Sidecar Tests A New “Commute” Service, With Discounts When You Pay For A Week Of Morning Rides

Friday 24 October 2014 @ 2:23 pm
sidecar-selection Ridesharing service SideCar invited me today to beta test a new feature called Sidecar Commute. Here’s how it works, as explained on the tester signup page: You pay $35 for a one-week SideCar Commute Pack, then you can request a ride every morning that week, and you’ll get a $15 credit for that ride. Read More

Google CEO Larry Page appoints Sundar Pichai to lead nearly every product at the company

Friday 24 October 2014 @ 2:01 pm
Google CEO Larry Page appoints Sundar Pichai to lead nearly every product at the company
Image Credit: Jolie O'Dell/VentureBeat

Google chief executive Larry Page is stepping back at the giant technology company, while senior vice president Sundar Pichai will be assuming more responsibility, according to a new report.

Pichai, head of Android, Chrome and Apps at Google, will become head of core Google products according to a report today from Re/code, citing unnamed sources.

Pichai will take over Google Research, web search, Google Maps, Google+, advertising, commerce, and the company’s growing infrastructure, although his title won’t change, the report said.


VentureBeat is studying mobile marketing automation. Chime in, and we’ll share the data.

Apple Pay has landed, but its effects on mobile marketing are still up in the air

Friday 24 October 2014 @ 1:30 pm
Apple Pay has landed, but its effects on mobile marketing are still up in the air
Image Credit: Apple

Now that it’s out, how will Apple Pay change the dynamics of mobile marketing?

The consensus of the experts we consulted is that it will have an impact — but there are wide differences of opinion about the size of that impact and Apple Pay’s advantages vis-à-vis credit cards.

The payment process itself is speedy and straightforward. As VentureBeat’s Devindra Hardawar noted in his maiden voyage:

“When checking out at participating stores, you just need to hold your phone up to the payment terminal, watch your default [credit] card pop up [on the screen], and hold your finger down on the Touch ID sensor for authentication.”

That kind of speedy and painless payment process could impact how people make purchases online, in brick-and-mortar stores, or both.

The online impact could be affected by the reported planned integration of Apple Pay into iAd. Users could thus almost instantly buy online products seen in mobile ads.

Assuming that integration happens, Forrester analyst Jennifer Wise told VentureBeat there will be three impacts.

“It will boost attribution for mobile ads’ impact, it will boost m-commerce, and it will complement marketers’ ability to specifically target customers ready to make the purchase.”

The return-on-investment of mobile ads is hard to determine these days, she pointed out, “which is holding back spend.” A direct, relatively frictionless pay method means marketers can get hard info on whether those ad campaigns are working to create sales.

iAd also allows for retargeting, where a user who has abandoned a purchase earlier can be shown another, more enticing ad later.

Time savings?

But not everyone thinks this kind of “see ad/buy painlessly” flowthrough will make that much of a difference.

“How often do we click on an ad and instantly buy the item?” asked Richard Bagdonas, cofounder and CTO at beacon platform provider Mahana.

Mobile ads for video games, he noted, use iTunes credentials anyway.

But online shopping from a mobile device — which has a shopping cart abandonment rate of 97 percent — could get a boost by a quick payment process.

“A lot of time when people are shopping online, they have to put in their credit card numbers, [and] people get cold feet,” Gartner Research VP Mark Hung noted. Even with a stored credit card, he told us, it’s “a three-step process,” while Apple Pay, requiring just a Touch ID fingerprint confirmation, is just one step.

It may be that there are other factors holding back mobile online purchases, such as not wanting to make a decision using a small screen. The physical store may be the arena where mobile payment could create new forms of shopping.

But there still need to be several next steps to really change the in-store dynamic, Bagdonas told us.

“Apple Pay should be looking to leverage iBeacons,” the beacon provider told us, with consumers being recognized “when they get near the cash register so the merchant can change their experience.”

The bigger issue for in-store sales with Apple Pay, Bagdonas said, is that it’s still not that much of a time savings to tap a phone on the point-of-sale terminal, compared to having a credit card swiped.

“Apple Pay doesn’t replace the requirement for me to enter my phone number to get the member savings,” he said — at least until Apple Pay supports loyalty cards.

“With Apple Pay I have to enter my phone number on the PIN pad, then answer the questions about donating to charity on the payment terminal before I ever tap my phone to pay. Any appreciable time savings aren’t there. The half-second in time savings could be quickly eaten up by the cashier waiting for the receipt to print or if they want to hand me coupons.”

It’s worse at sit-down restaurants, he said, where there’s no point-of-sale terminal at the table. In those situations, Bagdonas said, “Apple is banking on OpenTable and other mobile payment companies to bake Apple Pay into their apps. This means Apple Pay’s success is based on the success of others.”

There’s another important fact: “Credit cards don’t rely on a battery nor do they rely on a fingerprint to work,” Bagdonas adds.

‘Closing the loop’

But mobile marketing agency Vibes sees the in-store use of Apple Pay as “closing the loop” of mobile marketing.

Vibes’ VP of marketing Mark Tack told VentureBeat that Apple Pay needs to be seen as part of Passbook, the “empty app” that holds coupons, loyalty cards, offers, and credit cards.

He said Vibes’ client Pep Boys has found that “26 percent of customers who saw an offer added it to their Passbook,” and 30 percent of all Pep Boys mobile wallet offers (including ones in Google Wallet) were redeemed in the store.

“All roads need to lead to saving branded content on your phone” in Passbook, he said, from whatever advertising or marketing push. From there, Apple Pay is a quick way to close the deal.

“Passbook is the shopping companion that acquires all the branded content for the customer,” he said. “Now that Apple has added the payment option,” it can increase consumer usage in stores.

None of this matters if Apple Pay doesn’t get a critical mass of consumers and retailers. One of the doubters about that happening is our own Stewart Rogers, director of marketing technology at VB Insight.

The worldwide market share for iOS is slightly under 12 percent. The iPhone 6 and 6 Plus are still a relatively small slice of that. (Apple Pay also works on the Apple Watch, iPad Air 2, and iPad mini 3.)

“Google Wallet is in many more devices,” Rogers said, “but they’ve never managed to get it beyond the U.S. and it hasn’t really picked up any traction. I think there’s a long way to go on NFC [near-field communication] pay tech.”

“Even if everyone bought an NFC iOS or Android device tomorrow,” he pointed out, “we still have to wait for every merchant to upgrade their payment devices.”

‘A game changer’

Gartner’s Wise is more optimistic about the prospects for Apple Pay succeeding where others haven’t.

“It comes with the trusted Apple brand, and it feels secure to consumers — card issuers verify and authenticate the card, it has on-device encryption, and it requires Touch ID to activate,” he said.

And Parks Associates’ Jennifer Kent described Apple Pay as “a game changer because Apple does not release products without the necessary marketing resources.” None of the other mobile payment players “has put nearly enough resources into consumer education,” she said, “resulting in a lack of traction for the mobile payments space as a whole.”

There’s also the matter of timing, she said. Next year is when merchants will be upgrading their point-of-sale systems because of a new industry initiative intended to reduce the risk of fraud by accepting EMV [computer chip credit card] payments, which are more secure than traditional mag-stripe cards.”

“Payment terminals that accept EMV are typically able to accept NFC payments as well,” she said. “There will be many more merchants who accept contactless payments in 2015 than ever before.”

In that case: Chicken, meet egg.

The question at that point is whether they can get something cooking.

VentureBeat is studying mobile marketing automation. Chime in, and we’ll share the data.

Apple designs and markets consumer electronics, computer software, and personal computers. The company's best-known hardware products include the Macintosh line of computers, the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad. Apple software includes t... read more »

Ebola panic is a symptom of a broken health care system. Here’s how techies can help fix it

Friday 24 October 2014 @ 1:00 pm
Ebola panic is a symptom of a broken health care system. Here’s how techies can help fix it

Above: Bryan Sivak, the CTO of HHS, addresses the crowd at HealthBeat 2013.

Image Credit: Michael O'Donnell/VentureBeat

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As I wrote last year, health care in the U.S. is one of the least transparent markets imaginable.

It’s getting slightly less opaque — but only slightly.

Maybe the urgency of responding to the threat of Ebola will help. Now that an Ebola patient has turned up in New York, the urgency of coordinating medical responses to possible pandemics is more pressing than ever. (Not to mention the need to get ready for the flu season, which is actually a more serious threat at the moment.) But one major factor hampering medical coordination is the almost complete lack of transparency in the U.S. health care system, from top to bottom.

Right now, for consumers, health care is like a flea market where you don’t know the price of anything, or its quality, or really much about it — until you’ve bought it, taken it home, and used it up. Then you find out whether it works or not.

And then you get the bill.

It’s even more complicated than that, because the bill is probably not paid by you — it’s paid largely by an insurance company (if you’re lucky). But there’s little transparency in the market for insurance, either.

And, as my colleague Mark Sullivan reported earlier this month, consumers aren’t the only ones in the dark. Not only do hospitals charge wildly varying prices for the same procedures, but also many hospitals don’t have a good handle on what those procedures cost.

The simple act of giving doctors information about the costs of the services they provide, while they’re providing those services, can help cut costs by as much as 10 percent.

It’s a measure of how truly opaque the health care market is that such measures are considered new and remarkable.

But it’s also a sign of opportunity.

We’ll find out more about that opportunity next week at VentureBeat’s second HealthBeat conference, October 27-28 in San Francisco. I’m looking forward to the conference because the last one opened my eyes about how truly crazy our health care system is — and how much potential digital technology has to transform it for the better. (Click here to register. If you use the discount code “DylanTweney20,” you’ll get 20 percent off the ticket price.)

Here’s why I’m so excited, as a journalist, to cover this digital upheaval:

Going digital — at long last

The key to transformation in health care is the digitization of health care records. Electronic health records, or EHRs, replace the bedside charts and manila folders full of notes that most doctors, clinics, and hospitals used until quite recently.

The Hitech Act, passed by the U.S. Congress in 2009, provided incentives for hospitals and doctors to switch from paper records to EHRs. The results have been dramatic. According to a report prepared by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services this month (.pdf), 59 percent of hospitals have “at least a basic EHR system,” an increase of 47 percentage points since 2009.

With more widespread use of digital records comes the possibility of increasing efficiency and transparency across the health care system. Everyone from patients to health care providers to insurance companies will more easily be able to access health data, use it, analyze it, and make decisions based on it.

But there are still hurdles. As the HHS report notes:

… practice patterns have not changed to the point that health care providers share patient health information electronically across organizational, vendor, and geographic boundaries. Electronic health information is not yet sufficiently standardized to allow seamless interoperability … thereby limiting the potential uses of the information to improve health and care. Patient electronic health information needs to be available for appropriate use in solving major challenges, such as providing more effective care and informing and accelerating scientific research.

Standardization is a big challenge, because right now most EHR providers are proprietary and haven’t put much effort into making their systems interoperable with other EHRs. In fact, there’s been little incentive for them to do so, until recently.

Competition from Internet-centric EHRs, like Practice Fusion, may help break this logjam. Customer demand might do it too. Either way, it seems inevitable to me that the demand for interoperability will eventually trump EHR providers’ desire to keep their systems closed.

Déjà vu all over again

It’s not unlike the market for enterprise IT in the late 1990s. I was covering that market as a junior reporter for InfoWorld at the time, and it was clear that big, legacy providers of IT would do anything they could to avoid having to reckon with the Internet. But eventually, the advantages of a standards-based, interoperable, open system became irresistible. Companies that didn’t move to open standards quickly enough got swept aside. Some of the giants persisted, but only by embracing openness to a far greater degree.

It was a transition that took more than a decade and is still ongoing. It involved the reallocation of trillions of dollars in enterprise tech spending (according to Gartner, worldwide IT spending will be about $3.8 trillion this year). Now we’re going to see a similar transformation in health tech.

We spend $3 trillion for health care in the U.S. — 18 percent of our gross domestic product — and according to some estimates, a third of that is waste spending. That’s a trillion dollars in waste, much of it brought about because the market is so opaque.

So I say, bring on the digitization of health records. Bring on the interoperability and the transparency. And bring on the competition.

We’ll soon see just how much of our health system is wasteful, inefficient, and poorly managed — and we’ll be able to make much better decisions about how to fix it.

And, with luck, we’ll be better able to coordinate our responses to pandemics — before they even happen.

HealthBeat — VentureBeat’s breakthrough health tech event — is returning on Oct 27-28 in San Francisco. This year’s theme is “The patient journey: Connections, data, and innovation.” We’re putting long-established giants of the health care world on stage with CEOs of the nation's most disruptive health tech companies to share insights, analyze trends, and showcase breakthrough products. Purchase your tickets now!

Smart basketballs and other gadgets from the wise man of tech (interview)

Friday 24 October 2014 @ 11:00 am
Smart basketballs and other gadgets from the wise man of tech (interview)

Above: Jim Barry of CEA shows off a smart basketball

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

I’ve been meeting with Jim Barry for many years, and he doesn’t want me to call him the old man of tech. So I’ll refer to him as the wise man of tech. Every year, he tours the country with his gadgets and encourages people to come to the sprawling tech trade show, International CES, commonly known as the Consumer Electronics Show, every January in Las Vegas.

The Consumer Electronics Association, which puts on CES, calls Barry the Digital Answer Man. He’s a former tech journalist and serves as the face of the CEA. This year, the wise man brought a smart basketball from InfoMotion, a company that got a lot of attention at last year’s show. It’s shipping the basketball, which measures your shot accuracy, and through an app, offers you coaching advice on how to shoot better.

Barry has a good eye for what’s new because he gets to look at a ton of products for a living. We caught up with him in a recent interview in Silicon Valley. Among the interesting topics: The Internet of Things is getting bigger, and CES’s Eureka Park startup zone will have twice as many startups as last year (200 companies).

I enjoyed talking with Barry, particularly when he turned all the heads in the café where we met by blasting Waylon Jennings on a Bluetooth speaker. Here’s an edited transcript of our talk.

VentureBeat: What’s new?

Jim Barry: What I’ve been talking about this year, mostly – and it fits also into our holiday survey, which just came out – is wearable tech and the Internet of Everything. As I said earlier this year, if you want to see somebody with a complete blank “what the heck are you talking about” look on their face, mention the Internet of Things or the Internet of Everything.

This is what I’ve been using as an example: The company is called InfoMotion, from Dublin, Ohio. It’s a smart basketball. At the show, we had everything from basketballs to onesies to crock pots to toothbrushes with sensors in them. Here’s the app. The app gives you all kinds of workouts and stuff, and then the coach will coach you up. It’ll tell you to go faster and all the rest of this stuff.

VB: I saw that demo’d last year at the booth. That got a lot of attention.

Barry: It’s cool. It’s very demonstrable. Under here is the sensor. I use it as an example, because people can relate to it. Everybody’s at least seen basketball played.

Everything will have a sensor in it. Then you figure out what to do with that sensor, whether it’s to count things or coach you or all this other stuff. Have you seen these? This is the Samsung Gear. That’s the Gear, and this is the Up, the Jawbone Up.

Jim Barry of the CEA shows off his fitness bands.

Above: Jim Barry of the CEA shows off his fitness bands.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

VB: I like this Intel Basis Health Tracker because it has the little laser light thing coming down. It monitors your heartbeat, so it knows when you sleep.

Barry: This will do that too. It has a number of things – heartbeat, steps, all the rest. This doesn’t do heartbeat, but it does sleep. And then this is the Motorola, the Moto360. This does a whole bunch of things too. This one works with any Android, but they recommend the MotoX. This works with Galaxy.

VB: What do you think is going to happen to this category, with the Apple watch?

Barry: I would say the jury is out. The jury will not be in for a good amount of time after Apple gets into the market. That may have an impact on this holiday season.

Slightly tangential, but not completely, this year again, tablets, laptops, TVs, smartphones, and video game consoles are the top five. That’s the same as last year, on the wishlist. That’s what people want to get. On the gift list, it’s a little less — people aren’t necessarily giving all of that. But people are giving a lot of headphones. Wireless Bluetooth speakers will become a big thing. There are millions of those.

For the first time this year, a couple of categories showed up. One is fitness tech, whether it’s FitBit or Jawbone or others. Smart watches showed up for the first time as well. The third thing that showed up, which I find is really interesting if you look at it historically, are action camcorders – GoPro and all of those. That’s another thing we’re going to see a lot of at the show.

Apple Watch

Above: Apple Watch

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi/VentureBeat

VB: That one hasn’t been dominated by GoPro yet?

Barry: I think it is. But there are others, and there are going to be lots more. I’ve heard several people mention it. GoPro is the big player – not only in what they’ve been doing, but also in the general media. One of the interesting things is, I saw a graph of digital cameras. They were at or near the top of the list 10 years ago, what people wanted for the holidays. Digital cameras, obviously, have now been taken over – certainly for snapshots – by smartphones. For special events, weddings and that kind of stuff, you still have a lot of people who like to get a digital camera.

This case works with an app called FLIR, which is Forward-Looking Infra Red. This turns your camera, on an iPhone, into –

VB: Radar?

Barry: No, into an infrared camera. This is good at night, if you’re outside and want to see what’s hot. It’s also good this time of the year if you’re tightening up your house for the winter. You can see where the heat’s escaping. They introduced this at the CES as well.

VB: Somebody was saying that’s a good way to see if someone’s spying on you. You can see the IR signatures of cameras.

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Car2Go takes Brooklyn with 400 on-demand Smart cars — we go for a spin

Friday 24 October 2014 @ 9:15 am
Car2Go takes Brooklyn with 400 on-demand Smart cars — we go for a spin

Above: One of Car2Go's on-demand Smart cars in Brooklyn.

Image Credit: Devindra Hardawar/VentureBeat

Get ready for tiny cars filled with vintage clothing and irony.

As if Brooklyn couldn’t be any more twee, now it’s home to the first deployment of on-demand Smart cars from Car2Go in the New York City area. The company is officially launching its service tomorrow in Brooklyn with 400 two-seater Smart cars at the ready.

A subsidiary of Daimler (which also makes the Smart cars), Car2Go lets you rent its small cars by the minute and drop them off anywhere in a city’s “home area.” In Brooklyn, that area stretches along the west side of the borough, from Greenpoint and Williasmburg down to Coney Island. Car2Go charges a one-time $35 signup fee (there’s no annual membership fee like Zipcar) and $0.41 a minute. (You can also check out a car for $15 an hour or $85 a day.)

Car2Go test drive Car2Go test drive Car2Go test drive The Car2Go dashboard includes custom software to measure your driving efficiency Car2Go test drive Yah, that's a tiny trunk Car2Go test drive

Car2Go is mainly targeted at people looking for spontaneous short trips. You can think of it like a more flexible Zipcar — since Car2Go typically deploys hundreds of vehicles in every location, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to grab a car quickly at the last minute. In Brooklyn, it’s practically a miracle to find a Zipcar that isn’t reserved during the weekend.

Members user the Car2Go app to find a nearby vehicle, which they unlock with a wave of their membership card. The company is also working on letting you unlock its Smart cars entirely with your phone, according to Adrianne Andang, Car2Go’s North American communications head.

Each Smart Fortwo model, not surprisingly, includes seats for you and one passenger. There’s also a small amount of trunk space available. You’re not going to be doing a single Ikea run to refurnish your home with these cars, but their miniscule trunk space could still be useful for carting small things around. The cars are also customized specifically for Car2Go — the dashboard display tells you how efficiently you’re driving, and there’s also a button that connects you directly to roadside assistance.

Car2Go test drive

Stepping into the Car2Go vehicle was my first-ever encounter with a Smart car, and I was surprised to find that it actually felt pretty comfortable, even for my 5-foot 8-inch frame. Driving the car took some getting used to, though. While bopping around Crown Heights, the Smart car felt more like a souped up golf cart than a worthy member of the road (and New York drivers aren’t exactly patient).

Still, it’s easy to see how Car2Go’s Smart cars are ideal for urban living. Their tiny size allows them to fit into all sorts of parking spaces easily (parallel parking, in particular, is a dream). At around 40 miles per gallon, they’re fuel efficient (there aren’t any electric cars in Brooklyn, yet). And they give you the convenience of having a car on-hand when you need it without actually owning a car. It’s just a shame that they’re still not allowed in San Francisco.

It’s not the first innovative car sharing service in NY — RelayRides gave it a go last year, but was forced to shut down operations in NYC — but Car2Go has a shot at being the first truly successful one.

Car2Go test drive

When it comes to parking, Car2Go has finagled some deals with other markets, but its cars aren’t getting any special treatment in Brooklyn. You’ll still have to feed the meter (or more commonly now, the digital ticketing machine) in some locations. You’ll also have to make sure to avoid parking on streets that are scheduled to be cleaned the next day. (Car2Go’s fleet of employees will be moving the cars manually to avoid street cleaning fines.)

Brooklyn makes for Car2Go’s 29th global market and its 15th in the United States. Car2Go members can also use the service across other locations in the U.S., including Austin (its home base), Portland, and San Diego.

4 UCSF Center for Digital Health Innovation startups that are changing care coordination

Friday 24 October 2014 @ 9:00 am
4 UCSF Center for Digital Health Innovation startups that are changing care coordination

Last year the University of California San Francisco announced it was creating a Center for Digital Health Innovation (CDHI), and since then the center has been developing compelling new technologies aimed at transforming the coordination of health care delivery.

Michael Blum, USCF’s Chief Medical Information Officer, and cardiologist and clinical professor of medicine, was tapped to lead the CDHI.

Blum is also one of the many bright minds at HealthBeat next Monday and Tuesday (Oct 27 and 28). With a year of CDHI behind him, he’ll be able to shed light on some of the breakthroughs the center has been investing in.

The four inaugural projects of CDHI developed in the last year all have one thing in common: They’re combining powerful health data with social and mobile applications to transform the delivery of health care. CDHI’s role is to provide developmental resources, while leveraging external partnerships to help the startups. These are CDHI’s first four startups:

VentureBeat will be exploring a variety of key health-tech issues at HealthBeat 2014, Oct. 27-28 in San Francisco. Be sure to get your tickets today.

Trinity aims to improve the way clinicians and specialties collaborate by creating what it calls “precision team care.” By integrating all pertinent patient health data, it enables team members to contribute remotely and asynchronously to the management of patients. It’s helped care givers build solutions to complex cases within 48 hours; something that previously took weeks when dependent on scheduled in-person meetings.

Careweb is like a mobile social network for physicians and health care teams. But this social network is designed to speed up and improve communication and collaborative care. The platform is built on the platform, and the Careweb team thinks of it as combining the best of Facebook, Twitter, and a physician’s pager. Simply put, pages sent to providers are tagged to patients; messages populate a patient wall that all providers can see; and all messages are searchable. All activity unfolds in real time, which greatly increases the speed and collective understanding of various tasks in the delivery of care such as tests, prescriptions and doctor orders.

Tidepool is a cloud-based platform and suite of apps aimed at reducing the burden of managing type 1 diabetes. It’s aimed directly at patients and parents of patients, with a mission to provide real-time, accessible data about what’s happening inside a patient’s body that is immediately actionable — as they juggle blood sugar levels with day-to-day, hour-by-hour living. The first two apps include Blip, which visualizes all key data and Nutshell, which tracks historical data on responses to various foods (so a parent knows what happened the last time their child had a pepperoni pizza and can plan around it.)

Health eHeart is more research project than solution. It’s aiming to gather “more data about heart health from more people than any research study has done before” using a mixture of sensors, wearables, patient-entered data on smartphones, social media tracking, and on-site testing. By gathering a high volume of real-time data from patients’ lives, not just the laboratory, they’ll be investigating markers in the patient’s profile that might predict future health problems.

HealthBeat — VentureBeat’s breakthrough health tech event — is returning on Oct 27-28 in San Francisco. This year’s theme is “The patient journey: Connections, data, and innovation.” We’re putting long-established giants of the health care world on stage with CEOs of the nation's most disruptive health tech companies to share insights, analyze trends, and showcase breakthrough products. Purchase your tickets now!

From check-ups to organ transplants, UCSF provides world-class care. Ranked among the top 10 hospitals in the nation and the best in the San Francisco Bay Area.... read more »

The Queen’s First Tweet Is A Royal Mystery

Friday 24 October 2014 @ 8:54 am
Screenshot 2014-10-24 12.48.43 Think about your first tweet. Mine was sent from a desktop, but I’m sure plenty of people sent their first tweet from a smartphone. But before you can ever send a tweet, you have to sign up for an account. And, of course, you have to type out an actual message. Only then can you press that little blue Tweet button and begin your Twitter journey. The Queen, however, does things a bit… Read More

Review sites like Yelp can now legally manipulate reviews for cash. But should they?

Friday 24 October 2014 @ 8:12 am


Review sites like Yelp can now legally manipulate reviews for cash. But should they?
Image Credit: Flickr

A lot of ink has recently been spilled over a recent California court decision that defends Yelp’s right to manipulate reviews as a protected form of “aggressive advertising.”

Far be it from me to comment as a legal scholar; I can’t say much with respect to the law and its rightful application or not. But I most certainly can comment on whether such a practice is fair, serves the users that create content on sites like Yelp, and is a trend about which we should be worried.

local business russ and daughters nycLet’s break this down into a few parts.

First, what’s actually going on? What kind of review manipulation are companies like Yelp accused of, and if they are indeed engaging in the practice, is it unfair?

Broadly speaking, Yelp has been repeatedly accused by small business owners of extortion. In essence, the criticisms boil down to two core practices they find unacceptable. First, filtering reviews through a mysterious algorithm that seems to allow more positive reviews when the small business pays for a subscription and seems to filter most of them out when the business does not pay. And second, Yelp will only remove competitive advertising from a business profile if that business pays a subscription.

Or said another way, business owners can pay to remove competitive advertising.

Now available on VB Insight:
B2B Mobile Marketing: the power, the pain, the potential

Since Yelp is a for-profit company, it seems reasonable that it can place ads anywhere on its site. In the old days of the Yellow Pages, many businesses were listed on one page, and users could differentiate between the ads and listings. Here too, while businesses may not like it, users can make a clear distinction between a business listing and an ad. If Yelp wants to offer a paid service to a business for a more “exclusive” listing, i.e., one that has no other competitors displayed, it should be free to do so.

However, if the claim is true that Yelp manipulates listings based on whether or not a business pays, that is entirely different.

yelp balloonIn essence, this manipulation is an artificial representation of the community’s sentiments, and crucially, it destroys the basic foundation of trust that a user expects when she reads a review online. If Yelp can manipulate reviews on its site, and is now protected by the court in doing so, what’s to stop Yelp from simply fabricating reviews? How is that any different?

Since most users don’t read every review on every business, the act of deliberately adding or removing reviews is tantamount to simply injecting Yelp’s own rating on a given business. That’s what makes this practice, and the supporting decision, so damning.

So if it is indeed damning, does that answer the second question above, i.e., is this a “good” practice for users? Well, you might be surprised to hear my answer, which is … not necessarily. We operate in a free market, and that means that any lawful behavior by any company is acceptable.

Keep in mind that Yelp, and others like it, is responsible first and foremost to its shareholders. This may sound like an academic discussion, but in truth, each company is entitled to take the decisions that make the most sense for their business. Here, Yelp has presumably made the trade-off that makes most sense to them. And here’s why it might be good for users. This kind of behavior serves as a wake-up call to all users that they have choice – not only when it comes to choosing a business, but also when choosing sites to find businesses. If a large incumbent gets complacent, or worse, begins to act in ways that conflict with their users’ best interests, those users will find newer and better platforms.

Which leads to the final question, is there a broader trend here, and need we be worried?

The answer is an emphatic yes – there is a broader trend of manipulated reviews and gaming by both review sites and business owners. It is a serious problem and by most estimates is getting worse. Thankfully, we have an incredibly robust market that encourages new entrants, rewards good actors (broadly speaking), and punishes companies that do not act in the long-term best interests of their customers.

In other words: If review sites and ratings marketplaces know what’s good for them, they’ll focus on integrity – providing a high-quality, highly trusted experience for their users.

Yoav SchwartzIf not, whether the court allows these kinds of review manipulation shenanigans or not, the cream will eventually rise to the top. And it may well be that paradoxically, this decision – which seemed to favor Yelp — will in fact be a tipping point in the opposite direction.

With businesses beginning to encourage negative reviews as a tongue-in-cheek protest, the latest developments augur well for a new class of recommendation sites that have one thing Yelp doesn’t seem to have: trust.

Yoav Schwartz is the founder and CEO of WhoDoYou, a local business recommendation engine.

VentureBeat is studying mobile marketing automation. Chime in, and we’ll share the data.

Yelp ( is a website that connects people with great local businesses. Yelp was founded in San Francisco in July 2004. Since then, Yelp communities have taken root in major metros in the United States, Canada, the United Ki... read more »

4 app monetization strategies for free apps

Friday 24 October 2014 @ 7:00 am
4 app monetization strategies for free apps

This sponsored post is produced by Localytics. 

There are over a million apps currently in the App Store, and an overwhelming majority of them are free. What does this mean for your app monetization plan? Going after revenue with a paid app can be a risky endeavor — you’re betting that users will be willing to fork over money when there are so many free alternatives.

With a free app you’re likely to get more installs, but then you have to be smart about monetizing. And in many ways, monetization models for free apps are superior to paid apps, allowing more room for creativity and the possibility of improving the app experience (and making it easier for users to make purchases).

In this post, we highlight four of the models you can use to drive app revenue, and help you discern which model best suits your app.

1. In-App Advertising

Mobile ads are appearing more and more in apps because they allow you to monetize without asking for money directly from users. With in-app advertising, you remove the cost-barrier to purchasing your app and allow free downloads. Your goal is to create a large (and stable) user base and gather relevant information about those users to sell to other brands and app publishers, who pay you to place targeted ads in your app. And, because your app is completely free, you have a better chance of gaining (and retaining) new users.

When done correctly, ads are a smart choice, because they don’t distract from the user experience. In-app advertising is done in a highly-targeted, personalized way to attract users to relevant offers — they turn bad when they cross the line by creating privacy concerns. This model requires care and attention to ensure that it doesn’t overrun your native app value and dissuade otherwise engaged users.

This model might be right for you if:

  • There are no organic opportunities for in-app purchases in your app
  • You regularly collect preference data about users
  • Ads won’t take away from your app UX (or take up too much screen space)
  • You want to be part of a lucrative and growing ad industry

2. Freemium (Gated Features)

As with the in-app advertising model, a freemium app is also offered for free. However, certain “advanced” or “premium” features are gated and cost money to be unlocked. In other words, people have access to your app’s basic functionality and features, but there is a charge to then access everything. The goal is to accumulate and engage app users until they see the value of the app and are willing to pay to access additional in-app tools.

Many successful gaming apps fall into this category— they have found success by making basic game versions free to all users, but requiring the user to purchase additional levels or premium options. From Angry Birds to the shockingly successful Kim Kardashian: Hollywood game, freemium apps allow people to easily play and become fans without hesitating at the initial price. Once app users have conquered a few levels or want to up their status, they’re engaged enough to pay for the full-fledged version for more hours of fun.

One note of caution: be upfront in your App Store listing and other appropriate places that your app requires purchases to unlock advanced features, levels or other features. If users don’t realize that’s what’s in store, it could turn them off permanently.

This model might be right for you if:

  • You’re a gaming app
  • You have levels or advanced features already in your app
  • You have long session lengths and highly-engaged users
  • Can provide a great free app experience (and don’t just save the good stuff for paying users)

3. In-App Purchases

In-app purchases are exactly what they sound like.The goal of this model is to turn your app into another sales channel (for physical products that are used in the real world) or a mobile storefront (for virtual goods which can only be used inside the app) and retain the profits. In-app purchases can include a wide variety of consumer goods, and aren’t limited to retail apps.

This model can help youPost2.Image2 make comfortable profits with the lowest amount of risk, plus, buying virtual goods can lead to deeper levels of engagement (growing monetization strategy).

One way to utilize this model is to sell virtual goods such as extra lives or in-game currency. Dating apps, such as MeetMe, allow you to freely browse profiles and chat with other users, but also offer credits to enhance your visibility and gain new ways to interact with people. MeetMe’s purchase model is lucrative because the app is able to clearly highlight the benefits of in-app currency. Your takeaway: whatever your app is selling, make sure the in-app purchases feel like a natural part of the app experience (and have an easy checkout process). Also, make sure you clearly and resolutely market that your app has in-app purchases, to keep things honest.

This model might be right for you if:

  • You’re a retail or services app
  • You provide goods with clearly-defined value
  • You have a clear opportunity to introduce goods into your app (such as Keep, an app that allows you to “keep,” or add items of interest to your various boards, and recently integrated a shopping cart feature)
  • You don’t mind that App Stores usually take a cut of the revenue for virtual goods (but not physical goods or services) purchased inside your app


  Get the Localytics case study showing how one app publisher increased session length and in-app purchases by 35%!

4. Sponsorships (Incentivized Advertising)

Sponsorships are easily the newest (and greenest) monetization model. With sponsorships, you partner with advertisers who provide your users with rewards when they complete certain actions within your app. In this model, your app earns money by taking a share of the revenue from redeemed rewards, and simultaneously allows you to incorporate advertising that actually enhances your app’s ability to engage users. This model can be adapted for almost any vertical, and can be better received by app users because it is relevant and related to an app’s purpose.

An early adopter of this app business model is RunKeeper. RunKeeper motivates users to track their running activity in-app by offering “rewards” upon completion. These exclusive rewards and promotions come from advertisers, hence, incentivized advertising. The user feels rewarded for having used the app, and the advertiser gains impressions, click throughs and conversions. Using this strategy, RunKeeper can monetize their app without disrupting the user experience with potentially intrusive banner ads.

This model might be right for you if:

  • You prefer a behind-the-scenes (and rewards-driven) monetization plan
  • You have an app that makes it easy to reward in-app activity
  • You want to try something new and different (and don’t mind taking a chance on a relatively new model)
  • You can be careful about what actions you incentivize within their app (Apple has been cracking down on incentivizing downloads and social sharing)

Finding the model that fits your app is all about assessing your mobile goals and determining which will please users and improve the business outcome. Have you used other monetization models that have worked well for your apps? Let us know in the comments!

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