Beacons to Revolutionize Search in 2020

I’m going to make a prediction that 2020 will be “The Year of the Beacon” and with that, will come a revolutionary new way for consumers to use search.

Background on Beacons

For those of you who aren’t too familiar with beacons, they are small, Bluetooth-enabled hardware devices that can be installed in physical locations, like retail stores. They silently broadcast a message to any Bluetooth-enabled devices in their proximity, kind of like a lighthouse with text.

The popular use case for a beacon is a consumer, who is walking by a store product display equipped with a beacon, receives an alert on his smartphone that the nearby product is on sale. But it’s not just retailers who are interested in beacons. This year’s SXSW festival showed that outdoor events like concerts, amusement parks, zoos, festivals, and even entire cities could improve the attendees’ experience through beacons.

But for all the reasons beacons could be great — helping navigating a large venue, granting access to special areas, delivering coupons, providing additional details on your location, connecting with others nearby — there are several obstacles that are preventing beacons from going mainstream right now…and why the buy-in from users won’t ramp up to be a search contender for another several years. Let’s first take a look at what those hurdles are, and then we’ll see what a few innovative companies are doing to overcome them.

Beacon Blockades

There’s a reason why QR codes never really took off; they were challenging to use. People needed to download an app to read the QR code, and frankly it wasn’t worth the time and effort to find, download, and learn to use a new app just to scan a QR code that opens up a website or plays a video.

Beacons have the same challenge. They require an app to use. On the plus side, you don’t need a standalone beacon scanner, and you won’t have to hold your phone a foot away from the beacon like you would a QR code, but you still need an app.

Most retailers or outdoor event companies do have apps by now, but only a small percentage of consumers who walk through their doors will have that app downloaded. That’s where social networking comes to the party.

Twitter recently invested in Boston-based beacon marketing start-up, Swirl. The investment is an obvious indicator that Twitter wants to use the widely popular app as a delivery channel for retailers who want to market to consumers through beacons, but who can’t reach a large enough app install base on their own. This partnership also opens up doors for other advertisers who may not want to invest in their own beacons, but may want to market through Swirl’s third-party beacons.

The Search Solution

The second big barrier, and the one preventing consumers from using beacons for search, is the fact that most beacons are one-way messaging systems. This means you can receive messages from beacons, but you can’t respond or send messages.

However, Ubudu has recently released a platform that enables beacons to be used as both a sending and listening device. Their use case is centered on consumers responding to location-based promotion messages sent by retailers, but could easily be used to respond to searches in the future.

For example, if I am traveling through a new airport, I might be wondering, “Where is Terminal C, Gate 11?” For a search engine like Google, that is a really challenging question to answer, especially if you are indoors, underground, or your Internet connection isn’t stable. Beacons, on the other hand, are excellent at pinpointing your location, and their Bluetooth technology isn’t dependent on an Internet connection and it works just fine through walls.

Another beacon-assisted search might take place in a retail store where a search like “Do any of my friends have this dress” would be impossible for a search engine to answer without the context of knowing the searcher is standing right next to a specific prom gown. Even then, that search would need to be sent through a service like Facebook, and Facebook would need retailers to upload user buying behavior through something like their Custom Audiences service to make that search even possible.

But what’s amazing is that a search like that IS POSSIBLE. Or at least it could be if it could connect beacons, social networks, and retailer data. Of course making those connections takes time, and that’s why I don’t foresee beacons really revolutionizing search until at least five years out.

When that does happen, the hyper-locality of beacons will give search an amazing degree of context. And where there are searches, there is an opportunity to optimize your content to be at the top of the search results — whether that’s organic or paid.

Watch and Wait

At this point, beacons are so early that it doesn’t make sense to jump headlong into the beacon marketing world. I would watch and wait to see how companies like Twitter, Facebook, and Google engage with the technology.

If you are an innovative retailer, then sure, go ahead and test the beacon waters to see what you can gain as an early adopter; but just beware that the really cool stuff won’t come out of the technology woodwork until about five years from now. In the meantime, expect to see companies like Twitter, Facebook, Google, and maybe even Amazon start to develop products aimed at the beacon-enabled market.

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