Beware: Google's golden goose may lay a rotten egg

MIKE O'DONNELL
Last updated 05:00 12/07/2014

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OPINION: Thirty-five years ago the Sex Pistols released their second album The Great Rock ‘n' Roll Swindle. Coming as they did at the end of glam rock, when a bunch of post-60s hippies were trying to flog constipated feel-good music, the punk-rock pioneering Pistols were a violent and alarming laxative.

They didn't so much appear on the scene as vomit across the stage of respectability, providing the stimulus for a whole generation of progressive rock.

The Great Rock ‘n' Roll Swindle emerged more than a year after the band blew apart in 1978, and was an amalgam put together by band manager Malcolm McLaren, who told his version of the band's story overlaid with his "cash from chaos" philosophy.

Along with the accompanying film, it charted the story of the Pistols from their early days as the Swankers through to their outrageous antics which saw them No 1 on the charts while also being banned by most radio stations. McLaren was portrayed as the evil capitalist who both manufactured the brand and the anarchic behaviour, simply to benefit his own back pocket.

My favourite song is the title track, which features the line: "I'm a jealous god and I want everything, and I'll love you with a knife", apparently about McLaren and the double-edged sword of his affectation for the band.

This concept came to mind recently when I saw Google had updated its deceptively powerful Google Flights business, introducing map-based search and making it even more irresistible to users. If you haven't used Flights you should.

Like a bunch of other websites, it allows you to buy airline tickets through third party suppliers, most typically airlines.

However, it also allows open-ended searches based on criteria apart from destination. This means you can search for flights within a range of times and a budget and be offered various destinations and customise your route via stops, airports or time.

The latest tweak is adding all of this with a map interface, showing the cheapest flight to the surrounding cities and depicting actual fare variance over time.

So, for instance, not only will it find you the cheapest flights to Seattle from Christchurch customised to your taste, it will also instantly show you the cheapest rates to Vancouver, Portland, Eugene and Spokane while still in map mode.

Then it caps it all off by graphically depicting three months worth of fares, giving the consumer transparent information across airlines and over time.

So at the time of writing I know August 5 is the cheapest date to fly to Seattle ($1613 return) and July 10 is the worst ($5135 return). Last week, global travel website Expedia announced a takeover bid for Australian last-minute accommodation site Wotif, a move described as a disrupter being disrupted. I reckon that's chicken feed compared with what Google Flights could do.

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There's a whole layer of web businesses that act as aggregaters, in the flight industry this includes the likes of Webjet, Kayak, Skyscanner and Flight Centre Online. If their secret sauce is suddenly in the public sphere thanks to Google Flights, then their margin is likely to come under serious threat. It may also make airline online "bucket shops" like Air New Zealand's Grabaseat less compelling.

On the one hand, this is textbook consumer empowerment, as the web removes opacity and moves control from sellers to buyers. On the other hand, it puts Google in the position of effectively competing with its advertisers and erasing their competitive advantage, particularly given their ownership of the search market. There have been accusations that Google places Google Flights results above all organic and paid search results, so it's effectively giving preference to its own business line. Similar accusations have been made in the retail space where Google Shopping effectively short circuits the normal process of online research by offering click-to-buy options on the top page of search results (with such placement being determined by the highest advertising bidder).

According to Microsoft, all of Google's shopping results are now just paid ads, and to drive this home it kicked off advertising campaign scroogled.com.

Microsoft has an axe to grind as it owns Bing, but even admirers like me can't help but feel Google needs to be careful it isn't seen to be feathering its own nest at the expense of the advertisers who gave it 95 per cent of its $57 billion revenues last year. It also needs to ensure it doesn't obscure or pollute the juicy goodness of its organic search results.

A long time after the Sex Pistols, I saw a slightly deranged Malcolm McLaren at the Wellington International Festival of the Arts. The talk was about the balance between extracting cash from chaos while not killing the golden goose. It's an equilibrium Google may want to consider looking after.

Mike "MOD" O'Donnell is an eCommerce manager and professional director. His Twitter handle is #modsta and he reckons Sid was innocent.

- Stuff

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