Why QR Codes Could Disrupt Your SEO URL Strategy

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 mghus.com

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-holder Denso-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-shirts, books, and cupcakes, 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 kaywa.com 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.

And just for some cross-channel fun, here is a QR you can scan to take this article with you, and read on your smartphone: (which I recommend now that Search Engine Land finally got the WPtouch plugin configured for mobile-friendly article consumption… Yay SEL!)

Scan QR Code to Read Article on Your Smartphone

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Mobile | Mobile Search


About The Author: is founder and president of Pure Oxygen Labs, a consulting and mobile technology firm. Brian's been in search marketing for over 10 years, most recently leading SEO firm Netconcepts through to acquisition by Covario. Follow Brian on Twitter @brianklais.

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  • http://2d-code.co.uk Roger Smolski

    Brian have you ever run a QR campaign? The “fairly representative URL” that you encoded is not representative at all. QR Codes that resolve to non-mobile sites (as your example does) are bad practice and inevitably provide a negative user experience.

    QR Codes require very simple mobilized landing pages that instantly engage and reward the user while reinforcing the brand. URL structure is almost irrelevant in this context.

  • Benoit

    And why not just ‘tinyed’ url first ?

  • Vik

    @Roger Smolski – spot on. i could have read your comment and not read the whole article and still come away good.

  • http://www.ydeveloper.com/ Y.D.

    SEO is all about an URL structure. Having this structure SEO friendly means that it contains keyword to that particular url with dash mark etc. in case of QR code, we did not find the URL following this structure.

  • http://PureOxygenLabs.com Brian Klais

    @Roger – The Best Buy example does resolve to a mobile page, as it should. So I’m not sure what you were seeing… But you’re right on the other point – Best Buy does have a mobile site with slightly shorter URLs that I could have used in the example. However even the equivalent “m.” URL would still require QR version 9 or 10. So I disagree with your assertion that URL structure is irrelevant, at least in so far as when structure translates into size. Size does matter.

    @mbcreation – That’s an option, but URL branding matters. I’ll explore next time.

  • http://www.kristofcreative.com/why-i-twitter/ Kristof

    The solution here is simple – don’t use long URLs to create QR codes.

    For example, in WordPress, I could either use the default permalink (post numbering) structure of http://mydomain.com/?p=XXX and then create a redirect to the full, keyword URL or — create a customized short URL and then redirect it. Not only will this create a better, more readable QR code, but it also gives more control over where the link points to. So if page URLs changes, the redirect can easily be updated

  • http://www.facebook.com/olerichgreg Greg Olerich

    I’ve just recently used QR in a Direct mailer. I showed it to other ppl I know in Graphic design Field and Marketing Field. I’ve skewed all m QR Codes. Just so everyone know I have yet to have a problem with any of the skewed QR codes.

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/tomassteele Tom Steele

    @Benoit I agree…tiny url it!!

    I also recommend you test your QR codes on your intended packaging before you mass produce and send out. For example, printing 200 shiny plastic cups with a QR code only to find out they won’t scan…just sayin’. :-)

  • http://2d-code.co.uk Roger Smolski

    @Brian That’s my point. The URL in your example is 302ed with user agent detection to the mobile page and the URL of the mobile page is only 75 characters not the 182 characters you chose to encode. Why would you want to encode a URL in a QR Code that is nearly 250% longer and goes to the same page.

    As far as URL structure is concerned it is as I say relatively unimportant as far as QR Codes are concerned. However URL length can be very important and I included this as the second of The Three Rules of QR Codes in 2009 http://bit.ly/ltanu3

  • http://scan2.co S.M.I.

    So here’s my comment re: the SEO impact and how to add backlinks.

    This is theory, but I’m testing it with our qr code marketing platform, scan2.co and I’m pretty sure that I’m solid in my theory.

    We’re redirecting through bit.ly which has a public list of url links
    you could also do this with googles link shortening service
    (i’m going to test both in future iterations)

    we’re also using a short domain (xl.vc/ ) to create the short links

    Thus … the link are super short so the codes are nice and lean
    but … it’s public data that is being indexed already by google

    I have no doubt that the nunber of clicks on a link
    aka scans to a qr code

    are already in the equation,

    So my theory is that highly scanned codes, even through a redirect service
    will ultimately impact your SEO for that page

  • http://www.pureoxygenmobile.com Brian Klais

    @Kristof – that is the bottom line. Executing depends on a number of variables (like platform), which I planned to get into next time.

    @Roger – The deeper point remains that QR will change URL strategy: few sites in US have deployed mobile content with consideration for how URL size will impact their QR needs. It’s very typical to see mobile sites using either subdomain proxy hosting methods that replicate the desktop keyword-rich URL structure for easy pattern matching (many retailers do, as does Wikipedia). Or some use of CSS to render mobile content off the same keyword URLs (WordPress users like Search Engine Land come to mind). Lots of SEO debate exists around using mobile-CSS methods for link equity preservation vs separate subdomain methods … And my point is, in many cases, the keyword-rich URLs will be the default when the marketer goes to QR.

  • http://qr-code-generator.iwwwit.com Pascal C

    URL must be short : use your OWN url shortener (statistics won’t be public) with your OWN short domain (branding)

    The user will share your link onto your website with a twitter or facebook share button… you can put the long url (that might be indexed… real time search suspended at the moment)
    Your short URL won’t be indexed ( maybe if a user share after scanning but before seeing your site… bad friend )

    QR codes and SEO why not ? but mobile friendly website and ux first !
    In my opinion with QR codes campaigns happy users are better for your brand than happy bots.

  • http://icrontic.com P.S.

    My phone and software had no problem reading that QR code, by the way. I’ve noticed that iPhones have a much harder time with dense QR codes. I have an SMS QR on my business card; people with Android phones have no trouble with it while iPhone users cannot read it. It’s very frustrating, because I know the iPhone camera is capable of it.

  • http://www.gaugemobile.com Tiam Korki

    QR Codes are intended to bridge the gap between physical and digital media through mobile devices. As with any other tools available to marketers, there are certain guidelines that need to be followed to enhance user experience and encourage interactivity.

    With QR Codes, the most important guidelines are: Lead to a mobile friendly page, keep the footprint of your codes to a minimum (maximize white space), use non-proprietary QR Codes to reach a wider audience, provide incentive for consumers and reward them with a personalized experience by using the many benefits of QR Codes such as tracking, location services and device specific information.

    In order to successfully achieve the aforementioned, businesses should utilize QR Code Management Platforms such as Scanvee (http://www.scanvee.com) as opposed to the widely available primitive QR Code generators. In doing so, businesses can continue using the same proven strategies for SEO, such as incorporating keywords within their URLs and yet generate QR Codes that follow all the necessary guidelines for optimal campaign execution.

  • http://shopTOism.com David Pylyp

    QR codes lead to a simplified landing page

    That’s all. That’s it
    Using bitty!s or shorteners would add white space to the QR. Badge. Really surprised you don’t get it.

    David Pylyp
    Accredited Senior Agent and Realtor in Toronto Canada

  • http://PureOxygenLabs.com Brian Klais

    @Kristof @Tom @Pascal @Tiam @David – Thanks for jumping ahead. I plan to cover solutions in part II — partially because this article’s length was running out of white space!

  • S.C.

    I think the real problem is that SEO is old school thinking. Google is past its prime and any business relying on SEO needs to think about the future.


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