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Flipboard, A Beautiful Social News Magazine

Every time I walk by an Apple store, I usually drop in to play with the latest version of iPads thinking to myself that I will one day buy one. But I did not feel I absolutely needed it yet. I was comfortable with using an iPhone under mobile environment and a MacBook Air for tasks that usually needed a bigger screen, keyboard or mouse.


Apple Store

But at the end of last year, I eventually gave into strong urge that I need to own a device that provides more natural reading experience; so I bought iPad Mini for myself. iPhone and other smartphones were easy to carry around but screens were still too small and MacBook Air lacked many useful tools and the intuitive user experience of touch screen.

Since then, I spend enormous amount of time on my iPad instead of other devices to mainly consume information such as reading books, checking emails, the latest news and Facebook. Even with the new device, it is still quite cumbersome to toggle between apps per publisher and digest flood of daily information. That’s why I think the Flipboard’s custom social magazine rack model is quite useful.

For those of you who are not familiar with Flipboard, this video explains how the app works.

Since the app launched on the iPad in July 2010, the app company has garnered 5 million users by the end of 2011. Apple crowned Flipboard “iPad App of the Year” for 2010.

In August 2012, Flipboard announced that its user based quadrupled to 20 million in just eight months since the beginning of the year as it was launching its app on iPhone and six weeks before the launch on Android.

Flipboard’s investors include Kleiner Perkins, Index Ventures, Twitter & Square co-founder Jack Dorsey, Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz, SV Angel, Ashton Kutcher and a Who’s Who of other technology investors. They have pumped $60.5 million into Flipboard.

Story of Mike McCue, the founder of Flipboard and a serial entrepreneur.

The founder of Flipboard, Mike McCue, is one of Silicon Valley’s most renowned serial entrepreneurs. He founded Paper Software, 3D internet software company which he sold to Netscape for $20 million in 1996. He left Netscape to co-found with Angus Davis, Tellme Networks which he sold to Microsoft in 2007 for approximately $800 million.

Tellme launched in July 2000 with the ambition of creating a ‘voice browser’ by using voice-recognition software to allow users to find internet-based information through their telephone with simple voice commands. In 2006, Tellme’s phone network processed more than 2 billion unique calls. Tellme established an information number, 1-800-555-TELL, which provided time-of-day announcements, weather forecasts, brief news and sports summaries, business searches, stock market quotations, driving directions, and similar amenities.

He then left Microsoft in 2009 and started Flipboard in early 2010. Here is how it all started.

McCue did a thought experiment. “What if we accidentally deleted the web and then you had to redo it from scratch?” McCue thought magazines were beautiful, but look at the same article on the web and it is “a shadow of itself.” And the ads are just as bad. Nobody clicks on them because they are ugly.

When the iPad came along, he knew what he had to do; rethink the reading experience on the Web to look more like a digital magazine. Strip out all the extraneous junk, and you can even make the ads look good. McCue thinks the opportunity for advertising on the Web is “10X” what it is today, and a lot of that is going to be on tablets and HTML5 websites



McCue thinks the key is to try to recreate the economics of print on tablets and the Web. One of the advantages to Flipboard is the speed with which it delivers new information from a variety of sources in a much more pleasing format. “It’s almost like an accelerated version of the web,” says McCue. “We strip out the stuff people don’t like about the web”—the blinking ads, the navigation toolbars—and replaces it with better typography and bigger photographs. There are many steps to go, but McCue is betting his company on that future.

McCue says in an interview that in his 20 years of being an entrepreneur, principle of start up has not really changed much: successful start ups still have to build a beautifully designed product that people love and follow vision and market opportunity.

But the environment has changed dramatically. When he started Flipboard, the cost of servers has decreased significantly compared to the days of his previous start-ups. Explosion of social media now provides much more dynamic environment for start ups.  When he first started Tellme, it required much greater up-front investment and preparation.


Flipboard for Android

He thinks the three major success factors for start-ups are,

1) Vision: follow the biggest opportunity one can imagine. It takes roughly the same amount of work to execute either small scale or big scale idea. So might as well go for the one with the biggest upside.

2) Team: surround yourself with the finest team members- do not compromise on quality. In order to draw in the best talent, the business idea first has be very attractive such as “revolutionize publishing” or “create the first social magazine.” So #1 (vision) and #2 (team) go hand-in-hand.

3) Product: this is the most important of all. This encapsulates the vision and shows what the team has achieved so far.

He says that the biggest mistakes entrepreneurs should avoid is going after too many revenue models. He advises entrepreneurs not to say, “we can make money seven different ways.” This will water down their efforts. Pick one that has huge market if it becomes successful and focus on that just one model. More importantly, the business model drives everyone in the company’s pay and bonus so it better fit with the vision. Make sure the business model drives the product in the right way that does not introduce friction between product strategy and business development.

The business model and future of social news magazine

Flipboard’s beautiful and well-thought-out design has been instrumental to its rapid growth. How is Flipboard changing the conventional banner advertisement model on the web?

Business Insider: So the plan is to actually show more of publishers’ content, advertising against it, and then share revenues?

Mike McCure: Absolutely, absolutely. We think we can bring a totally new form of advertising to the table that will allow publishers to monetize their content by a factor of ten from what they’re currently doing with banner ads.If you look at web pages today, they basically are battlegrounds between content and ads. The ads are competing for the readers interest, the content’s competing for the readers interest. It’s a terrible experience, especially when you compare it to a magazine. It hurts the publisher. It hurts the advertiser. It hurts the reader.

There’s the opportunity to approach this from a design point of view. If we lay out the content in a way that’s paginated, that has a clear separation for advertising and content like what you see in magazines, if you figure out how to deliver all these things faster so you’re not waiting for things to load – you’re not waiting for a page to load because it has all these ads on it –  and you follow some of the basic old world magazine designing principles and apply those to Internet content, the advertising business model works.


The Vogue

Take Vogue magazine, for example. They have a circulation of 1.2 million people and they make $300 million in advertising. That’s awesome. But you can’t do that in the web. Ask someone who reads Vogue: “Imagine I have two different copies of Vogue magazines, they’re the same issue except one has ads and the other one doesn’t. Which one are you going to pay $5 for?”

Everybody who reads Vogue wants the one with the ads. But if you asked them the same thing about the website they all say they don’t want the ads. So what that says to me is that this is a design problem. The economics have always been there, and I think they can be there. So I think there’s a tremendous opportunity here. Publishers are excited about it. We’ve captured their imagination and they’re actively working with us now to dial up the content and actually present more of it – faster, cached, paginated, beautifully laid out just like a magazine – to end up actually making 10x the revenue from advertising they are on their websites today.

Flipboard’s revenue model is based on sharing advertising dollars with publishers. In digital age, publishers have been losing massive amount of advertising dollars.

In 2011, according to Newspaper Association of America statistics, online advertising was up $207 million industry-wide compared to 2010. Print advertising, though, was down $2.1 billion. So the print losses were greater than the digital gains by 10 to 1.1. That was even worse than a 7-to-1 ratio of print losses to digital gains in 2010. This is reminiscent of the similar problem faced by the music industry in the early 2000s.


Ad Revenue and Circulation Revenue

The downward trend has been so drastic that in 2011, the CEOs of the largest newspaper company, Gannett (Craig Dubow), and the industry’s largest private company, MediaNews (William Dean Singleton), stepped aside for health reasons. New York Times CEO Janet Robinson retired under pressure late in the year. Tom Curley, the Associated Press’ president and CEO, announced early in 2012 that he would be retiring, too.

In light of commotion in the publishing industry, Flipboard recently signed a partnership with the New York Times. This is the first time for a major newspaper like NYT to release its entire contents outside of its proprietary app. More significantly, it could also be a sign that the NYT‘s philosophical approach toward content in the digital age might be changing for the better.

Flipboard NYT

Flipboard recently signed a partnership with the New York Times

It’s possible that Flipboard deal won’t really produce much in the way of incremental revenue for the Times, at least not in the short term, but at least it will provide one thing: more data on what readers want and when and where they want it. And at some point the newspaper could decide to open up even more of its content to readers through Flipboard and other venues — the way that online-journalism veteran Steve Outing says it should — and take a gamble on ad revenue from that new source as a way of bridging the digital gap newspapers are suffering from.

Also, Flipboard has signed partnership with Apple to expands its role in commerce. Flipboard’s Books category, only available for iPad and iPhone users, is packed with books you can buy from the iBookstore. Flipboard tells The Next Web (TNW) that “it’s like browsing a bookstore in Flipboard,” with a strong emphasis on discovery.

To be clear, you are not reading these books in Flipboard, only shopping for discovering them. Flipboard’s book listings only include the publisher’s description, link, and cover art, which takes you directly to the iBookstore.

This launch comes over a year after Flipboard CEO Mike McCue hinted that “you may be able to flip through a selection of books, movies and TV shows in your Flipboard app soon.” Now, we know at least one piece of that premonition is accurate.

The news aggregation category has become a crowded space. Competitors, including Pulse (Sungmoon wrote an article back in 2010!) , Zite and Google Currents, are all vying for the same advertising dollars.


Zite was acquired by CNN for just over $20 million in August 2011. The number of users is between 3 to 5 million according to TNW as of August 2011.

Google Currents

I expect the competition in the digital-reader app market will become more fierce in 2013. Struggling publishers may start actively sharing its content and expand advertisement channels to these reader apps once they find comfort in these new tools.

I have been working as Chinese Economy Columnist at Business Tianjin for the past six years. I have experience in all different areas of a paper-based magazine (with an online viewer): writing, editing, publishing, marketing and distribution. These traditional magazines must quickly adapt to the ground-breaking shift in how the contents are consumed by users.

From the Flipboard story, I realized that  a successful start-up needs to get a few things right. I also admit it is much easier said than done. Here are my take-aways.

1) A team of determined entrepreneurs who follow their vision and insight

I admire McCue’s curiosity and energy to launch Flipboard even after successfully exiting two start ups worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

2) Capability and resource to execute their plans against competition and market challenges

McCue’s track record and vision probably helped Flipboard to raise a large sum of cash early on and recruit the best talent to stay ahead of competition.

3) Timing

McCue actually started brainstorming how to redesign the web before the launch of iPad was confirmed. The release and success of iPad provided a perfect environment for him to experiment his idea. Many of VCs and the public’s initial response to iPad was lukewarm. So looking back, betting the 100% of Flipboard’s effort on iPad was extremely risky but rewarding because iPad did take off.

4) Business model to sustain growth

The viability of advertisement sharing model has not yet been fully proven to this date and it will take some time. Nevertheless, I am sure Flipboard will find ways to monetize its amazing product.

5) Product people absolutely love

At the end of the day, Flipboard’s content is not proprietary; we can find the exact same information elsewhere. However, what makes Flipboard so unique is in its ability to present vast amount of information in a coherent and aesthetically pleasing way.

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Jack Dorsey, co-founder of Twitter and Square

During my two-week trip to Silicon Valley in April, I saw something really interesting; I saw that people at tech conference booths or café counters were using a small white square on top of their iPad or iPhone to swipe my credit card to take bills as small as $10. It looked so simple and easy.

Square lets users in the Unites States to accept credit cards through their smart phones. Users can swipe the credit card on the Square device or by manually enter the card details on the phone or iPad. [Source]

In July last year, Square raised funding at more than 1 billion dollar valuation from a group led by Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (KPCB).KPCB is is one of the leading venture capital funds in Silicon Valley which previously invested in companies like AOL,, Google, Intuit, Netscape, Sun, Symantec, Zynga and many more leading tech companies.

This year, Square has been reportedly seeking to raise fund at 4 billion dollar valuation and in early June, Forbes reported Square may seek to go public. Square now processes over $6 billion in payments on an annualized basis. That’s an incredible amount of transactions for a young start up that’s just more than two years old. When a card is swiped, Square takes a 2.75 percent transaction fee. More than 1 million businesses and individuals accept Square payments in the US.

So after a few Google clicks, I found an a lot more interesting fact: the 35-year-old founder of this multi-billion dollar financial services start up is also a co-founder of Twitter! How did he manage to start not just one but two mega start-ups that are changing the way we communicate and make payments?

Jack Dorsey explained 3 keys to Twitter’s success in the below video.

Twitter Founder, Jack Dorsey, advocates ‘drawing out your ideas’.

Here is the original sketch for Twitter, circa 2000. He recognized the right situation in 2005. It became perfect in 2009. [source]

Let’s take a closer look at how Dorsey’s two start-ups have changed our lives.

1. Dorsey’s 140-character micro-blog idea gives voice to the ordinary people

Twitter now has over 500 million active users as of 2012, generating over 340 million tweets daily and handling over 1.6 billion search queries per day.

Twitter has enabled information to spread faster than ever. Twitter’s real-time news flow has been cited a crucial tool in Arab spring in Tunisia, Egypt and rest of the Mid-East.

Savvy businesses see gold in the information: Consumers are talking about them on Twitter, and they get to respond more quickly than ever.

“In the past, companies would hire a market research firm to understand their audience,” says Mike Hudack, CEO of, a New York-based video website. “Now we use Twitter to get the fastest, most honest research any company ever heard — the good, bad and ugly — and it doesn’t cost a cent,” Hudack says. ”

2. Square helps small business owners in the US.

Here is Jack’s original sketch for his new company, Square, a tool to help everyone accept credit card transactions everywhere. [source]

Square is creating value by helping small business owners to increase their sales. Half of small business owners in the US do not accept credit cards because of the hassle and cost of working with the major payments-network providers. However, now business owners can accept credits cards on Square Card Reader. All they need to do is sign up at and receive Square Card reader in mail at free of charge. Similarly, obsessively high credit card fees for small merchants has recently become a social issue in South Korea.

Korean small business owners are protesting against obsessively high credit card fees. [source]

In the US, Square has made it painless for businesses to accept credit cards.

“Right now, businesses pay fees worth 1 percent or 2 percent or 4 percent of each transaction to their payments processors. It adds up—and, worse, the pricing is frustratingly opaque. Networks charge different fees for different cards at different times, meaning small businesses are never sure just how big of a cut the credit-card machine is taking.

Enter Square. Its fees are not cheap: It takes 2.75 percent of the cost of a transaction if a card is swiped, and 3.5 percent plus 15 cents if it is input manually. But those fees are set in stone, and they are cheaper than many.”

Dorsey seems to approach an everyday problem with different perspective. Here is the story of how Square began. 

Jack Dorsey, a founder of Twitter and Square, holding an iPhone with Square [source]

Square was borne out of necessity, and far from Wall Street, with a St. Louis glass blower named James McKelvey. He handcrafts high-end faucets and fittings–the sort of thing that someone could fall in love with, but doesn’t really need. And when he makes a sale, it’s usually a spur of the moment buy. Trouble is, he only accepts cash at his studio, and if someone only has a credit card the sale is lost and unlikely to return.

McKelvey explained this problem to his friend Dorsey, who is a natural tinkerer, and the pair decided to investigate how the merchant credit card accounting process worked. It didn’t take them long to discover that there was indeed a way for McKelvey, and everyone else, to begin accepting credit cards without having to pay exorbitant fees. All it required was cutting out the middle-man, which the Internet is famously good at, and bringing the card swiping process into the mobile phone era.

“So we took a month and we built a prototype,” Dorsey says. The cofounders showed it at the Allen & Company conference in 2009, and received backing from Khosla Ventures not long after. ”

One of Square’s receipts image. According to CNET, “Square makes it easier for merchants to track history of your purchase for discounts and promotions, effectively replacing, the buy-10, get-one-free card at coffee shops. Additionally, Square donates a cent of each transaction to a nonprofit organization that the merchant chooses.”

Square’s growth in the US alone has been very impressive so far. The volume of all types of mobile payments will top $200 billion by 2015, up from $16 billion in 2010, according to research and advisory firm Aite Group.

Square will have to compete with eBay’s Paypal which launched its own mobile payment service in March this year. Paypal charges a fee of 2.7 per cent of the purchase price compared to 2.75 per cent charged by Square.  Also, Paypal announced in May it’s establishing a multi-million-dollar joint venture with Softbank in Japan to provide mobile payment service.  Paypal has already launched mobile payment service in the US, Canada, Hong Kong and Australia.  Square only offers its service in the United States.

Dorsey’s lesson and Silicon Valley’s culture

I want to end this blog post with below advice from Dorsey at 99% conference. It nicely sums up Silicon Valley’s start up culture.

“The most important thing about being able to draw out your ideas and share your ideas immediately is you get instant feedback on what works and what doesn’t.

Position yourself so you can say this is something that I want to spend my life doing, something that I want to work on, share with others or it’s something that I can put away, so I can draw out the next idea. That’s something I learned both at Square and Twitter.”


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옐프(Yelp), 미국 최대의 지역 리뷰 사이트

2012년 5월 18일, 이번해 실리콘밸리의 최대 이슈 중 하나였던 페이스북의 기업공개(IPO)가 드디어 이뤄졌다. 2011년부터 시작된 IPO 랠리에는 LinkedIn (5월), Pandora (6월), Groupon (11월), Zynga (12월) 등이 포함 되어 있으며, 그 중에는 2012년 초에 상장한 옐프(Yelp)도 있다. 지역 리뷰 사이트 옐프는 2012년 3월2일 금요일에 나스닥에 등록되며 $1.47 billion (1.68조원)의 시장가치를 기록하였다. 이는 불과 6개월 전 구글로부터의 $500 million (5,700억원) 인수제의를 뿌리치고 일궈낸 성과이기에 더욱 놀랍다.

지역 리뷰 사이트 옐프(Yelp) 로고

필자(권혁태)가 지난 4월에 2주간 실리콘밸리 탐방을 하며 샌프란시스코, 팔로알토 등의 새로운 도시들에서 레스토랑, 호텔등을 예약할 때 가장 유용하게 사용했던 서비스인 옐프를 소개해 보고자 한다.

나는 캐나다에서 학부를 마치고 지난 2년간 도쿄와 싱가폴에서 생활했기에 미국에 가기 전까지는 옐프에 대해 알 길이 없었지만, 이번 일정 중 옐프 본사에서 사업 개발을 담당하는 사람과 미팅이 잡혔기에 옐프에 대해 관심을 가지고 자세히 보게 되었다.  샌프란시스코 다운타운에 위치한, 평범하게 보이는 사무실의 내부는 아래 링크에서 볼 수 있다.

옐프는 흔히 맛집 정보 웹사이트로 인식되고 있는데, 음식점 뿐 아니라 미용실, 세탁소, 병원등 미국 각 지역의 상점들에 대한 정보를 쉽게 알 수 있는 서비스로, 2004년에 시작되었다. 지난 7년간 빠른 성장에 힘 입어, 현재까지 옐프 이용자가 남긴 후기는 무려 2천5백만 건이나 된다.

쇼핑과 레스토랑에 대한 리뷰가 전체의 절반 가까이를 차지한다. (출처:

2011년에는 월 방문자가 6천6백만(66 million)명을 기록하였고 그중 모바일 방문자는 570만명(5.7 million)이었다. 2010년의 월방문자가 4천만 (39.3 million) 이었고 이용자의 후기는 1,500만 건에 불과했던 것과 비교하면 지금도 엄청난 속도로 성장하고 있다.

<옐프의 창업자 제레미(Jeremy Stoppelman)의 이야기가 흥미롭다>

실리콘밸리에서 페이팔(PayPal) 창업팀의 영향력은 대단하여 페이팔 마피아라 지칭 될 정도로 멤버들끼리 창업 당시 엄청난 도움을 주는 것으로 알려져 있다. 제레미는 페이팔에서 엔지니어링 팀을 이끌었고, 2003년 여름에 페이팔이 이베이에 인수된 후 하버드대학 MBA에 진학했다.  그러나 그는 1학년만 마치고, 2004년 여름  페이팔에서 같이 일했던 동료 러셀 (Russel Simmons)과 함께 옐프를 만들었다. 옐프의 초기 투자는 페이팔 공동창업자 맥스 레브친(Max Levchin)이 운영하는 인큐베이터에 의해 이루어졌다.

옐프의 CEO 제레미 스토플만 (Jeremy Stoppelman, chief executive officer of Yelp Inc., speaks during an interview at the New York Stock Exchange on March 2, 2012 – Bloomberg)

<뉴스위크에 소개되었던 이야기가 옐프의 시발점이 되었다>

회사 설립전 보스턴에서 샌프란시스코로 이사한 후 제레미는 감기에 걸려 의사를 찾는데, 이 경험으로부터 옐프가 시작된다.

의사를 찾으려는데 당시 인터넷으로는 의사들의 이름, 출신학교 등 아주 기본적인 내용만 있어 제가 원하는 의사를 찾기 어려웠습니다. 그래서 소셜네트워크와 이용자 후기를 결합하면 어떨까 생각했고, 좋은 의사를 찾아내는 가장 좋은 방법은 주변친구들에게 물어보는 것이라고 결론을 내렸습니다.

<초기 버젼 – 친구들을 짜증나게 하는 실패작>

그래서 시작한 초기 버젼은 2004년 10월에 나왔는데요. 이용자들이 친구들에게 지역상점 추천을 부탁하는 것에 사이트의 초점을 두었습니다. 입소문으로 지역상점을 찾는다는 점은 모두 긍정적으로 평가했지만 실제로 사이트를 이용하는 사람들에게는 매우 괴로운 일이었습니다. 친구들에게 제 시간에 피드백을 받을 수 없었을 뿐만 아니라 자신들이 이용해보지 않은 지역상점들에 관해 물어보는 친구들에게 대답해 줄 수 없었기에 사이트가 싫증날 수 밖에 없었습니다.

<두번째 버젼 – 이용자들이 잘 아는것에 관해 쓰게 해라>

사이트 아래 찾기 힘들만큼 조그마한 글자로 ‘후기를 남겨주세요’ 라는 버튼을 넣어 두었었는데, 초기 이용자들로 부터 좋은 반응을 받았습니다. 사람들이 점점 더 적극적으로 이용하기 시작했고 웹사이트 이용 데이터를 분석해보니 대다수의 사람들이 자신이 잘 아는 상점에 대한 후기를 쓰기 원한다는 것을 뚜렷하게 알 수 있었습니다.

<그래서 옐프는 웹사이트의 주요 초점을 바꾼다>

사람들이 자신의 후기를 남길 수 있도록 사이트를 대폭 수정하였고 2005년 2월에 다시 사이트를 런칭했습니다. 그 후 사람들의 반응은 정말 대단했습니다.  많은 이용자들이 자발적으로 옐프를 찾아왔고, 재미있다고 생각했고, 중독될 정도로 많이 사용하게 되었죠. 그해가 옐프의 역사적인 해였다고 생각해요. 초기 투자금은 그리 많지 않았습니다. $1 million (11억원) 정도 초기투자 자금으로 처음 우리는 샌프란시스코에만 집중적으로 마케팅하고 이용자 수집을 했습니다. 어느 정도 자리가 잡힌 후에야 다른 지역으로 확대해 나갔구요.

2008년 맨하탄에 두번째 사무실을 열어 동부로 확장하였고, 캐나다 지사를 연 후, 현재는 스페인, 프랑스, 독일, 오스트리아, 영국 등 유럽까지 진출했다.

옐프 웹사이트

옐프 이전에도 지역 상점 리뷰 사이트는 수없이 많았다. 그 중 옐프가 미국시장에서 독보적으로 성장할 수 있었던 비결은 무었이었을까?

1. 심플한 유저 인터페이스와 방대한 양의 후기

나는 새로운 지역에서 레스토랑을 찾을 경우 보통 간단한 네가지 정도를 고려한다: 위치, 음식장르, 가격대, 후기평점

샌프란시스코에서 일주일 일정을 마무리하고 팔로 알토 지역으로 이동을 한 후, 저녁 식사를 하기 위해 미국인 친구와 함께 처음으로 옐프 모바일 페이지를 열어 주변 레스토랑을 검색해 보았다. 음식 장르, 가격대를 결정하고 후기등을 잠시 훑어본 후 어렵지 않게 원하는 레스토랑을 찾을 수 있었다. 우리 둘 다 그리 비싸지 않은 지중해 음식을 먹고자 했고 마침 가까운 곳에 대부분 좋은 평가를 받은 곳이 있어 리스트 중 5번째 레스토랑인 Sultana에서 저녁을 먹기로 결정하였다.

옐프 아이폰 앱

레스토랑에 들어가서 메뉴를 선택하는 과정에서도 사용자들이 남긴 후기를 보고 그 중에서 골랐다. 물론 종업원에게 추천 메뉴를 물어볼 수도 있었다. 하지만 음식을 먹어본 다른 사람들의 의견을 보고 음식을 고르니 더 만족스러운 선택을 할 수 있었다.

멘로파크 칼 트레인(Caltrain) 역에서 가까운 곳에 위치한 깨끗한 지중해 식당, Sultana


리뷰에 있는 그대로의 분위기와 예상했던 음식 맛 덕분에, 새로운 곳에서 색다른 음식을 고르는 부담을 덜어주었다. 생각했던 것 보다 조금 더 느끼하긴 했지만 그건 한국음식을 못 먹고 2주간 돌아다녔기에 더 그랬던 것 같다.

2. 리뷰 필터링 시스템

물론 이용자가 직접 리뷰하는 시스템에 문제가 없는 것 은 아니다. 경쟁 상점에 대한 부정적 리뷰가 문제가 된 경우도 있었고. 한 서점 주인이 부정적인 리뷰를 작성한 이용자에게 위협적인 이메일을 수차례 보내어 경찰이 동원된 사례도 있었다.

많은 리뷰들이 옐프의 필터링 시스템에 걸려 보이지 않는 경우에 대한 불만도 꽤 있었다. 어떤 웹사이트들과 비교해서도 월등한 옐프의 필터링 시스템은 이용자들 뿐만 아니라 상점 주인들에게도 긍적적일 것이라고 생각했다. 그러나 이 때문에 2010년에 옐프가 지역 상점들의 단체소송에 휘말리는 사건이 일어났다. 몇몇 상점주들이 옐프가 리뷰 필터링 시스템과 상점 페이지 광고를 이용해 상점주들을 갈취한다며 옐프를 고소한 것이다. 오랜 공방 끝에 2011년 10월, 샌프란시스코 법원은 옐프가 상점후기의 내용을 지시하거나 조작하였다는 증거가 부족하다고 판단했고 옐프는 소송에서 승리했다.

다음은 옐프가 고소를 당한 직후에 뉴욕타임즈에 실렸던 제레미와의 인터뷰에서 발췌한 내용이다.

Q. 옐프가 법정에 서게 되었습니다. 옐프는 지역상점 주인들을 갈취하나요?

A. 절대 그렇지 않습니다. 옐프의 필터링 방식의 반 직관적인 면이 이슈라고 생각합니다. 2005년에 저희는 리뷰 필터링 시스템을 도입했고, 이 알고리즘을 통해 정보가 불충분하게 보이는 특정 리뷰 등을 걸러내고 있습니다.  그 결과 유저들은 자신들이 보는 내용이 유용하고 신뢰할 수 있는 정보라는 것을 알게 되고, 보다 나은 결정을 내릴 수 있는 것이지요.

Q. 신뢰할 수 있는 리뷰인지 어떻게 판단하지요?

 A. 몇가지 요인들을 보고 있는데요, 특히 리뷰를 쓰는 유저들에 대한 많은 정보를 수집하고 있습니다. 제가 더 이상 자세하게 말씀 드릴 수 없습니다. 필터링 알고리즘이 알려지면 그 점을 악용하려는 사람들에 의해 알고리즘의 효과가 떨어지기 때문입니다.

Q. 상점에 대한 리뷰가 어느 날 보이기도 하고 사라지기도 한다는데, 왜 그렇죠?

A. 자주 일어나는 현상인데요, 상점주인들이 좋은 리뷰를 얻기 위해 남용하는 경우입니다. 예를 들면 친구들에게 리뷰를 작성해 달라고 하는 것이지요. 이런 행위는 옐프에서 공개적으로 반대하고 있습니다. 다른 상점들에게 공정하지 못할 뿐 아니라 고객들이 그 상점에 대한 객관적인 정보를 얻지 못하게 하기 때문이지요.

경쟁사의 악의적인 리뷰로부터 어떻게 지켜낼 것인가는 더 중요한 이슈입니다. 예를 들어 바로 맞은편 카페에서 당신의 카페에 대한 부정적인 리뷰를 적어 평점 순위를 인위적으로 내리려 한다고 해보세요. 옐프의 필터링 시스템은 그런 행동을 자동으로 잡아내고 없애고 있습니다.

Q. 그런 노력들이 잘 되어가고 있나요?

A.아주 성공적이라고 단언할 수 있습니다. 많은 옐프 이용자들이 좋은 경험을 하고 있고 계속 이용하기 때문입니다. 리뷰 필터링 시스템이 없었다면  옐프는 지난 5년간 이렇게 성장하지 못했을 것입니다.

옐프의 필터링시스템이 정확이 어떤 알고리즘으로 구성되어 있는지는 더 이상 알려진 바가 없다. 옐프 사무실의 수많은 엔지니어들이 밤낮으로 알고리즘을 더 좋게 수정하고 있을 것이란 추측만 가능할 뿐이다. 사용자가 찾고자 하는 정보를 다른 어떤 웹사이트보다 우월할 수준의 내용과 심플한 인터페이스로 웹과 모바일을 통해 이용자들에게 계속 제공해 나간다면 옐프가 앞으로도 신뢰받을 수 있을 것이라는 데엔 의문의 여지가 없다.

<현재 비즈니스 모델의 한계와 미래의 옐프 성장 동력>

옐프가 상장한 지 3개월이 넘어간 지금, 주가는 18달러 주변을 맴돌고 있다. 상장 초반 24달러, 최고가 28달러와 비교하면 다소 낮은 가격이다. 더 이상 지역 확장에만 의존한 성장은 기대하기 어렵고 비즈니스 모델에 변화를 주어야 하는데, 제레미가 이 두 가지 방안에 대해 언급하는 내용이 담긴 비디오를 아래에서 볼 수 있다. 하나는 체크인 서비스로, 이용자들이 보다 쉽게 리뷰를 작성할 수 있게 된다. 다른 하나는 그루폰과 비슷한 모델인 옐프 딜이다. 물론 이러한 서비스가 얼마나 수익 창출에 기여할 지는 두고 보아야 할 것 같다.

잠깐 동안이었지만 미국 생활에서 너무나 유용하게 사용했던 옐프, “사람들과 좋은 지역 상점들을 연결해준다”는 기업 미션을 통해 앞으로도 많은 사람들에게 가치를 전달해줄 것으로 믿는다.

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