With The Physical Web, You Become The Search Engine

If Google’s initiative catches on, digital marketing will need to expand beyond targeting users, to targeting the physical world.

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Credit: BKON

Credit: BKON

What if everything could send out its own web link?

That, essentially, is the idea behind the Physical Web, a new open-source approach to beacons that Google announced last summer. And it’s an approach that could — if it becomes popular — significantly change the way marketers do their jobs.

A beacon is a small device that acts as a kind of digital lighthouse, emitting a location ID from its spot in the ceiling or on the wall of a store that says, in effect, “This is location 123.”

That location signal is picked up by a store app on the smartphone of a nearby customer standing in the store. The location signal is sent via the store’s WiFi or the customer’s 3G/4G data service to a marketer’s server.

The location ID tells the server that the customer is standing in the games aisle at Walmart, for instance, and the marketer’s system responds by sending something like a discount coupon for a game to the app on the customer’s smartphone. Some marketers use it simply to track the number of people who have visited that aisle.

Notice the bottleneck: you need an app that supports that store’s beacons. It could be the store’s custom app, or it could be a supported app that several stores use.

But how many apps are customers going to install and maintain?

Google’s solution: who needs an app? Use the browser.

The tech giant has always favored mobile web over mobile apps, not coincidentally because apps are the realm of its mobile arch-rival, Apple, and its iOS platform.

But the browser solution does more than just take care of beacons’ too-many-apps issue.

It also allows any location or any physical object that sports a compatible beacon to broadcast a web address.

A URL from a nearby restaurant, for instance, could lead to a web page with the menu. You could even leave your name for a table and get pinged when it’s ready. A movie poster becomes a portal to video clips from that movie. You can pluck a map for a stadium out of thin air, and dog collars can broadcast their owner’s info.

The Physical Web is the “natural evolution toward increasing simplicity,” BKON CEO Richard Graves told me.

His Nashville-based company makes beacons, including enterprise-scale Physical Web beacons and a beacon management tool called Phy.Net. He said that about two dozen beacon manufacturers currently support Eddystone-URL, the name of this URL-broadcasting, Google-launched open protocol.

In BKON’s implementation of The Physical Web, its beacons broadcast a web address that is Phy.Net/UniqueCode. Clicking on that link goes to the Phy.Net server and returns a web page specific to that unique code — that is, specific to that beacon. Graves noted that the first URL is delivered anonymously to the user, with no mobile device IDs or other identifiers. Once you click on a second web link, though, you’re in the regular web.

The beacon needs to support Eddystone-URL. And you need a browser that supports Eddystone-URL. Right now, that’s Chrome for iOS, and Google has released a compatible beta of Chrome version 49 for Android. Support is in the works for Firefox, Opera and Microsoft’s new Edge browser.

To scan for nearby Physical Web beacons, you swipe down from any screen on a phone with a compatible Chrome browser, even if the browser isn’t open. URLs with location titles will be ordered by proximity, the nearest ones at the top. (In iOS, you need to enable the Physical Web capability first, and then you can see the nearby URLs in the Today view of the Notification Center.)

In Chrome on Android, a first encounter with Eddystone-URL beacons will generate a one-time-only buzz on your phone to introduce you to a list of nearby URLs. There’s no buzz alert on subsequent Eddystone-URL encounters.

Tristan Louis, chief marketing officer for proximity engagement marketer Thinaire, pointed out that the Physical Web turns beacons into devices for “pull” marketing that is dependent on user choice, instead of “push” marketing that is more in-your-face.

But this is not pull marketing where you are, for instance, typing in a search.  You can now discover the physical world by responding to the objects, establishments or products that are raising their hands. You are walking around, and that act is doing the search for you.

Credit: BKON

Credit: BKON

Graves describes this as “searching for content in your surroundings.” Of course, this is different from searching for content about your surroundings, which is what we do now.

Or, as Google Physical Web leader Scott Jensen has pointed out, “The web needs a discovery service.”

It’s difficult to overestimate the potential impact on digital marketing of this kind of URL-broadcasting, if it catches on.

These days, digital marketing is characterized by finding the user in the virtual world, such as ad targeting or delivering personalized content on web sites. You can also entice the user with inbound marketing that, for instance, makes available white papers on a given topic. You might encounter these by searching for the topic or a related site.

There is also location- and device-based targeting, like sending a dinner discount coupon for a nearby restaurant.

But the Physical Web would mean digital marketers aren’t only sending messages to people in the hope that they will interact with the virtual and physical worlds. And they aren’t distributing white papers in the hope that they’ll be searched on Google.

It will mean marketers are sending messages to things and places, in the hopes that they will interact with people.

Everything With Its Own Story

Some have suggested this is similar to QR codes, but QR codes require you to find the code and scan it, something you’re not going to do when standing in the cold outside a restaurant. Here, your phone scans for physically nearby messaging.

As a marketer, you’ll need to consider what the restaurant should present on the landing page — a video of the ambience, a menu, or a coupon?

And what, exactly, is the interaction model when a potential customer has just discovered a new restaurant because the restaurant broadcast itself?

Eventually, this Physical Web could evolve into something much more. There will undoubtedly be country or even global maps where you can drill down to find all broadcasters in a given area, instead of simply walking around and scanning your vicinity. Some places could implement peer-to-peer communications off their URL, like a music club that shows streaming videos from patrons inside to potential customers outside.

There’s also no obvious reason why this has to be a web-only party. The browser is your scanner, but once you click on the club’s URL, why not deep-link into an app?

Also, while the initial URL is anonymous, your subsequent clicks put you into the regular web. Once there, you’re again identifiable by your mobile device ID or other factors, so you could get a web page about the music club personalized for you.

And, if the beacon is cheap and small enough, why wouldn’t virtually every product have its own story to tell? You could check out the instructions on how to use anything around you.

If Google Glass or other such wearable viewers succeed, you could walk a historical trail in a city and view vignettes broadcast from important spots as you go.

Google uses the term “Physical Web” to describe this new connection between the physical world and the web, a web that is embedded in physical objects. And if it catches on, web-based marketing will become more about how the physical world reveals itself to us.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily MarTech. Staff authors are listed here.

About the author

Barry Levine
Barry Levine covers marketing technology for Third Door Media. Previously, he covered this space as a Senior Writer for VentureBeat, and he has written about these and other tech subjects for such publications as CMSWire and NewsFactor. He founded and led the web site/unit at PBS station Thirteen/WNET; worked as an online Senior Producer/writer for Viacom; created a successful interactive game, PLAY IT BY EAR: The First CD Game; founded and led an independent film showcase, CENTER SCREEN, based at Harvard and M.I.T.; and served over five years as a consultant to the M.I.T. Media Lab. You can find him at LinkedIn, and on Twitter at xBarryLevine.

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