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Project Beacon: helping visitors find your business, or just creepy data collection?


A few weeks ago, we received two packages from Google. Inside each small box was a plastic triangular prism, around two inches long. It also came with a two booklets explaining that this was Project Beacon: the revolutionary new way to do - something. Generally, we don't install bits of tech that arrive unsolicited through our door (even if they do have Google's logo stamped on them) so we decided to find out more.

None of us had any recollection of ordering Project Beacon. The first leaflet claimed that it would, 'Help new customers discover [our] business by gathering reviews from Google's community of Local Guides,' as well as 'Get more photos', 'Help customers plan' and 'Connect with customers'. It all sounded great so far.

According to the leaflet, 'The beacon in this box sends a clear signal that helps customers' phones recognise that they've visited your shop. When Google understands that customers have visited, we can gather reviews and photos for you, and provide new information that helps people learn about and connect with your business.'

It was clear that this little plastic tube was going to massively benefit our business, but it wasn't clear how. At this point we abandoned the instructions entirely and headed to Google's Project Beacon website, which informed us that, 'The beacon transmits a one-way code that’s unique to your venue. When a user visits your venue with location services on their device turned on, their phone can use the beacon signal in order to understand that it’s visiting your store.' In short, this little plastic tube was making sure that our location was crystal clear to everyone that visited.

We also found out why Project Beacon had turned up at our door. Google says, 'We’re sending some beacons to businesses who’ve used our advertising services, and are likely to benefit from location features.' For businesses in shopping centres, or very close quarters with other businesses, the beacon should help customers get right to your location. However, there's a fair few benefits for Google as well.

'We may ask users who’ve visited your venue to contribute reviews, such as star ratings, answers to quick questions, photos, and more.' As suspected, data collection is at the forefront of this freebie. Those using location services may be familiar with the questions that Google pose, such as 'Is this business dog friendly?' As ridiculous as these questions seem, Google is attempting to gather information from real visitors - and that's only going to benefit customers and businesses alike. Project Beacon is simply a more precise version of this.

On the whole, Google's Project Beacon shouldn't scare you any more than Google's location services - all this bit of tech is doing is pinning down your exact location. It does have benefits for customers and businesses alike - encouraging visitors to leave reviews and photos is great for smaller companies, and if your business is in an odd location the beacon will certainly help customers find you. However, you're not missing out on much by keeping your beacon in the box.

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