How Google’s Physical Web will change the way we search

Imagine a world where all the physical objects around you can ‘talk’ to your smartphone and tell you what you want to know.
So you can walk past a bus stop and your device can pick up information about which buses go by, when the next buses are due to arrive and other types of relevant travel data.

Or you can go by a store and can check for yourself that the item you want is available on their inventory, and know exactly where you have to go in the store to find what you are looking for.

Ostersund, Sweden - June 10, 2016  Closeup of Google My Business

Or you can set up a passive search on your phone for an item and your device will return a list of stores in your immediate vicinity that can supply what you need.

This is the idea behind Google’s forthcoming “Physical Web” and it promises some exciting new developments ahead for all local and other web searchers.

What is the Physical Web?

In a nutshell, the idea of the Physical Web is to make the objects around us “smart” meaning they constantly transmit information about themselves and we don’t need to download individual third party apps. before we can interact with them.

Instead, each object will have its own URL which we can access through our smart phones and other devices via beacons whose signal can be picked up only when we are within range of the object (around 230 feet or 70 meters).

Beacons operate using modified Bluetooth Low Energy transmitters and have been in use for the past two years or so. They have proved useful in connecting users to internal Wi-Fi systems where GPS signal can’t get through (eg, iBeacon from Apple). But up until now the system has been dependent on users having the individual app for each separate object.

Google’s plan is to adapt and augment the use of beacons and have one standardized umbrella app. that will allow any object to be read by any smartphone.

Sounds great – when will it be available?

For now, the Physical Web is still in its development phase while Google fine tunes the common standard that could be built into any object and all smart phones making the information instantly accessible to all to want it.

But within the next 18 months we could likely start to see it become more operational and its holds out some potentially exciting developments ahead for all smart phone searchers.

The sky’s the limit?

At the moment the idea is for each object to advertise its URL and for users to type this into their device when they want to interact with it.

It may be that the object URLs themselves could be configured as deep links that open to other apps already installed on your smart phone.

This means that you can potentially search the object URLs you have on your smart phone even when you are away from the object and its URL transmitting beacon themselves.

And what if the URLs could be sub-texted with type code (a type of search engine shorthand that clarifies what information is contained on the site)?

Could this mean that in theory Google and your smart phone would have the capacity to index all the information of each URL you open to build up your own personalized directory of all the sites you have ever browsed?

This would truly mean search in context and according to personal preferences.

But do you always want to be spoon-fed what Google thinks you want to know or would like? How then would you ever come across anything new and outside your comfort zone? Clearly we need to be able to randomly search and find for ourselves, too.

And if we take it one step further – what if the Physical Web could be interconnected with voice technology so that you can speak your questions into your phone?

You could lie in bed at night and tell your phone all the things you need to go out and do or buy tomorrow – then wake up to a ready planned, efficient schedule of the nearby places you could visit in order to get it all done!

Or talk to your phone as ideas pop into your head and let your phone search for solutions as you go about other tasks.

Physical Web and the World of Marketing

What remains to be explored is how the Physical Web will impact our role in marketing.

When each object has its own embedded URL then it also has its own potential personal advertising platform.

Will this pave the way to more creative advertising? Or does it simply mean a potential avalanche of spam?

And what if customers can interact with the object URLs so that reviews and comments are incorporated too?

Just as social media opened up a whole new world of marketing potential to us, so too does the Physical Web.

What about how the URLs are ranked?

At some point in the not-so-distant future it may be that our devices will be able to pick up on object URLs instantly, much in the way we can pick up potential Wi-Fi___33 hotspots and click on those with which we want to connect.

However, while this may work in the beginning when still relatively few objects have their own URL, it raises questions about how the URLs will be ranked once numerous devices are interconnected with the Physical Web system.

And this may open a whole kettle of worms about whether the best and most appropriate URLs will be returned at the top of the list or instead those with the most financial clout who can afford to pay to be ranked high.

(All sounds quite familiar – a bit like the world of SERP ranking and ad placements, no?)

It could be that signal strength will be the major ranking criteria, meaning that the closest location will rank higher on your object listing page.

But beacons are cheap – a standalone beacon with a year-long battery can cost as little as $5 – meaning the potential for spam is huge!

So it may be that proximity will not the only deciding factor – personal preferences and your previous search history could also play a role in ranking your object URLs.

Interesting times ahead

All in all, there is still much to be defined in how the technology will work and how the ranking algorithm will make its decisions.
But clearly we have an interesting few months ahead as we see how the Physical Web continues to develop and evolve.
What do you think the future holds?


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