Road to online earnings paved with ups and downs

MIKE O'DONNELL
Last updated 05:00 14/05/2012

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After 30 years of riding various bikes on various continents I reckon there are two types of people who ride BMW motorcycles.

The first are fat cat business people who "rediscover" motorcycles in their late 40s and whose idea of a decent ride is a sunny Sunday morning spin to somewhere that serves eggs Benny on sour dough and single-source espresso. The second are seriously unhinged long-distance riders, who regularly knock off 1000km a day, shower infrequently and can repair a shaft drive on the side of the road with nothing more than a wingnut and a Leatherman.

I'm guessing it is one of the first type who has recently sued BMW North America (and seat maker Corbin), saying a four-hour trip on his BMW R1100 motorcycle gave him an erection that has lasted 20 months. Obviously feeling a bit hard done by, the man, a Mr Henry Wolf, says he is unable to engage in normal sexual activity, causing him substantial anguish.

It's a case that's heavy with puns, as well as irony. A Tweet-up as to what BMW stood for included "bother my willy" and "better make whoopee". Meanwhile, the thought of a motorcycle actually delivering the sort of libido that the advertising companies promise, is refreshing if not a little surprising.

The idea of a product delivering a side-effect that is more powerful than the intended one is hardly new on the web. The internet itself was initially invented as a way for defence contractors and academics to share information. In doing so they opened a Pandora's box that couldn't be closed, and created a world where disruption was a feature and not a bug.

A good example is local directory and review website Yelp, which recently reported its first quarterly earnings result after a breath-taking IPO in February which valued the company at US$900 million (NZ$1149m). Yelp actually started as an email recommendation service back in 2004. The emails sucked, but the crowd-sourcing that delivered the recommendations was full of potential.

Months later, Yelp launched its first web offering, part populist review and part social network, but with a highly localised infrastructure. So not only could you find the best latte in the San Francisco Bay area, you could find the best plumber or bricklayer in Haight Ashbury and read what everyone had to say about them.

Eight years later, Yelp gets more than 70 million unique browsers a month and has nearly 30 million live reviews. It makes money by selling advertisements to local businesses, which are clearly labelled and located around the edges of the reviews. Advertisers can't change reviews but Yelp does suppress suspicious ones (typically those that might be self-reviews and paint an overly rosy picture).

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The thing is that, eight years after its birth, Yelp has yet to make a profit.

Meanwhile the reception from the investment community last week suggests the stock may have finally outrun what its earnings can sustain. Though revenue was slightly up on expectations, the company's loss widened.

Yelp also issued new guidance for the second quarter of 2012, saying ebitda was likely to be a loss of US$500,000 to US$800,000 (but hoping to have breakeven or slightly positive ebitda for the full year). Shares closed down 8.5 per cent at US$21.20, still above the US$15 IPO price, but well down on its US$30 high.

Most analysts responded passively, saying they were neutral on the stock until there was further evidence around monetisation. With the fizzy float now three months behind them, fund managers are keen to see the company more demonstrably deliver on its prospectus objective.

And therein lies the challenge. Yelp has been successful in generating a huge amount of user-generated content, and has made a useful start to expanding abroad, but the doubt around monetisation has yet to be assuaged by positive earnings. Meanwhile, the space it occupies between search supremo Google and social network virtuoso Facebook continues to be whittled away.

Google's stated 2011 strategic aim to get more social has fixated the Mountain View crowd on delivering socially mediated search results through the likes of Google Circles, and sharing data across its portfolio of 60 entities via a new "flexible" privacy policy.

Google has also been buying up Yelp competitors like restaurant review site Zagat. Meanwhile, Facebook's mission to become more business-oriented has resulted in the launch of location-based products like Facebook Places, which aims to aggregate business reviews by physical address.

So, along with specialist niche competitors like CityGrid and Local.com, Yelp has the two biggest, baddest, most profitable web companies breathing down its throat, as it tries to turn a positive earnings dollar. No pressure.

Pressure is a well-known source of trouble when it comes to performance anxiety, both in the boardroom and the bedroom. Perhaps Yelp might consider investing in a few BMW R1100 motorcycles to help face the ups and downs of the road ahead.

- Mike "MOD" O'Donnell is an author, eCommerce manager and professional director. His Twitter handle is @modsta. He has owned two BMW motorcycles but won't comment further.

- BusinessDay.co.nz

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