on the new frontier of search marketing.