Understanding QR Codes
This is a very comprehensive QR Code Primer that will provide you with a solid understanding of the technology – book mark it for future reference.
Drive mobile traffic using QR Codes
The idea of digitally connecting consumers of your paper-based content to the internet is a powerful concept. If you find this interesting read on. I’ll take you through a little history, what they are and how they are being used (with examples). I’ll finish up with a technical discussion that will provide you with a solid understanding of how the technology works.
Quick Response Codes (QR) were developed by Denso Wave in 1994, and are now an ISO standard. They are in widespread use in Asia, have made great inroads in Europe, and are just starting to be used in the United States. The QR code reader technology ships with most cell phones in Asia, but this is not the case in the US. Consumers currently have to down load third-party applications to decode QR codes. This is not an onerous process – it took me 2 minutes to down load and install the QR code reader from Apple’s iTune store. There are dozens of these applications available from other websites, and most of them are free. It is widely thought that the telecoms will start making QR code readers a standard app on most cell phones in the near future. In addition, we have we have Google embracing the technology (in the Android OS), and Facebook has been experimenting with these codes as well.
So, what are these codes? They have been described as paper-based hyperlinks, and this is a good description. You simply take a picture of a code on a poster with your smart phone, and you get redirected to the website using your cell phone’s browser. They can also be used digitally – you can append a QR code to a Tweet, or they can be displayed on a web page to transfer contact information directly to the cell phone, for example. This technology is blurring the distinction between smart phones, digital destination and content, and paper-based communication mediums.
QR technology provides cell phone users the ability to scan paper-based content using the cell phone’s camera to decode information on a menu, a magazine, a business card, a gift card, a coupon or a website. Once the QR code has b
Personal or company contact information to include MeCard, BlackBerry PIN and BlackBerry vCards.een scanned and decoded, the user has access via their cell phone to the information or destinations that can be any or all of the following:
- Dial an embedded phone number, or be redirect to your company home page URL or a specific destination on a social network (i.e. company fan page).
- An RSS feed, SMS or an arbitrary text message.
- An email address or a calendar event with location, title, start and end time, alarm and zone.
- A physical address with location coordinates information.
A typical QR Code looks like this – which happens to contain my website URL. This unadorned code can be visually modified to a certain extent. For example, a number of agencies are providing custom QR codes for businesses that incorporate their logo or an image. These custom codes are referred to as Design QR Codes. In the case of the first code the image (heart) lies on top of a number of the QR code cells, thus obscuring some of the information. However this is not a problem because the information is recreated by the Solomon-Reed error correction code used in the technology. In the second code, the individual cells are not obscured by the Lufthansa image, and the decoder can actually read all the cells. In this case the error correct algorithm is treating the logo as if it was a smudge, and correctly decodes the information.
Micro QR Codes
Micro QR codes have a very small footprint and were designed to encode small amounts of data, such as a serial number. They can encode from 6 to 21 alphanumeric characters – useful for a URL, and from 5 to 35 numeric characters – great for a phone number.
Denso has recently introduced a new member to the QR Code family called the iQR Code. This new code has the following characteristics:
- They can store more information in small space.
- They store six times as much information (40K+ vs. 7K characters)
- The same information in a QR Code can be printed in an iQR code that is 30% smaller
- They can be rectangular.
Rectangular iQR Code
What can you do with QR codes?
What are the possibilities? Well, let’s take a look at where consumers are finding QR codes. They show up in magazine ads, maps, food packaging, posters, leaflets, business cards, emails, websites and on the sides of buses. With these vehicles in mind, the current technology could be used in the following manner:
- Encode a 2 page document with about 600 words / 4500 characters in a single symbol.
- Encode contact information or a short white paper on the back of a business card. This enables a paper to digital transfer of information.
- Enable an easy connection by a mobile device to your website. You could also encode a map with directions for company visitors, or encode company information for display in Google maps.
- Track print-based media effectiveness – tracking which ad or poster drove traffic to custom landing pages. Users can also interact with other printed media such as offers on paper-based gift cards and coupons. QR codes can be printed on receipts with additional offers, or provide customer service contact information.
- Users can also interact with digital advertisements. For example, they can scan digital coupons and discount offers on a webpage. You could also place QR codes in an email newsletter for additional offers or for event-based information.
- You can develop loyalty programs – providing special offers on landing pages from paper-based content that is not accessible from any other source. You could push consumers to a website to view the daily offer, to see if they won a free prize or perhaps to participate in a contest. You could also conduct surveys where a user scans one of multiple choice codes and the select response is automatically sent back to the company.
- You can enable product purchase offers, and provide easy access to product information and reviews. You can also provide easy connections to down load applications and content. You could also register a bookmark, append a QR code to a tweet using http://goo.gl/or encode access to a special webinar.
- You could print codes with product or contact information on business swag such as coffee cups, t-shirts and hats. I’ve also seen several examples where a QR codes were tattooed on a man’s arm.
Examples of how companies are using QR Codes
- Dick’s Sporting Goods displayed a QR code on the JumboTron during a football game. The fans took pictures of the QR code which connected them to their website where they were offered discounts on purchases.
- McDonald’s uses QR Codes on its packaging in Japan so consumers can access nutritional information, and review the amount of calories, fat, and carbohydrates in their meal.
- A couple of years ago, Ralph Lauren began placing QR Codes in print ads, store placements, and mailers. The QR Codes gave consumers access to their style guides, limited edition collections and exclusive video content.
- Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull movie posters were printed with QR Codes, giving users access to movie’s trailers. The user also received a QR code discount coupon for their next concessionary purchase.
- Pepsi printed QR codes on bottles that redirected users to a custom landing page to view content.
- CSI recently used QR codes as a plot twist in a TV episode.
- The Nonprofit Technology Network conducted a scavenger hunt at the recent NTEN conference.
- Google is using QR codes to highlight “Favorite Places” in search results.
- Editoras Online published a book that contained nothing but QR codes (no text what so ever) that when decoded provided content about love and hate.
- Audi made a giant QR code out of people holding black and white squares in a video advertisement.
- Lego created QR code advertisement using Lego blocks.
- Tissot uses a QR code in a recent watch advertisement.
- Fox is using QR codes to advertise TV programming.
- Companies are printing QR codes directly on food (e.g., crackers).
- Calvin Klein printed a QR code on a giant billboard to drive traffic to a video.
- Joe Martin, author of the Mister Bobbo comic strip has used QR codes in several of his recent strips.
Pro and cons of QR Codes in the American Market
- QR Code technology is supported by Google in its Android OS.
- Most cell phones sold today have cameras.
- 82.5 million people own smart phones in the USA.
- 2D reader software is available for easy download.
- The Denso Wave Corporation owns the patent for the QR Code, and has made the specifications available for use by any individual or organization free of charge.
- The QR Code specification is a JIS Standard, an ISO18004 standard and an AIM Standard.
- You don’t have to type in URL’s to navigate to a website.
- QR Codes are supported in the Twitter platform.
- QR Codes are cheap to create.
- Fast way to provide complex information to mobile users (one click redirects).
- QR codes not widely used in USA yet, but people are starting to notice.
- Probability of short-term consumer confusion as 2D codes are known by many names: QuickMark Data Matrix, mCode, EZCode, Microsoft Tag, Aztec, UpCode, ShotCode and Trillcode.
- Most cell phones in the US do not come with 2D reader software installed.
- The technology is fragmented across three major OS platforms.
- Most US-based consumers are unaware of the concept of 2D codes.
- QR codes can not be edited, they must be replaced.
- The value of the offer made by the company must exceed the service provider’s data charge to the customer.
- The more information you store in a code – the harder it is to decode.
QR codes represent data in 2D – that is information is encoded both vertically and horizontally in the code. The API allows the user to generate three different footprints – small, medium and large. The following QR code contains the URL for MSprague.com and is the medium footprint. While this particular QR code represents only 12 text characters, they have the ability to encode up to:
- Alphanumeric – 4, 296 characters
- Numeric – 7,089 characters
- 8 bit Binary – 2, 953 bytes
These are maximum numbers, and the amount of text space available to you depends upon which of the four error correction schemes are used. The error correction algorithm is based upon Reed-Solomon, and comes in five flavors:
- Level L – 7% of characters can be restored (default)
- Level M – 15% of characters can be restored (most often used)
- Level Q – 25% of characters can be restored
- Level H – 30% of characters can be restored
- Level S – 50% of characters can be restored (iQR Code only)
Level L and M are most suitable for codes found in clean environments. Level Q and H are for dirty environments, as in manufacturing plants. The error correction level that you use will dictate the amount of text that can be encoded. In general, a more robust the error correction level results in a smaller text message footprint. For example, Level L will allow you to encode 4,296 characters, while Level H only allows for 1,852 characters.
A QR code is a square with an equal number of rows and columns. They start at 21 rows and columns, and increment by fours. The next size up is 25 rows and columns, and the next after that are 29 rows and columns. This increment continues until the fortieth step which is 177 rows and columns. Each step is called a version, and there are 40 versions available. The following QR code is an example of version eight, and contains alphanumeric text.
This QR code contains my personal contact information, and required 49 rows and columns to encode the information. This version is visually much more complex than the code above. I chose the large footprint for display in this instance. . . .
A basic QR code contains five major sections that provide the following functions:
- There are three position detection pattern codes located in three of the four corners. This allows 360 degree (omni-directional) high-speed reading of the code.
- The timing pattern code help to detect the position of each cell in the QR code by the decoder application.
- Solomon-Reed error correction and formatting / mask pattern information codes.
- The data area is an array of rows and columns. Each cell is stored as a binary number (1 and 0). Error correction codes are inserted into this area as well.
- Buffer zone (also called the quite zone) to isolate the code from other packaging information. This zone is four cells wide.
- In more complex QR codes there is a sixth function called the alignment patternwhich will be located in the lower right hand corner (second image). This pattern allows the QR reader to correct for distortion when the code is bent or curved.
In the image below you see that the QR Codes data area is organized into an array of cells organized into a two-dimensional matrix where information is encoded both vertically and horizontally. The number of alignment patterns used depends upon how much information is being encoded.
QR codes also have linking functionality. This means that a single large code can be divided into two or more codes, up to a maximum of 16 codes. This allows for the delivery of larger data sets that can more easily be decoded. This also provides many more printing options when all you have is a small linear space to insert your QR codes. The top code below contains the same information as the four codes beneath.
QR Code Generators
If you wish to experiment with QR codes there are plenty of sites where you can generate codes for free. You can generate QR code links to your website in seconds.
Download QR Code Readers
As well, there are many sources for free QR Code Readers for your specific smart phone.
QR Code Blogs and Resources
More Interesting QR Code Links
- Agency specializing in QR Code and Microsoft Tags using a custom mobile platform.
- An animated QR Code.
- QR Codes as art.
- QR Code products for sale.
- QR Code bookmarklet video.
- CBS News segment on QR Codes.
- Blog post about QR Code sizes and failure rates.
QR Code Best Practices
- When a consumer scans your QR Code make sure you send them to a mobile optimized site, not your corporate website home page.
- If you are a regional business try to maxamize your QR Code content in Google’s local search index. Make sure you understand how Google calculates if you are a local business or not.
- QR Codes are images, and will show up in Bing’s and Google’s image index. This provides you with in-bound SEO Linking opportunities
- When long URL’s are being encoded, shorten them using a URL shortening service. This allows you to use more error correction.
- Test your QR codes extensively, especially if you have added a logo to the code.
- Designer codes require more error correction code, which makes the cells smaller, and harder to decode on older smart phones.
Examples of Design QR Codes
Interesting Visual Rendering of a QR Code
Organizations are getting creative about the usage, and the visual display of QR codes. The following example is an interesting photo QR code.
QR Codes are not in wide spread use in the US yet, but all the technology parts are in place and ready to be exploited. The platform is mature, it’s an ISO standard, and is being effectively used by companies and consumers in Europe and Asia. Major US Internet-based companies, and well-known retailers are embracing the technology – and early adaptors (consumers) are experimenting with them. QR Codes are cool, and are perceived to be cutting edge – even though they have been around since 1994.
QR Codes are so easy to use, and are so versatile that they provide instant value to individuals and companies alike. This technology will increasingly play an enabling role in future mobile strategy for product sales, information access and promotional programs.
The idea of digitally connecting consumers of your paper-based content to the internet is a powerful concept. They’re coming, are you ready?
What are the most interesting uses of these codes that you’ve seen in the market place recently? How do you plan to use them? Leave a comment and let me know.
Find Out More?
Here is my search behavior article that shows how businesses search for QR Code related products and services.
Also, you can read a second article where I compare QR Codes to Microsoft Tags. Here is the first paragraph:
Nov 3, 2010 at 11:37am ET by Mark Sprague
Search marketers are interested in print-based hyperlinks: traffic to my QR Codes: Are You Ready For Paper-Based Hyperlinks? post remains strong. So here’s an in-depth look at Microsoft’s entry into the 2D code wars, called Microsoft Tags. Microsoft Tags is based on a homegrown technology known as high-capacity color barcode (HCCB). The Microsoft Tag is definitely distinctive in nature, and has an American southwestern look about it. The platform allows you to use two, four or eight colored triangle in a grid matrix. The first tag, which is based on four colors and a five by ten grid matrix, encodes a URL link to my blog. The second tag uses just two colors – black and white. The second tag contains seven rows, though both contain the same information.
As with QR Codes, Microsoft tags are meant to provide digital links between traditional printed media and digital content. To that end, Microsoft tag supports four basic content types: URLs, free text, vCards and a dialer.
To find out more go to Search Engine Land for the complete analysis.
About Lexington eBusiness Consulting
Mark Sprague’s 25 years of product development experience which includes expertise in Search Engines, Information Products, SEO platforms and Social Networking applications provide in-depth expertise to help you refine products and services, and improve your web sites performance by:
- Developing a superior data-driven SEO strategy for your website.
- Understanding your customers’ search behavior and normalizing it to your content strategy.
- Understanding how search engine technology practically impacts SEO and content strategies.
- Understanding how search technology impacts content in a social networking environment.
- Developing a superior user experience based on sound information architecture, usability and coding standards.
Lexington eBusiness Consulting
Mark Sprague, CEO
580 Lowell Street
Lexington, MA 02420