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Google Favorite Places coming to window near you

Businesses that are popular in Google's Local Business Center are receiving special decals denoting them "Favorite Places," with a scannable bar code that provides more information.

Google is turning its sights squarely on the local ad market, with plans to promote its local business listings in storefronts around the U.S.

Stickers bearing Google's logo and a QR code have been distributed to 100,000 of the most popular businesses in Google's Local Business Center database, and starting this week consumers will be able to use code-scanning applications on modern phones to look up the Google listing for that particular restaurant, store, or dry cleaner. The stickers will be prominently displayed in store windows of participating businesses, and represent a shot across the bow of companies like Yelp which offer similar branded services.

Google's Local Business Center allows pizza joints and dress boutiques to place listings on Google Maps with basic information such as hours and location and also get access to data about how Web searchers are hitting their profile, such as the ZIP code from which searches originate, said Michaela Prescott, head of geomarketing at Google. Over 1 million businesses in the U.S. have listed themselves with Google, she said.

Much has been made of Google's interest in courting the big-name advertisers of the corporate world, but the company is also very interested in the mom-and-pop stores of the world, which fit nicely into its strategy of delivering targeted advertising to specific niches. Later this week, Google plans to hold an event in San Francisco for small business owners in hopes of educating them about the services that are available on Google.

The company analyzed which local listings were generating the most activity, and declared those to be "Favorite Places on Google," and therefore eligible for the sticker promotion. Shoppers who happen by the store can scan the sticker to bring up the business' Place Page with listing information as well as reviews, photos, and links to sites with more information about the business.

Prescott said those links will include reviews hosted by Yelp, perhaps the most well-known local listing, and reviews on the Internet. Yelp also distributes window decals to local businesses that reassure visitors that "People love us on Yelp!" (whether that's true) in hopes to promoting the site as the place to look for local reviews. Updated 8:45 a.m. - A Google representative later clarified that while several review sites will be aggregated, Yelp is not one of them.

Google has taken the concept a step further, however, in the use of the QR codes to link to the Place Pages. Owners of smartphones with a camera (Google specifically said that iPhone, Android, and most BlackBerry owners would be supported, but others may work as well) and QR code scanning applications will be able to launch this information in their phone's browser.

So why is Google getting into the decal business? "I think it comes down to (the fact that) mobile is fundamentally different; it is about connecting the person to the physical place," Prescott said.

Obviously, lots of people search for local information on Google, but this program gives Google a way to capture eyeballs that aren't sitting in front of a desktop or laptop PC, promoting its mobile sites and therefore driving additional traffic to ad-supported sites. Expanding its local presence also allows Google to sell even-more targeted ads to other companies, since they know they'll be advertising to people in a position to take advantage of their services.

Google has been ramping up its local presence for quite some time, but seems to be experimenting with different strategies these days. It recently suspended a trial of a program called "Local Listing Ads," which was designed as a simple entry into Google that didn't require the business to manage a regular AdWords campaign.

And it also recently introduced a service that lets businesses put coupons in the Local Business Center that smartphone owners can redeem from the screen of their device, rather than having to clip them out of a newspaper circular.