Riding to the Brass Monkey - striking a balance

22:08, Jun 11 2012

I've just gotten home from the 32nd annual Brass Monkey Rally, the hard core rally of choice for New Zealand's motorcycling aficionados.

Around 2000 leather-clad men, women and a few children made the mid-winter pilgrimage to the normally frozen Idaburn Dam on the top of the Maniototo Plain.

They gather to huddle around 44 gallon drum fires and rekindle friendships forged over roads ridden and tall stories told.

I've clocked up 18 now which still marks me as a relative newbie.

While the event and the harsh beauty of Central Otago are reason enough to attend, for me it's the eclectic and unlikely group whom I ride with that make it compelling.

A diverse group from around the country including an irrigation engineer, an aviator, an ad man, a psychic healer and a blogger.

We avoid the main roads. Over time we've found the best biking roads go from nowhere to nowhere, and there's normally a more direct route. This normally means shingle and packed dirt rather than macadam, with this year's route involving the McKenzie Pass, the Hakataramea Track and the Dansey Pass.

The key to riding shingle on a loaded bike is balance. Keeping the power on so the back end hooks up good traction, while the front tire stays light on the treacherous gravel drifts. Keeping the body perpendicular while the bike moves left and right according to the track's contour.

Getting the balance right is increasingly important for internet giant Google who last week introduced shopping results to its search engine.

In simple terms when you search for any item you can now be presented with the ability to buy it from merchants, with the paid search results including images, description and prices of items in stock.

While Google is still experimenting with possible layouts, it appears that Google Shopping Ads will be more appealing than existing paid search results and no doubt a lot more expensive for advertisers to buy.

While introducing the ability to sell items directly from search results is a natural extension of Google's suite of advertising products, it's a fair distance from where the Mountain View boys started out.

Back in 1998, Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page wrote in ''The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine'' they expected all advertising funded search engines would be inherently biased towards the advertisers and away from the needs of the consumers.

If you're are old enough to remember what Google looked like back then you'd have found both a home page and a set of search results which were utilitarian and sparse.

And hugely functional. A year later Google introduced search engine advertising on a pay per click model. At that stage it was truly non-intrusive - ugly little text stacks way off to the right of the organic search results.

Over the next decade these search result advertising presences grew. From small stacks to large stacks. From the far left, they moved top and central and gained groovy little toned boxes.

Meanwhile the homepage itself changed; gaining a black navigation bar up top which promotes other Google products, along with advertising for Google Chrome and Google Plus. Web commentator Lance Wiggs calls this latter development a ''walled garden'' and compares it to the Yahoo! and Microsoft of old.

Today if you google ''buy shoes online'', around 75 per cent of the results above the browser fold line are paid search results.

The new Google Shopping Ads, if it's rolled out globally, will further add to this cacophony of paid results.

The more paranoid would see this are being anti-competitive, killing the companies that don't have the budget for big search campaigns.

I view it more simply as a user who wants quality unpaid search results.

If Google pisses me off enough I will simply start using alternative search engines.

Not surprisingly these have started to grow - witness the success of Duck Duck Go, Quintura and Factbites.

If enough people start doing this, then the most admired company on the web is in trouble, given search engine advertising delivers around 90% of the parent company's revenue (and they have 150 constituent companies).

It all comes back to balance. Users are likely to be happy with a few, highly targeted and genuinely useful advertisements. And they probably enjoy some of the cool integrated products like Gmail, Maps and YouTube. However annoy them enough, get the balance wrong, and people will make a conscious choice to search elsewhere.

If you lean a motorcycle too hard in the shingle and lose your balance, then that bike is going down and there's no recovery.  The same might be true of user engagement with Google if they push paid results too hard.

Mike ''MOD'' O'Donnell is a professional director, ecommerce manager and author.  His Twitter handle is ''modsta''  and he's looking forward to getting his ''20 Up'' Brass Monkey badge in two years time.


Fairfax Media