Recent statistics show that use of QR codes — those dotty squares that point your smartphone to a web page — are on the rise. I’m not here to make the case for them or tell you where it makes the most sense to put them. I just wanted to explain how to use them if you do choose to.
The skeeviness issue arises from the fact that many of these codes contain 3rd party tracking. I’ll show you how to use QR codes without invading visitors’ privacy, while still counting how often they are used.
There are many websites out there to let you enter a URL (or any other text) and create a QR code from it. They pretty much all do the same thing — they encode text in a grid pattern that a smartphone can decode. The phone may then ask you what to do about it — if it’s a URL, whether to actually visit the webpage, if it’s contact information, whether to add the contact to your address book, and so on.
Things You Can Do with QR Codes
For all QR code actions, the smartphone will describe what it’s about to do and prompt the smartphone user whether to continue.
- The most common use is to point someone to a webpage (or video on YouTube or whatever).
- Use the URL of a file on your website — for example, a PDF or image.
- Encode a phone number so people can scan the code and call that number from their smartphone.
- Compose an email with an addressee and subject you specify (use a URL with format mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org?subject=subject)
- Add an event to the phone’s calendar (VCALENDAR file format; all information is encoded in the QR so there are lots of dots).
- Add a contact to add to the phone’s contact list (VCARD file format).
- You can put in any text, and the phone will decide what to do with it (my iPhone offers to search the Internet for that text).
- Install an app from the iTunes store or other app store.
- Provide the SSID and password to login to a wi-fi network.
Where to Create a QR Code
My top three picks are these:
- https://keremerkan.net/qr-code-and-2d-code-generator/ gives you a no-frills QR code — just the basic blocks — but supports every type of code, as best I can tell, and doesn’t pull any tricks. It produces only “static” codes that don’t share information with other websites.
- qrcode-monkey.com has a pretty good selection of supported types of QR codes, and lets you modify their appearance in various ways described below, but their website doesn’t work with my favorite web browser, Firefox.
- logodesign.net/qrcode-generator has similar abilities to make “fancy” QR codes, and works on Firefox.
Static or Dynamic?
Many services to create QR codes offer the option of a “dynamic” QR code. They may call it something different, but basically this is anything that requires you have a (generally paid) account with them. If you have to login to do it, don’t. There’s nothing you can do with so-called dynamic codes that you can’t do yourself very easily with static codes.
Moreover, dynamic QR codes collect information about the people who scan your codes. What they do with this information, aside from selling it to you, is often unclear.
To confirm whether the QR code you’re getting is static or dynamic, point your phone camera at it. When it recognizes the QR code, your phone should show the URL (or at least the domain name) to ask if you want to go there. This is shown in the photo. A static QR code will show the URL you entered. If it’s any other domain name, there’s tracking happening.
The main selling points for dynamic QR codes are:
- You can see statistics on who used them.
- You can change what page the QR code points to without reprinting your brochures.
- They allow for fancier content (e.g. an image gallery)
You can do all these things yourself on your own website. To track statistics, create a dedicated landing page and make the QR link to that. You’ll see the statistics as part of your overall website statistics. To let yourself change where the QR points later, use a plugin such as Redirection. Define a URL that intercepts the visitor and points them to the current landing page. To use different content types not directly supported by QR, put that thing on your website and use its URL. That’s all the QR code provider would do anyway.
Shortening Your URL
The size of the dots in your QR code varies depending on the length of the text it encodes. So a short URL will have big dots, a long one will have lots and lots of tiny dots. The advantage of a short URL is that your QR code can be read by a smartphone camera from farther away, or at more extreme angles, or if the focus is a little soft or the camera isn’t perfectly still.
Often, websites will add a ton of extra text to the end of a URL telling where you came from to get there, what search terms you used to find the page, etc. This makes for a hard to read QR if you just copy the current URL to the clipboard and paste it into whatever web form you’re using the generate the QR.
You can generally strip off most or all of these arguments to give yourself a shorter URL. Often, everything from the first question mark (“?”) to the end can be deleted without affecting what page you end up on.
You can also get a shorter URL using a URL shortening service like bit.ly. I never do this becausr the URL doesn’t need to be that short, and because then when people point their phone at it, as shown in the photo above, the URL displayed is the domain name of the shortening service (e.g. bit.ly) instead of your website. They can’t tell where they will be going, and may be cautious enough to not go there.
Tracking use of your QR code
This is a case where you may want to lengthen the URL a little. Because your website statistics gathering will collect the full URL, you can add some “do nothing” arguments that appear only in the QR code. For instance, if the destination you want is “https://nowhere.org/planting” you could add “?qr-1” to the end: “https://nowhere.org/planting&qr=1” This makes no difference in which page is displayed, but you can search for the “qr=1” argument in the statistics to see how often the QR is being used to navigate to your site.
Of course, this only works if the URL is to a site where you have access to view the statistics. If it’s your social media profile or anyone else’s website but yours, you won’t be able to track how people got there unless the website owners share this information with you.
Fancy QR Codes with Style, Color, and Logos
The photo accompanying this article shows a QR code with a logo in the middle (of my publisher, Oghma Creative Media). This logo is actually BLOP ON TOP of the black and white squares that would otherwise be there. Some of the dots are simply covered up. Yet the code scans anyway, because a bunch of clever engineers designed the QR format with a high degree of error tolerance and redundancy. They figured these codes would get printed on labels that would get smudged or corners torn off, or would be out of focus, so they built in a healthy margin to let the original text be decoded anyway.
People also take advantage of this flexibility by distorting the corner markers and the grid squares, adding color, or incorporating logos as a transparent overlay or background.
So this is fun, and you can do it with yours if you like. Only be aware that you’re using up a lot of the error tolerance, so if the QR is badly printed, smudged, or the lighting is poor, your code will not be as reliably readable as a boring black and white block image.
If you do get fancy, test your QR code before ordering thousands of copies from Vistaprint. How do you expect people to use it — print it or whatever to reproduce the circumstances. Try it with your own phone in dim lighting, from far away, etc.
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