Why Location Was a Dominant Theme at This Year’s Google I/O

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Google I/O, Google’s annual developer conference, took place last week, and there were some game-changing updates about how brands and app owners will be able to connect with users and deliver more relevant mobile experiences. With seven sessions devoted exclusively to context-aware and proximity-based mobile interactions, it’s safe to say location was a dominant theme this year.

Having been in the trenches working with app publishers and beacons for the last few years, we’ve witnessed a few hurdles that have made scaled and engaging beacon use cases challenging. Last week, these challenges were addressed head-on and the implications of these updates for the beacon ecosystem are massive.

With clearer direction and some major updates to how mobile sensors can interact with the physical world, Google has not only taken the position that location-awareness will be a driver of mobile advancement in the years go come, they have leapfrogged Apple’s efforts in doings so.

While there have been a number of successful beacon deployments and use cases in the last few years, true scale and reach hasn’t come as fast as many predicted. This is no surprise because beacon deployment requires the physical challenge of hardware installation and maintenance. Beyond that, true global reach requires millions of deployed beacons accessible across all types of venues and locations.

The reality is, installing and managing hundreds of thousands of beacons is out of the scope of many retailers and app publishers. Most just aren’t in the business of installing and maintaining large networks of hardware across hundreds or thousands of locations. Added to this challenge is the fact that, in most cases, beacon deployments serve the somewhat limited audience of one app, or maybe a handful of apps, further fragmenting and limiting reach.

Despite these barriers, the true power that beacons can have on improved mobile user experiences and new sources of location data has meant that many have made the investment to install hardware across their physical properties for their purposes.

Google has just made the investments not only worthwhile, but extremely valuable. With the revelations during the sessions on Eddystone and the Google beacon platform, as well as the Nearby API, Google is making the sharing of beacon installations and emerging beacon networks massively accessible and scalable. Brands will not only be able to ‘lease’ and potentially monetize their own beacon installation to other apps (further justifying the investment), they will also be able to ‘lease’ other installed beacons throughout the physical world, thus expanding their reach exponentially.

While the concept of beacon sharing is not new, it takes a player the size of Google to create the standard and appropriate cloud infrastructure to make this concept of beacon networks and sharing a reality at scale.

This move will rapidly accelerate the deployment and accessibility of beacons, driven by more compelling ROI and the critical mass that will provide the reach necessary to have meaningful impact. The result will be a world with significant enough foundational infrastructure for app publishers of all shapes and sizes to deliver hyper-relevant, contextual experiences, as location-based inputs become table stakes for all brands.

Another common challenge marketers and app owners face when looking to invest in location and proximity is contemplating the real extent of their app audience. While some publishers have sizeable install bases, many find it difficult to justify a location-driven mobile strategy without the install base to result in real reach.

Requiring an app with reach in order to capitalize on the power of location has meant many have had to go back to growing their user base before considering beacons and location. This has resulted in a bit of chicken-and egg-scenario where, in many cases, it is often contextual content that drives the user value required to justify an app install in the first place. A major challenge. Until now.

Google has added the ability for data or “attachments” to be added to beacons from the cloud. Each beacon can have a number of these attachments, which allows developers to do a lot more with beacon infrastructure. Specifically, without the need for an installed app, brands will be able to connect with customers using beacons in three ways:

  • Taking advantage of the mobile OS’s new ability to detect “nearby beacons” that can drive a user to relevant nearby web-based content by attaching a shortened discoverable URL to a beacon.
  • Easily prompt a download by using beacons to direct a user to install an app with content that pertains to the beacon within their range. Essentially conveying the message to a user that there is a relevant app with an “action” nearby.
  • Using Google’s new “intent-based” messages to fetch a “piece” or specific feature of an app that corresponds to a nearby action, thus eliminating the download process all together.

While we knew some of these solutions to address app install audience were coming when Google’s Eddystone format was announced last year, we now have much more detail about how the promise of the ‘app-less’ beacon experience will come to life.

These are just a few of the location-related highlights from I/O and more detail is expected to come in the weeks ahead. Without question, Google is clearly looking at beacons the right way and making the required product decisions that address some of the shortfalls of Apple’s approach from a few years ago.

jecoombsJohn Coombs is co-founder and CEO of Rover, a location-based mobile marketing platform that helps retailers and other businesses deliver smarter, location-powered mobile content and enriching customer experiences. John has extensive knowledge in retail technology, loyalty programs and mobile experiences. Find him on Twitter at @johnecoombs