How Google Beacons Work: The Google Beacon Master Plan

Beacons, beacons, Google beacons are getting talked about everywhere. That’s partly because as I reported back in July 2018 in this BizIQ post, Google has been sending free beacons to small businesses everywhere.

As a result, everyone wants one. The blog post I mentioned is one of the most popular pieces of content on the BizIQ website, and we’re continually responding to people’s questions about these odd little devices that are no bigger than your average thumb drive. But how do beacons work and what is Google up to? What exactly is the Google Beacon master plan?

Google, of course, won’t ever actually come right out and disclose any of the reasons why they do what they do, or what their real vision is for the future of any project or technology they’re developing. Furthermore, they have a habit of bringing out a new product or feature, then take it away, then bring it back months later under a new name. However, I have my own ideas about what they might be up to, and I’m just as intrigued by these devices as everyone else is. My first step was to try to get my hands on one of the beacons in the program.

How do I get a Google Beacon?

For a while, you could sign up for your business to participate in the semi-mysterious Google Project Beacon beta test, but these days their official line is that they aren’t sending any more out or taking requests. If you click on the link above you’ll land on a page with the message, “Thank you for your interest. The form you are trying to access has either expired or reached its maximum registration limit.”

A few of my colleagues and I attempted to get Google to send one of the Project Beacon beacons to BizIQ by contacting Google directly. BizIQ GBC Manager, Danni Petersen contacted Google My Business support, but they said they’d never heard of the beacons. BizIQ Paid Media Account Manager, Tristan Hogue contacted his Google Ads contact person, and they told him they couldn’t send him one either. As a result, he decided to purchase and develop his own beacon for fun, but that’s another story.

I didn’t let any of the obstacles my colleagues had already faced sway me. I filled out a Google Project Beacon support ticket, two actually, plus an email to the dedicated Project Beacon support team at [email protected]. The first ticket and email put me in a loop with nothing but a form email thanking me for contacting them with a link to the beacon support area where I filled out my support ticket, so I filled out another help request.

My second request got me an email informing me that Google Project Beacon was closed and no longer accepting requests for beacons. However, it also got me another email from my very own Google Ads Specialist, Swaraj. His email was confusing because Swaraj said he could help me get a beacon and that he couldn’t help me get a beacon. Huh?

Hello Google, my name is Annette, please give me a beacon

I kept emailing Swaraj anyway. Finally, Swaraj told me I really needed to contact the beacon-help email with my request, and that he could only help me with Google Ads. Funny, because technically Google Beacons are part of the Google Ads department. My surreal exchange with various Google support teams had officially gone from amusing to frustrating. I officially abandoned all hope of Google ever sending BizIQ a beacon, and resigned myself to making phone calls to clients where I would try to slip this question into the conversation, “So, funny question, but did you get a strange, random package from Google recently?”

Then one morning during a beacon venting session in the marketing department, BizIQ’s HR Director, Machell Searls happened to walk through our suite.

“Beacon, did you say beacon? I have a Google Beacon,” she exclaimed.

Director of Marketing, Lexi St Laurent and Digital Media Specialist, Tim Mechling looked at her, then at me. I jumped up and said, “Yay! What! We’ve been trying to get Google to send us one for weeks now! When did it arrive? Can we see it? We need it to create educational content about beacons to help our customers. Machell, you’re a lifesaver!”

I’m not sure why Google sent us a beacon. Maybe it was Swaraj. Maybe Google was tired of so many people at BizIQ contacting them about beacons. Maybe we just randomly got one. Regardless, we have a Google Project Beacon beacon. Now what?

Wait, what are beacons again. I’m still confused.

If you’re like me and not a developer or engineer, you might be more than a little baffled and confused by beacons and all the jargon. For example, BLE, what the heck is that? So, before we get into what Google might be planning on doing with all the free beacons, they’re sending out, and what you can do with beacons at your business let’s take a step back and go over where beacons came from and what they are.

Things might get a bit technical, so take a deep breath and remind yourself that all beacons are just little one-way radio transmitters that broadcast a simple identical message, like a URL, to any smartphone in their vicinity. Alternatively, if you just want to know how Google Beacons could help your business, you can skip ahead to the Ok Google, how can I use these beacon things to grow my business? Section of this post.

Beacons aren’t new. In fact, Bluetooth, the technology that evolved to enable the development of beacons has been around since 1989. The technology was initially called shortlink radio. I guess that name sounded too simple and not very high-tech, so maybe a marketer renamed it, and that’s why early Bluetooth handsfree calling devices have flashing blue lights on them. (That isn’t what happened, according to PC Magazine it’s because of Vikings, yes, you heard me right, Vikings).

Anyway, the version of Bluetooth that beacons use, Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) came out in 2010. BLE is what enabled the development of physical beacons. But with the potential to create beacons, came the potential to develop the language, the code, the protocol that allows a beacon to communicate. By 2013 Apple released the first beacon protocol, iBeacon, and created the first stirrings of hype around the devices, and their potential for helping businesses. I’m not going to delve too much into iBeacon other than in relation to Google beacons because that will just get too confusing.

Eddystone — the Google Beacon Platform for Everyone

Roughly sometime around 2015, Google released their own beacon protocol, Eddystone and started the ongoing Eddystone project. Unlike Apple’s iBeacon which was originally developed to be compatible solely with devices running iOS, Eddystone is open-source, meaning the protocol is compatible with any device operating system that supports BLE beacons, including both Android and iOS systems. (If you have an iPhone you’re using iOS, and if you have any other brand smartphone, you’re probably using Android).

Furthermore, the open-source nature of the Eddystone project means everyone can develop actions and apps that use the Eddystone protocol as well as help improve the protocol itself. Plus, Eddystone provides multiple frames or packets. To simplify it, Eddystone offers 4 different types of message signals. (iBeacon has 1). You can use just one of the frames, or multiple frames, even all 4 of them.

1. Eddystone-UID

The first packet type works pretty much like the iBeacon. It broadcasts a short line of code called an ID number at regular intervals that any smartphone near the beacon can receive. If the phone has an app associated with the beacon then the ID number will tell the app what to do – usually display a notification about where the phone is like items on sale in a retail store, or trigger an action from the phone’s user, like leave a review, or like the business page on social media. Broadcasting the ID number is all the beacon does. It does not collect any data from the customer.

2. Eddystone-URL

This packet does exactly what you think it does. The message that’s broadcast is a short URL. No app associated with the business or the physical beacon needs to be downloaded for a smartphone in close proximity to the beacon to receive the message and complete the necessary action which is to display the URL as a notification on the person’s phone or tablet. That means, as a business, you don’t have to hire an app developer to develop an app to interact with your beacons. That’s because this particular message type, or data packet, or frame (why does it have so many names?!) works by using the Physical Web or Google’s cloud-based Proximity Beacon API. I’ll come back to those in a bit.

3. Eddystone-TLM

The third packet broadcasts telemetry data. The data in a TLM packet contains information that helps you monitor your beacon. Telemetry data can tell you things including the battery level, the number of frames your beacon has sent, how long your beacon was active, and your beacon’s temperature. Think of this frame as the messages that tell you if your beacon needs a new battery, or if it’s too hot. The data does not contain any information from customers who’ve received information from your beacon. Remember, beacons are just simple, little transmitters that only broadcast out, and can’t receive any signals or data packets from your customers’ smartphones.

4. Eddystone-EID

The last frame type is an encrypted version of UID. With the UID packets, a third party app could use your beacons because they can detect and read its ID number, then use it’s broadcasts to find its location. With an EID packet, only authorized apps can detect and read your beacon id number.

Google’s Project Beacon Beacons vs. Eddystone Beacons

Now here’s where I have to tell you something, all of the above information is about Eddystone compatible beacons you can purchase from a third-party beacon vendor who partnered with Google on Eddystone compatible BLE beacons. You then develop the beacon’s functions and any necessary apps yourself using either Eddystone or the cloud-based Google Proximity Beacon API – because, with Google, they can’t just have 1 version of something when they can develop 2 or more!

The “free” Google Beacons that they’re sending to businesses including to BizIQ use Eddystone and the Google Proximity API, but you don’t own them. Google monitors and controls them in the API. They’re pre-setup at Google, and only Google can change or add additional functions to them. If you have your own Eddystone beacons, Google encourages you to register your beacons on their Google platform where you can configure them, edit configurations, and monitor them.

Google Project Beacons Belong to Google & Eddystone Beacons Don’t

Think of the difference between the Google Project Beacons and the Google Eddystone Beacons as similar to the differences between your Google My Business listing and your company’s website which is indexed by Google. You can claim your Google My Business listing, and Google can verify your listing, but you don’t have any real ownership or control over your listing beyond what Google allows. The features and functions on your GMB listing are all controlled by Google.

Your website, while it appears in Google search results, is entirely owned by you. You control what appears on your website, and the functionality on your website. You can add pages, features, buttons, videos, etc. because you own your domain and your website.

Basically, your website and Eddystone beacons are like owning your own home. GMB listings and Google Project Beacons are like renting an apartment if the apartment were free but your landlord could randomly turn the utilities on and off, add new rooms, and flashing lights, then as soon as you got used to the flashing lights, or the free apartment, take them all away.

Lost in the Physical Web and the Internet of Things (IoT)

You see, beacons, including Google Beacons of any type – Eddystone or Google Beacon Project Beacons, are all part of the Physical Web which is connected to the Internet of Things (IoT). I know, I know, just when we get used to the Internet and the World Wide Web – “the Web” for short, along comes the Internet of Things (cue ominous music).

So, what are the IoT and the Physical Web? Talking about them can get pretty complicated, but here’s what they are in a nutshell.

1. What is the Internet of Things?

The IoT is the network of things and/or components of things, as well as the connection that allows these things to connect with each other, as well as to interact and exchange data without any human involvement at all.

What “things?” Well, anything really, as long as it can connect to the Internet and/or to another thing or things that are connected to the Internet. So really any device or component can become part of the IoT. The most common connected things that you might have are your smart thermostat, a smartwatch, or a Fitbit, or maybe even a lightbulb.

To interact with the things on the IoT, you usually need an individual app for each thing, although some things can be controlled by the same app.

2. What is the Physical Web?

The Physical Web is the interaction layer of the IoT. Think of it this way: the Physical Web is to the IoT what the Web is to the Internet. So, just as the Web allows us to interact with the Internet via web browsers, the Physical Web is what enables us to interact with the Internet of Things via Beacons. The beacon or device acting as a beacon allows a person to interact with things without downloading individual apps. Guess who we can thank for that? Google.

And just like that, we’re back to Google Beacons.

The Google Master Plan or All Your Beacons Are Belong to Us

You may be wondering why Google seems to be so excited about beacons that they started sending random beacons to businesses, and encouraging beacon use. In the past, many advertising experts would place BLE beacons at the expensive end of the local marketing stack. They thought of them as things that were useful for large retail and restaurant businesses to develop, but that were out of reach for small businesses.

All of 2018 saw Google focusing more and more on improving existing products for small businesses and on developing new features as well. Project Beacon is probably part of this push to target and serve the small business community. In the grand scheme of all things Search, by encouraging businesses to develop their own Eddystone beacons and register them with Google as well as use the Google Proximity API, and by the development of their own beacons, Google is positioning itself to control the Physical Web which many people view as the next frontier.

In this episode of Google’s, Coffee with a Googler, Peter Lewis, Google Project Beacon Product Manager, Google has made it so developers and Google can easily deploy the physical infrastructure of beacons. What he doesn’t mention is that by having most if not all beacons registered with Google, that Google then controls the entire beacon infrastructure. That’s how, in a weird way, all beacons belong to Google, or at least Google has the ability to develop new apps and services that use the beacon infrastructure.

Hey Google, how can I use these beacon things to grow my business?

Okay, now that you know a bit more about Google beacons and how they work, (or if you skipped ahead to this section), you probably want to know how you can use them to grow your business. In case you haven’t already guessed, some pretty cool things about them will benefit small local businesses.

The beacons Google is sending as part of Project Beacon are linked to your Google My Business listing and your business location and details. Google isn’t forthcoming on whether or not they are linked to your Google Ads account, but because they’re also running another test called “Location Insights,” with some Google Ads users, it’s highly probable that they’re looking into using the beacons to improve store visit conversion tracking capabilities. That’s because BLE provides more precise proximity data than GPS.

It’s this technology that helps the free Google beacons make your business more visible to customers with mobile devices like smartphones. The beacons send a signal that helps their smartphones recognize they’ve visited your store. The beacon doesn’t violate customer privacy, and your customers don’t have to download any apps to receive the signal from the beacons. The Google Project Beacon beacons don’t gather or store any information from your customer, and they’re not connected to the Internet.

Google Project Beacons are connected to your Google My Business Listing

Because the features are tied to your Google My Business listing, they gather check-ins and help you show up on customers’ personal maps with a pin that shows them they’ve visited your location before.

The documentation Google sends with the beacons claims the beacon will help you get more reviews. If a customer is part of the local guide program, then they get a notification from the beacon asking them if they’d like to leave a review. They can click on the notification and go right to the review section of your listing to write and submit their review.

Beacons help you get more photos of products and business from customers who visit your location without violating customer privacy – the customer receives a notification asking if they want to share photos of their visit and they can click “yes, or no,” then select photos to share to your listing.

If you’re part of another Google pilot program, called the “Locations Insights” you can get more information on who customers are and how they visit your location. This data is found in the “insights” menu on your business listing if you are part of the pilot program.

It can help with things like showing traffic and displaying how busy your business is at various times of the day. This information displays in your knowledge panel under “busy times.” There’s some vague information that it can also help with wait times and visit durations.

The future of Google’s Project Beacon Beacons

Google’s Peter Lewis says in this Google support forum thread that Google has plans to add more features to the beacon in the next several months. It will be interesting to see what those features are, and how they may or may not tie into Adwords more as well as Google Maps and Google My Business.

If you received one of their free beacons and were on the fence about whether you should activate it or not, I’d definitely encourage you to take advantage of the opportunity. The improved location features alone, even if you aren’t in their pilot program could help your business gain more visibility with more local customers.

Remember, unlike Eddystone Beacons and other beacons, such as Apple’s iBeacons, you don’t have to pay for the beacons nor do you have to develop any apps or other features to use the beacons. If you want a beacon you have more control over, in addition to the free beacons from Google, you will have to purchase and develop your own. The only small downside is that you can’t control or develop which features the free beacons use. Oh and as I discovered when I tried to get a beacon for BizIQ, like most new Google products and services, the customer support for the free beacons hasn’t really rolled out yet.

While we don’t deploy beacons at BizIQ (although I really want BizIQ Beacons to be a thing because I love alliteration), we can help you verify your Google My Business Listing and with other smart local online marketing solutions. Leave your comments and questions below and don’t forget to subscribe to the blog for more tips to help you grow your small business.