July 25, 2011

The New Link Building: How QR Codes Disrupt More Than URLs

(Read in entirety at Search Engine Land. Published 2011)

Last month, I introduced the idea that QR codes could disrupt your URL strategy. Today, I’ll complete the theme with examples, and best-practice methods for optimizing QR code URLs. Let me summarize my point of view: Barcodes (the Quick Response format, in particular) are more than merely mobile campaign conduits; they are mobile site links.

They are the mechanism through which we as mobile consumers will expect to access mobile site pages, without typing or searching. Making mobile site content accessible in this manner – from everywhere your consumers are – has a name search marketers are familiar with: it’s called link building.

In short, I believe QR codes will be how you as a marketer (and how your fans, customers, and community) will weave a web of mobile links around your brand, products, and assets.

This calls for a strategy to maximize mobile site accessibility, with respect to your keyword-rich desktop and mobile site URLs objectives.

Beyond the mechanics of QR code generation, and the relationship between URL size and QR performance covered last time, here two additional challenges to consider as you develop your strategy.


Barcodes (as mobile web links) present a few important tracking differences compared to standard web links. The similarities include clickstream data like timestamp, browser user-agent, and IP address. IP data is interesting, of course, because it allows for geo-locating the request and serving hyperlocal ads or content.

But when it comes to the data critical for channel attribution, namely referrer data, there is none passed in the barcode’s clickstream. I have a QR barcode on the back of my business card pointing at my mobile home page. If I re-use the same barcode URL in other materials, like on my desktop website, I would be unable to differentiate which source actually “referred” the traffic.

The way to get this type of data is to simply generate a unique barcode (URL) for each unique parameter you wish to track. There are two challenges here. As discussed last time, the more characters you encode in the QR URL, the less white space your barcode will contain, reducing scalability.

In addition, generating multitudes of unique barcodes for any given mobile page may enable precise source tracking, but at the price of management complexity.


See the screenshot below of the QR scanner app I like (built by Tap Media) because of the “browser history” showing the QR URLs I’ve scanned, in reverse-chronological order. From my history, can you tell which links belong to which brands?

Being mobile means letting consumers take your brand and content with them, wherever they may be. To maximize repeat visits, your QR URLs should contain your brand name, either as a subdomain, or root domain, or an abbreviated domain if the brand name is too large.

QR Scanning App - Screenshot
But herein lies the URL optimization puzzle: Maximizing barcode white space is at odds with large URLs – primarily because of SEO keywords, but also due to the URL branding and tracking needs marketers will require of them.

So let’s look at three common methods used by US brands to generate QR barcodes, and some examples of the tradeoffs of each configuration.

1. Branded, Uncompressed, Destination URLs

This is arguably the easiest method of QR generation (and the least optimal) because it relies on desktop website branding and URL structure.

In the above screenshot, you can see a barcode link from a print promotion piece I recently received. This URL features:

  • Traditional desktop branding (“”);
  • Raw directory info (“/us/ecommerce/index.html”);
  • And tracking codes (“?cmp=PAC-wecom-qr2-post”).

In all, it contains 64 characters. Even at the lowest error correction setting, the resulting QR barcode size requires Version 6 (a 41 x 41 matrix).

It’s worth noting, upon scanning this code, you are presented with a desktop-formatted web page, not a mobile-formatted page.

2. Unbranded, Compressed, Redirect URLs

One of the most common methods is to use a hosted URL shortening service that encodes the URL as a QR barcode. Popular tools like and do this automatically, as do emerging QR-specific services.

This method makes it easy and inexpensive to deploy and test. By using links that are typically less than 20 characters, the resulting QR codes can reach sizes as small as QR Version 2 (a 25 x 25 matrix) and Version 3 (29 x 29).

Depending on the error correction setting used, either of these dimensions should be optimal for scaling barcodes up, or down, to accommodate small sizes and large distances.

The drawbacks? These services often provide limited branding, URL control, and tracking integration. (Would you have guessed which link in the above screenshot goes to Kohl’s Department Stores, for instance? It’s the URL)

Some services make it easier to brand your short links by configuring hostname DNS, or by using a custom short domain.

As a marketer, you may also want the ability to change the QR code destination link without changing the QR code itself, modify the error correction settings, or test various destination URLs. There are a variety of barcode needs that common URL shorteners may simply not address.

3. Branded, Compressed, Redirect URLs

This is the least common, but most optimal method of generating URLs for QR codes.

Last time, I provided a QR code illustration using a Best Buy keyword-rich URL. When you visit a Best Buy store though, you’ll see barcodes imprinted on product pricing tags, like this one (apologies for the grainy pic):

Best Buy Instore QR Example
The QR code URLs look like this:

To generate this code, Best Buy uses a semi-branded, shortened domain (“”) to host what appears to be an internal URL shortening service. For each product, they generate an appended tracking parameter combining what appears to be a store code (“BB00208”) and the product SKU (“1846161”), in this case totaling 32 characters.

The resulting barcode is QR Version 3 (a 29 x 29 matrix). Given the 2″ x 2″ print dimensions of the code, this should be readable for most instore scanners. Upon scanning the QR, Best Buy’s webserver 302 redirects properly to a mobile site URL.

A few things to note:

  • Using compression techniques (like placeholder tokens) Best Buy could reduce the URL further (by perhaps 35%) in order to achieve QR Version 2 (a 25 x 25 matrix).
  • Also a 301 redirect would be preferable to avoid blanking out the referring URL for Javascript analytics that live on destination pages.

Overall, I think Best Buy’s methodology of URL branding, compression, and tracking are (nearly) optimal for generating high-performing barcodes, at large scale. These links make their mobile website integrated, and easily accessible in-store.

Mobile Link Building

QR codes, and the URLs they represent, are mobile links. They are the threads that will weave the mobile web into the fabric of our lives. That means you will have a new set of URLs to manage.

They’ll probably be compressed redirect links. You may or may not host them. And you will have so many of them, they will eventually outnumber the URLs on your current site.

So start developing your “mobile link” strategy today, and consider the following issues:

  • How accessible are your mobile pages from barcodes (you do have mobile pages … right?)
  • What’s your optimal URL branding (
  • What tracking elements will you need for point-of-sale attribution
  • How can this data integrate with your mobile URLs for optimizing conversion
  • What kind of link management and testing will you require
  • How can you encourage users, affiliates, customers, fans to “link” to you

Keyword-rich URLs are not obsolete yet. But as barcodes increase in popularity, these mobile links will live “upstream” of your site URLs – bypassing search altogether for some. Search is still critical for mobile users of course, but a shorter shortcut has been made.

Just as we’ve worked for years in the search business to make deep content accessible for engines through spiders, the work now begins to make deep content accessible for devices through barcodes, the new mobile link.


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