How to make non-skeevy QR codes

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 tracking. I’ll show you how to use QR codes without invading visitors’ privacy.

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:name@domain.com?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.

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.

sample fancy QR!

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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