June 20, 2011

Why QR Codes Will Disrupt Your SEO URL Strategy

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

SEO has greatly influenced web information architecture over the years, particularly with respect to URL structure. I think we’d all agree, it has long been considered gospel to “optimize” URLs at the category (or product-levels) by including at least a sprinkling of keywords, as a ranking signal and to make URLs more human readable and clickable.

However, mobile’s disruption of marketing knows no bounds. This common SEO practice can also be a liability when it comes to mobile barcode marketing –  where URL size and branding matter, but keywords do not. In this two-part series, I’ll make a case for QR, illustrate how QR is expanding our idea of URL optimization, and explore options to address the problem.

The Case For QR Codes

By 2013, I believe Quick Response codes will permeate US marketing – from direct mail pieces, to catalogs, billboards, display, TV, store signage, websites, product packaging, and even the products themselves. The movement has already begun, and for good reason:

  • 2D barcodes give smartphone consumers the ultimate shortcut, whether they’re looking to engage, gain more information, or to re-order a product. By satisfying the never-make-me-type ethos of mobile consumption, barcodes represent the new hyperlink (“hardlinks”) that glue offline and online together.
  • QR is more than just theory. Last year, smartphone consumers increased their scanning of QR barcodes by 1600%, typically to get discounts, get more information, or make a purchase. Think this is just a youth movement? Think again: 70% of QR consumers are between ages of 25 and 55.
(QR usage; Courtesy of

Indeed, despite competing formats like Data Matrix and Microsoft Tags, the benefits of QR are proving too irresistible for the market (and marketers) to ignore:

  • They can be programmed to launch every mobile touchpoint consumers care most about: Web, SMS, Apps, Email, Phone
  • They offer virtually unlimited data storage
  • Built in data-redundancy makes them more smudge-proof, and readable on curved surfaces unlike competing formats (such as Microsoft’s Tag)
  • QR is a published, and market-proven, ISO standard
  • They are inexpensive and practically open-source to generate, thanks to patent-holderDenso-Wave
  • QR scanning capabilities are quickly becoming commodities, with many brands baking this into their mobile app

Sure, over the next 12-18 months, our collective QR curiosity will predictably wax and wane, as we all flex our imaginations with QR campaigns and gimmicks ranging from t-shirtsbooks, andcupcakes, to tombstones.

In the end, however, the US consumer will come to expect the same thing Japanese mobile consumers do (who already have over a decade more QR experience): scanning a QR code will drive you to a URL by default, unless noted otherwise.

URL Battleground: QR vs SEO

If that holds true, what does it mean for your typical product or website URL that you’ve worked so hard to engineer for optimal rankings and click-through? Let’s look at an example. Here is a fairly representative URL you might find at a typical retail site, courtesy of Best Buy:

This keyword-rich URL (which ranks #3 for [Toshiba Intel Laptop] in Google) contains 182 alphanumeric characters. What happens when you convert this URL into a QR code? It’s mammoth!

Resulting QR Code, Courtesy of Kaywa

(Try this yourself, or plug in your own product URLs at to see what they’d look like.)

The reason is that Quick Response code size and complexity are the product of two inputs: the number of characters in the object you want to encode (say a URL, SMS, phone number, etc), multiplied by the desired rate of error correction (essentially data-redundancy) which can be set to either 7%, 15%, 25% or a maximum 30%.

These two factors determine how much data storage (in the form of the black pixel-like “modules”) are needed to store the object as a QR code. The principle is this: the larger the object (like a URL), the more black pixels are needed to encode the object as QR code.

At the highest error correction setting (30%), the Best Buy URL above required a whopping 73 x 73 pixel QR code (QR Version 14).

Less Is More

The problem is that this code contains very little “white” space. White space is good, because it makes the QR more readable when compressed into smaller areas (like for print), or when scanning from a distance (like in the case of a billboard).

US marketers experimenting with QR codes in print applications recommend they be the about size of a postage stamp (around 1.5” by 1.5,” give or take) as long as it’s readable from 6” – 12” away on a low resolution cameras (say 2 megapixel camera found on iPhone3.)

What happens when shrinking this Best Buy QR code to such specification?

See for yourself:

How’s it working out for you? Yeah. The point is clear: If this publically accessible, keyword-rich URL were used as the basis to produce a QR code for instore signage, display, print, broadcast ad campaigns, or product packaging, it will fail to connect with most smartphone users.

(For the record, Best Buy employ QR codes on instore signage that contain more white space than the example used.)

The point here is not to abandon keyword-URLs; they do serve a purpose in connecting users with your content. But clearly their size poses impediments to successful generation and deployment of mobile barcodes in marketing campaigns.

So the goal is to have your QR codes contain the least amount of data possible, while still connecting users to the optimal page.

If you can create than connection through lower version QR codes (like Versions 1 through 4), your QR codes become like powerful vector graphics: easily scalable down to the size of a stamp, or scalable up to a billboard-size, fully functional at each point in between with no loss of performance.

How can you achieve that level of QR compression, without sacrificing your brand, or your SEO URLs? Next time, I’ll explore a few methods, requirements, and challenges of URL-based QR optimization.

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