Uber in Winston-Salem

By John Marbach and Corey Hucker

The on-demand ride service, Uber, has been operating in Winston-Salem for over four months, with fast growing popularity amongst Wake Forest students. Uber has become a more convenient alternative to taxis in major cities around the world, but the change doesn’t stop there:

Uber customers request a ride on their smartphone, and then a pre-screened driver arrives in minutes ready to drive you wherever you need to go. 

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Uber currently offers its budget UberX service in Winston-Salem, which is provided by drivers who pick up customers in their own cars. For safe measure, each customer is required to provide feedback on their ride experience, 1-5 stars.

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We decided to take a trip to one of Winston-Salem’s popular coffee shops, Camino Bakery. From Wake we rode in a taxi and we returned in an Uber. Here are the highlights from our discussion with key stakeholders affected by Uber’s introduction: 

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     Uber Driver – Hamad

 

 

How did you hear about Uber?

I heard about Uber through a friend who drives full-time in D.C.. I applied and passed their background check. Then I had to show them my car, which had to be from 2005 or later.

How long have you been driving?

I’ve been with Uber for two months. I really like it.

What differentiates Uber from other part-time or full-time jobs?

I’m my own boss. I set my own hours, it’s perfect for my free time on weekends.

Where are most of your customers?

I’m from Greensboro but I mostly drive in Winston-Salem.

How long do you work?

I usually work a few hours during the day on Saturday and Sunday.

 About how much do you make?

Uber drivers take home 80% of the trip total.

How is the competition amongst Uber drivers and taxis in Winston-Salem? 

The taxi drivers seem to be upset that Uber is taking over a lot of business. 

Any last thoughts?

I believe Uber is going to be something huge. We are just at the tip of the iceberg.

 

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     Student –  Chris Ditta

 

 

How did you hear about Uber?

I first heard about Uber from my older brother, who lives in New York City.

How often do you use it?

I use Uber about once a month, because even though I have my own car, it’s a great supplement for going downtown.

 Why do you choose to use Uber?

Regular cabs are too much of a hassle, booking a ride via Uber’s app is just too convenient.

What’s your favorite thing about Uber?

My favorite thing about uber is that its cash free; it goes right to your card so you don’t have to worry about fares and tips. I’ve yet to have a negative experience using Uber.

 

ring_rodd     

     City Taxi Commissioner – Rod Ring

 

 

Have you heard of Uber?

 Yes, I’ve heard they have been operating here for several months. 

How do you you feel about Uber?

As a regulator, I don’t have an opinion on them. There’s a new North Carolina state law that prohibits the regulation of services with digital dispatch. I believe Uber falls under this category.

Is Uber violating any city laws?

Typical vehicles for hire in Winston-Salem require a franchise application (3 years), driver background check, and vehicle inspection. Uber has not completed any of these items through our office, but under North Carolina state law they are not required to.

 

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     Traditional Taxi Driver - Juan Bugg

 

 

Have you heard of Uber?

Yeah, I’ve heard of it, a lot of other drivers have been talking about it.

Have you noticed a decrease in fares from Wake students?

It hasn’t impacted me personally, most of my customers are local Winston residents. I haven’t noticed it, I don’t feel any difference.

 Have you seen people using Uber?

 Not really, most of what I’ve heard has come from complaints from other taxi drivers.

How would you feel about driving your own car?

 Personally, I’m happy to drive a cab. A lot of our customers don’t even have smartphones, so there will always be business for me.

 How much do you pay the cab company to lease a car?

I have to pay to lease the cab from Classic Cabs, and I pay for my own gas.

 . . .

A comparison of our trip to and from Camino Bakery:

Taxi Uber
Time to pick up                                   11 minutes 12 minutes
Type of car   Ford Minivan_____ Toyota Camry
Comfort level Excellent Excellent
Driver knowledge & friendliness Excellent Excellent
Cost $10.50 + tip $10.43

 

Overall we were happy with both our taxi and Uber experience. Uber is certainly facing growing pains that come with any radical change in consumer preferences. However, they are quickly establishing themselves as a competitive and accessible competitor in the taxi market in North Carolina and around the world.

27

10 2014

The Swadesh List

Have you ever traveled to a place where you don’t know the language? The feeling of being surrounded by people you can’t communicate with is overwhelming and isolating.

I recently learned about a technique that linguists use when they are translating a newly discovered language in a community where no bilingual speakers exist. One common technique is to establish the “Swadesh List” — A list of “100 words for things that were fairly concrete, could be pointed at or demonstrated, and were presumably universal (not culture-specific).”

Essentially these linguists are saying that all you need to know are these 100 words to survive your trip anywhere!

This list appears below:

SwadeshList

So, it appears that there is some truth to the international language of pointing and making signs with your hands! If you can point and memorize just these 100 words, you’ll be able to communicate almost anything!

The theory is rooted in a well-known idea in linguistics, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. This hypothesis states that language highly influences a human’s thoughts and behavior. Put differently, the way your language works also determines how you think. Additional reading material on Sapir-Whorf and the Swadesh List can be found here.

21

10 2014

The Contrarian Question

The question from chapter two of Peter Thiel’s book Zero to One:

What important truth do very few people agree with you on?

…is a difficult question to answer, Thiel acknowledges. He goes on to say:

This is a question that sounds easy because it’s straightforward. Actually, it’s very hard to answer. It’s intellectually difficult because the knowledge that everyone is taught in school is by definition agreed upon. And it’s psychologically difficult because anyone trying to answer must say something she knows to be unpopular. Brilliant thinking is rare, but courage is in even shorter supply than genius.

Most commonly, I hear answers like the following:

“Our educational system is broken and urgently needs to be fixed.”

“America is exceptional.”

“There is no God.”

These are bad answers. The first and the second statements might be true, but many people already agree with them. The third statement simply takes one side in a familiar debate. A good answer takes the following form: “Most people believe in x, but the truth is the opposite of x.”

When we can escape thinking of the past and present and formulate a good answer, that’s as close as we can get to seeing the future.

So, what is the future? And how can we begin to formulate a good answer?

The future is time and events that have yet to come. Most importantly, the future is a time when things in the world are different from how they are currently. When a person or place acts or behaves the same as the past, the future has not yet arrived; what is being experienced in the present is merely a similar version of the past.

Thiel advises that in order to pursue the future, we may benefit from starting with a more simple question:

It may be easier to start with a preliminary: what does everybody agree on?

Once we understand what is commonly accepted, we can begin questioning what we know about the past and present. And then we will be on our way towards making the future.

. . . 

I bring this question up because recently I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be contrary to accepted societal ideals. The easiest example most of us experience daily is observing people who dress “weirdly”. People who dress fashionably fall into this category of thought too. Is counter-culture a culture itself? And are fashionable people really unique?

I think it’s important to consider these questions every so often because it helps me to reexamine exactly what I believe is true. Professionally, it helps me identify opportunities:

Most people believe its great to work for x, but the truth is the opposite of x.

Most people believe the next great technology is x, but the truth is the opposite of x.

Or personally:

Most people believe its great to spend their free time doing x, but the truth is the opposite of x.

Most people believe its great to be good friends with x, but the truth is the opposite of x.

Remember, these are difficult questions because societal norms are by definition agreed upon, and an authentic answer is sharing something that is known to be unpopular. Would you have been comfortable turning down a high paying job at Google to work at the lowly startup Airbnb in 2007? Or a better consideration: What company started just recently that will become the Google of 2002 or the Uber of today?

I first attempted to answer this question in late 2010. Since then, whether I’ve found myself trying to make change at home, in the local community, recruiting TEDx speakers, or any other venue, I’ve found the contrarian question to be a useful starting point.

29

09 2014

Four Words

Tomorrow I will begin what is likely to be my last school year. My fifteenth “first day of school” (I skipped a year of college). Optimism and uncertainty abound, like any student about to embark on a new year. There’s a lot to look forward to as a senior at Wake Forest.

Although I’m sure I will learn quite a bit in my classes, I’m certain my experiences outside of the classroom are the ones that I will cherish the most. I didn’t fully realize this when I first arrived in Winston-Salem, but I now understand that my classes are a vehicle for helping me interpret the world outside of the classroom. Recent experiences such as a conversation with the CEO of one of the world’s largest tobacco companies, mourning the death of one of the greatest Americans (Maya Angelou), or a day on the set of a feature Hollywood film have all come unexpectedly — and I’m sure my mind will continue to expand in ways that I can’t predict.

My english professor last spring was one of those people who fulfilled on his potential to “change the way you think”. He didn’t begin our course with a syllabus; he began with four words.

apotropaic

adj. Intended to ward off evil.

overdetermined

adj. 1. Excessively determined. 2. Having more than one determining psychological factor.

resentment

n. Indignation or ill will felt as a result of a real or imagined grievance.

aesthetic

adj. 1. Of or concerning the appreciation of beauty or good taste. 2. Characterized by a heightened sensitivity to beauty.
n. 1. A guiding principle in matters of artistic beauty and taste; artistic sensibility. 2. An underlying principle, a set of principles, or a view often manifested by outward appearances or style of behavior.

He believed that the behavior of the characters in the literature (and life) is often rooted in these words; thus a useful interpretation mechanism. I hope to keep these words in mind during this next year.

Go Deacs!

25

08 2014

Brain Drain

From Wikipedia:

Human capital flight (also known as brain drain) refers to the departure or emigration of individuals with technical skills or knowledge from organizations, industries, and geographical regions.

Brain drain is a serious influence in our world and it’s only something that I’ve recently become aware of having recently lived outside of a major center of intellectual capital. I currently live in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, which is home to Reynolds Tobacco, Hanes Brands, and Krispy Kreme. Not exactly the most innovative businesses but also not bad businesses. They support an enormous workforce in this area, contribute to the local community, and are richly ingrained in the American heritage. There’s something to be said for these institutions, but they simply do not attract talent in a way that top banks, consultancies, healthcare companies, and tech firms routinely do. The result is that top students at Wake Forest and other nearby schools end up immediately leaving the place that provided them such a strong education.

This emigration of intellectual and technical capital is “brain drain”. It occurs on a much larger scale, where currently top African and Asian students leave their home country to study and work in the USA. And it also occurs within centers of intellectual capital, such as the recent trend of Google engineers leaving to join other companies or build their own startups in Silicon Valley.

A prerequisite for a world class – anything – is the ability to foster and retain talent. Current examples of countries include the USA, England, Germany. Cities such as New York, London, Tokyo. And companies such as Tesla, Apple, Intel. When an entity can’t adequately support its top people, the best people leave in large numbers, and brain drain is the result.

The brain drain phenomenon is commonly seen in the world of professional sports, such as the Miami Heat attracting many of basketball’s star players. Another strong example of brain drain is depicted in the documentary “The Two Escobars“. In short, the king pin drug dealer Pablor Escobar used the massive profits from his drug empire to attract and retain native Colombian soccer players in the local professional league. Once the drug empire eroded, so did the big pay checks for the best Colombian players, and they eventually signed back on with European clubs.

As clearly shown by professional sports, the places that attract the best people, “brain magnets”, tend to offer the best economic incentives. The generalization that Wikipedia uses is the following:

Alpha++ cities are London and New York City, which are vastly more integrated with the global economy than all other cities.

Other cities complement these two economic hubs, most often serving large niches of the economy or acting as a link between economic regions. Here’s more info on what it means to be a “Global City” and how each major city around the world stacks up: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Global_city 

Looking forward, I hope to spend a significant period of time in the next few years living, learning and growing in one of these global cities.

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04

08 2014

“The danger of a single story.”

This recent thread on Reddit highlights a few noteworthy TED talks. One of the most up-voted replies was the talk “The danger of a single story.” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Adichie makes several great points during this talk, mainly related to her theme that viewing anything from just one perspective can lead to great misunderstandings. I agree with her thoughts and this line in particular stood out to me:

The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.

One of my professors recently remarked that nearly all news outlets today have become “boosters for their own causes”. You could probably extend that to “all people have become boosters for their own causes”. Perhaps it’s impossible to avoid bias, but we are all capable of seeking additional angles. We are capable of understanding a complete story provided that we put forth the energy to seek it out.

Personally, I’ve found the threat of a great misunderstanding frequently extends into personal relationships. Gossip produces unhealthy grapevines. When you hear something through the informal passing of information, the picture is often incomplete. Thus, one of the best filters I’ve discovered for “friends of good” lately is to simply take notice of who has asked for your side of the story in a particular conflict. True friends are often those who will not stand for incomplete information; they recognize the danger of a single story.

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24

07 2014

Urban Art

Last May I was fortunate to have traveled to Shanghai, China with my family. As we explored the quickly growing city on one of the touristy “Hop-on, Hop-off” busses, one particular stop grabbed my attention: Xintiandi. This is a posh car-free section of the city that is filled with high-end restaurants, shops, and other entertainment. In Xiantiandi I felt as if I was in any of the major cities of the world.

Luck was on my side during this day. My sisters pointed out a truck printing large portrait images of anyone who wanted one, and for free!

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I was intrigued, but I continued on with my family in search of a lunch spot. Minutes later, we stumbled upon more portraits that were pasted on a number of buildings from previous days.

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The artist and TED Prize winner “JR” had been doing his “Inside Out” project in Shanghai. It was an art experience unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Art in public, in your face, and it was classy. It was designed to reach people who don’t seek out art from galleries and museums.

There is tremendous value in institutions such as The Met, The Louvre, The Hermitage, etc but for the most part they are one directional. The experience I had in Shanghai allowed every day people to participate, including myself, and this extra dimension is what pushes the boundary to make Inside Out so special.

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Urban art continued to make appearances as we continued on our trip throughout China:

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This is a pop-up photo gallery named “Power of the Image” outside The Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China. According to Kodak’s website:

The award-winning images in the Power of the Image reinforce world peace, the advancement of human civilization, the protection of our environment, and uniquely highlight photography as a way of expression.

The Temple of Heaven is one of the places on earth I would least expect a photo gallery of this variety to appear. This exhibit succeeded in changing the scenery outside a major Beijing landmark. It was also refreshing to see this despite knowing that I was exploring a country with some of the most oppressive laws, terrible pollution, and little freedom of expression. Or perhaps it was propaganda? I’ll let you decide.   

Perhaps the most recognized form of urban art is known as “graffiti”, and the most broadly known artist is “Banksy”. But there’s even more examples of art and artists who aren’t permanently defacing public property! Here are some examples of urban artists and movements that I’ve enjoyed learning about recently:

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Now what is the purpose of urban art? I think each artist is driven by their own personal mission but they hold one common belief: Art changes perceptions.

To quote JR, “What we see changes who we are.” and further:

In some ways, art can change the world. Art is not supposed to change the world, to change practical things, but to change perceptions. Art can change the way we see the world. Art can create an analogy. Actually the fact that art cannot change things makes it a neutral place for exchanges and discussions, and then enables you to change the world.

I think attempting to change perceptions (with positive intentions) is a noble cause in itself. But urban street art completes the picture for me because it’s accessible. Every day people experience and are exposed to art by simply living their life as normal. And sometimes they can even participate in the cause. To me that’s flipping the idea of art inside out. 

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23

06 2014

Surge Pricing Goes Mainstream

When I think about what differentiates Uber as a convenience driven customer experience, I think about their ability to dynamically price rides based on real-time supply and demand. The “surge pricing” concept is not new but Uber is the first consumer tech startup to shove price fluctuations into the face of its customers. You can easily get an Uber car on a cold rainy day in New York as long as you are willing to pay the additional price.

This blog post “Beyond Uber, Venture Investors Predict Mainstream Surge Pricing” in The Wall Street Journal describes that airlines and hotels have been doing this for years, but now new data collection technology has allowed for demand information to affect prices in other industries. The article mentions that some critics view this as strictly price-gouging. However, it makes sense to me that a luxury/convenience oriented business should be able to charge more for their services when demand far exceeds supply. Keep in the mind that in the case of a company such as Uber or Airbnb, it’s individual agents (drivers and property owners) that stand to gain the majority of this pricing increase.

BeyondPricing will likely bring this dynamic surge based pricing model to thousands of Airbnb hosts. Table8 gets you access to last minute reservations at popular restaurants. And I can definitely see this trend continuing into much of the healthcare industry.

On the flip side it will be interesting to see if any companies allow for a price-hedging option, meaning that the customer could lock-in a guaranteed price in exchange for purchasing the service well in advance. Southwest Airlines enjoyed the benefits of price-hedging during the recent US recession when they decided to lock themselves into jet fuel prices at early 2000’s prices. This benefit is of course passed onto consumers in the form of lower fares. Competitors to Uber such as Lyft are already developing a reputation for this type of service when demand is low and supply is high: Lyft offers 10-50 percent off rides during off-peak hours.

Keep a close eye out for even more industries to begin experiencing drastic changes in pricing; it’s likely their will be many opportunities as an influx of readily available information on supply and demand opens the free markets even more.

P.S. Kevin Novak recently talked about how a simple interface change at Uber dramatically changed consumer behavior during surge pricing. Check it out!

14

06 2014

Inflection Points

On the last page of a few recent National Geographic issues there has been a section named “The Moment” which describes a “moment of peak energy”, an inflection point, discovered by one of their photographers on assignment. The idea behind this special photo blurb is that each cover story has a decisive moment which captures the most authentic energy of the subject.

My thoughts are often similar to a reporting photographer waiting to capture the essential moment of their subject: I have an undying fascination for observing moments in life during which we come to realize happy and painful truths. This past winter was no exception.

I am writing this post to dive deeper into what it means to re-evaluate yourself and the beliefs about the people who surround you. First I will begin with an excerpt from an interview of David Foster Wallace’s opinion on great art, and then I will take a look into some of the work by Marina Keegan.

Great Art

Wallace describes that great art requires a selfless emotional leap in an interview originally published by Larry McCaffery:

Really good work probably comes out of a willingness to disclose yourself, open yourself up in spiritual and emotional ways that risk making you look banal or melodramatic or naive or unhip or sappy, and to ask the reader really to feel something. To be willing to sort of die in order to move the reader, somehow.  … Maybe it’s as simple as trying to make the writing more generous and less ego-driven.

I am proud of this blog in many ways, but one recurring self doubt is that I am overly mechanical in my writing; I am unready, unwilling, or unable to disclose how it really feels to be in my shoes. Any of my close friends will tell you that I speak of a few key influential moments in my short life, some of which I was able to capture here: We Weren’t Born To FollowPeer Groups, and Peer Groups Continued. Unsurprisingly these posts (including this one) have coincided heart-break in business or life, and for better or worse.

You would also probably not be surprised to learn that these “sappy” posts don’t quite produce the SEO home-runs that an exposé of Rap Genius might bring, for example. But the page views aren’t my key metric here. This is just my brain to your brain, my heart to yours.

It’s my goal to begin publishing writing that brings out my emotion more often than I have in the past.

Marina Keegan

One great writer I discovered during my time away from school is Marina Keegan, a graduate of Yale in 2012 and the victim of fatal car crash shortly afterward. Despite the tragic nature of her death and unrealized post-college ambition (she was due to begin writing for The New Yorker just weeks later), I learned that she had an uncanny ability to narrate some of the most pivotal moments in life.

Through a series of short essays in The Opposite of Loneliness, Keegan captures three significant life lessons that I have been able to relate to in my own life. I’ll explain these lessons with help from a book review in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and then offer my anecdotal evidence. It is my hope that you may identify with these moments as well.

I’ve named these lessons “The Cheat”,  “Fleeting Happiness”, and “B-team”.

The Cheat

In “The Ingenue,” a young woman catches her boyfriend cheating at a casual game of Yahtzee, throwing into question everything she believes to be true about him.

This is the gut feeling when your whole world spins 180 degrees. It’s important to note that the cheating action is insignificant but the overarching moral dilemma is profound.

What do you do in this situation? What I would probably do is step onto an orthogonal vector: a diverging observation point in which judgement is neither made or discarded. In one sense, the insignificant cheat is exactly that, no stakes, nothing to lose. In a more rational sense, any cheat signifies a moment of indignity.

I’ve found that we humans tend to have an irrational amount of good hope for the person we love or admire. It’s easy for infatuating feelings of a special person to override any judgement derived from an insignificant cheat. In other words, the complex and multidimensional nature of humans covers up our own unique flaws and our ability to see them in others.

I am suggesting that we pay closer attention to these seemingly insignificant moments because they are the small actions that constantly define us. In any outcome we have the ability to forgive others, and that’s important.

A couple of years ago I remember this painful feeling the first time I watched one my good friends smoke a cigarette. I was absolutely mind-blown that someone I trusted so deeply had happily accepted a life of routinely smoking cigarettes. We are still close friends, but in that moment my expectations were temporarily shattered as if I didn’t really know that person.

Fleeting Happiness

“Baggage Claim” also explores this same concept as a young couple visit a store that sells unclaimed baggage, and the thought of the personal photos deleted from the found digital cameras forces the male narrator to contemplate the fleeting nature of happiness — how quickly happy moments occur, and how quickly they can be erased.

Keegan is emphasizing that nothing lasts forever. Most of us work so hard to build up towards certain goals, but one slip up can reduce that progress to nothing.

The Swedish House Mafia reminded their fans of fleeting happiness during their final performance at Ultra Music Festival in 2013:

Remember your last day in school? This is our last day in school. We can tell you how it feels, and that we are sad, and that we are ending Swedish House Mafia together.

but they reminded us that fleeting happiness does not always have to be an unhappy memory:

…or we can tell you how it feels to have played for one million people on this One Last Tour. We can tell you how it feels to look in people’s eyes, with their hands in the air, with smiles and screaming at you because they love your music.

During this time of year (end of the school calendar) it’s impossible for students to not think about how things were vastly different a year or six months ago. Sometimes even less than than that, just moments ago.

When I lived in New York in one moment I would be dancing with my friends late into the night. Moments later I was alone in a dark apartment facing my own psychology, thirsty, hungry, and awake.

Or the moment when you leave the table at the last family holiday dinner. The last page of a thrilling novel. The moment your cell phone screen cracks. And of course the moment that ends a relationship.

One of the most important lessons I learned after leaving college is that everything can change instantly. Withdrawing from school and moving to California instantly removed me from a social support structure. Eventually the fleeting nature of my happiness pushed me towards a different course. I needed to make a change in my life to optimize for happiness, and by returning to Wake Forest I got the instant change-back that I needed more than anything else.

From my experience the cliché “you don’t know what you’ve got till its gone” stands true.

B-team

“Cold Pastoral,” the most striking short story, is a melancholy exploration of love in an age where our past never really leaves us. Claire, a college student, learns of the sudden death of a casual lover. Claire’s mourning process is full of anxiety as she grieves for someone she shared a bed with but whom she ultimately didn’t understand. This leads Claire to a painful universal truth: namely, that we are not guaranteed leading roles in other people’s stories, no matter how much we feel we deserve them.

This is probably the hardest lesson because of the line right here: “we are not guaranteed leading roles in other people’s stories”. No matter how hard we beg for forgiveness or try to improve our situation, we are not guaranteed unconditional love. Every person deserves to be loved, but I don’t think from and to whom is something that you can choose all that much.

This lesson is the hardest to accept because your past continually affects you whether you like it or not. My english professor this semester regularly projected his skepticism of the word “closure”. Yes, in a mechanical sense any situation can be terminated and escaped, but the term “closure” is really just a coping term. Both good and bad life experiences never truly leave you.

Fortunately at Wake Forest and in the startup world I’ve found a handful of people that deeply care about me. When I see any of those people leave my life it has always left a feeling of emptiness inside. In just a moment you are moved from someone’s front and center vision to the periphery. Despite real feelings making it hard to embrace this change, we have to move on and be thankful for the past.

Extrapolating this lesson further, I see this lesson applying to many tough moments in life: the classic story of a childhood sports saga when a kid doesn’t make the “varsity” team and gets sidelined with a “less talented” group of peers. When a person doesn’t get the job promotion they feel that they so much deserve. Or when a divorced parent is not granted custody of their child.

. . . 

So, if people are fundamentally flawed, happiness is always teetering, and our leading role amongst people we care for is not guaranteed, what should we strive for? My friend Paul Dejoe often reminds me that striving for sincerity is the best we can do:

We forget that we are just passing through this world so we put emphasis on possessions and status when all we have to leave behind is how we’ve made others feel.

Paul suggests that we all want to be relevant to other people but he says that the only thing of true relevance is how we make others feel. Perhaps if we are more generous and less ego driven, then we can be better people through the sincere energy in our interactions.

I’m talking about the moment of when you decide to speak up in class instead of sitting back in mutual acceptance. The moment of when you say “hi!” to the stranger in the elevator instead of pretending like they are just air. The moment when you don’t cheat at the causal game of Yahtzee. These are the decisive moments of peak energy. These are the inflection points.

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10

05 2014

Google News Growth Hack Exposed

In the past I’ve found Google News to be an acceptable source of headline news because it organizes a ton of information very efficiently and collects similar articles on major topics. For example, stories on the Ukranian crisis often include several links to news agencies in the US and Europe, thus offering me the latest content from various angles. This is great because users of Google News can synthesize the gist of recent world news very quickly.

For serious journalistic inquiry I do not recommend Google News. And now, I hesitate to recommend it to anyone for any use:

Today I was casually browsing Google News on my iPhone and I saw an interesting story about the Egyptian pyramids:

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After clicking on the Egyptian pyramid story, I learned a bit about the pyramids of money some Google News publishers are making…

I expected to be linked to a news story on “The Standard Digital News” about this interesting discovery. Instead I was redirected via the url “http://c.mobpartner.mobi/?s=1080793&subid=2eus” to the tracking domain “hastrk3.com”:

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I was confused, so I tapped the screen. Any click on this screen, not just the two buttons, leads to an automatic redirect to the app store:

 

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According to AffPlus.com, a publisher who refers a download is paid about $1.75 for a US user. The payment is likely via the company “MobPartner” as per the redirect above.

To summarize, I was interested in reading more about the Egyptian pyramids and instead I was redirected to download a game named “Dragon City”. At this point it was abundantly clear that Google News is being gamed by some of their publishers, and those publishers are definitely making a hefty profit from this simple mobile redirect.

So how does a news organization get onto Google News in the first place? First, you don’t need to be a vetted news organization. Any site can be added once it is approved based on Google’s explicit guidelines found here.

The second guideline states:

Journalistic standards. Original reporting and honest attribution are longstanding journalistic values. If your site publishes aggregated content, you will need to separate it from your original work, or restrict our access to those aggregated articles via your robots.txt file.

Let’s go back to the original article that I hoped to read:

Scientists say they have finally solved the mystery of how the Egyptian pyramids were built 4,000 years later

You may notice at the bottom of the article the author name “Mirror” makes it clear that this article is aggregated content. Try copying + pasting the first couple of sentences into Google and you will see this story has been published on hundreds of other news outlets. Thus, no original reporting here.


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The fifth guideline states:

Readability. Clearly written articles with correct spelling and grammar make for a much better user experience. Limiting your use of distracting ads and auto-load videos also allows users to more easily focus on your article content.

For mobile users, this publisher “The Standard Digital News” practices a “sneaky redirect“. Again, a clear violation of the Google News guidelines.

Thankfully, Google has a form for submitting problematic publishers and articles found here. But you may notice that the default issues are heavily directed towards existing publishers who are having trouble getting their content properly syndicated.

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The form appears to be just a user support feature for the publishers of Google News, not a reliable Spam reporting tool.

Sounds like the wild west of news, right? “The Standard Digital News” is a real news organization based in Kenya, but I bet they aren’t the only publishers violating the guidelines. The frightening reality is that anyone can make their own news site and in just a couple of days see their content on Google News. Take a look at this thread in an online Internet Marketing forum. All a person has to do is follow a handful of steps:

  1. Setup your domain with a new WordPress news theme.
  2. Hire writers from oDesk to rewrite news articles for $2 each. (Being sure to use copyscape to ensure “journalistic quality”.)
  3. Start with 150 back-dated articles to show that the site has some momentum.
  4. Setup a nice logo and real phone number.
  5. Double check that the site complies with the google webmaster guidelines.
  6. Submit for approval.

 

And then boom! You could be a publisher on Google News, and you could deploy “sneaky redirects” for the thousands of mobile users referred to your site. This is a harsh reality and I sincerely hope that Google will monitor the quality of their Google News results as closely as their SEO guidelines.

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05 2014