Paid Search Spawns ’Drafting’ and ’Hijacking’ Strategies

Competitiveness in the emerging paid search landscape spawns controversial tactics such as the two practices loosely termed “hijacking” and “drafting” by some industry insiders. While some search engine marketing (SEM) firms object to the strategies, others say they’re fair game.

The two terms are used almost interchangeably in reference to search; subtleties differentiate one from the other. Peter Hershberg, managing partner at Reprise Media, defines hijacking as when a competitor outranks an advertiser’s campaign by outbidding them. He views drafting as a case where an advertiser conducts a search marketing campaign and a competitor takes advantage of the traffic by bidding on related terms.

Hijacking is believed to have bad connotations while some firms are in favor of the less offensive practice of drafting. “We want our clients to be in any place they can possibly be part of a broader conversation,” said Reprise’s Hershberg. He continues, saying the purchase of a keyword must be relevant to the product or brand. “We want to be sure we’re creating a benefit to the user, [and we” feature in the ad copy what that user is going to find on an associated landing page.”

The distinction between the two terms is fueling an industry argument. A recent example is automaker Mazda’s move on a GM Pontiac campaign. In a TV spot, Pontiac challenged consumers to “search for us on Google” to view the positive brand buzz. Within days, “Pontiac versus Mazda” appeared in the sponsored listings. The competitor created a comparative landing page evaluating features from one auto from each manufacturer. While other issues exist, many SEM firms lean toward drafting in this case.

Reprise sees this use of search as drafting. “We were encouraged to see that, and surprised to see that a greater number of advertisers haven’t used that tactic in the past,” said Hershberg. “Mazda was able to benefit from Pontiac’s offline ad spending.”

Another firm suggests competitive bidding benefits both brands, but only if they’re well established. “As the old saying goes, ’any publicity is good publicity.’ The contest over, and coverage of the keywords can bring extra attention to both brands,” said Scott Buresh, CEO of Medium Blue Search Engine Marketing. “In the case of smaller, lesser-known companies, having a competitor outbid the small company for its keyphrases could damage its marketing, removing the benefit of search marketing from the small company.”

While bidding on certain competitive keywords works to build brand, trademark issues can restrict bidding on brand names. “Comparative advertising in itself is proper and legal, as long as what you say is truthful,” said Peter Raymond, a partner at the law firm Reed Smith in New York, at a panel at Search Engine Strategies in New York. “Here, of course, the bigger issue is one of trademark infringement. The idea you are using someone else’s trademark to drive traffic to your ad can be illegal.”

Trademark issues can impede competitive bidding. In the case of “Mazda versus Pontiac,” the keyword “Pontiac” was protected on Google under the trademark if GM objected to its use. Yahoo recently revised its trademark policy, restricting competitive bidding to non-trademarked terms. “As of March 1, 2006, our trademark policy would not allow a company like Mazda to bid on its competitor’s trademark that way,” said Gaudi Paez, senior manager of communications at Yahoo Search Marketing.

“The whole issue shows a maturation of the industry,” said Buresh. “The Internet is still young with little formal regulation. Yahoo is setting a good example by following conventional trademark copyright policy. Google has built its reputation on delivering quality, unbiased results.

“It has delivered these results by setting up systems and algorithms that run independently. If Google were to have a human edit its results, it would conflict with the operating procedures they have established,” said Buresh.

When trademarks are involved, some firms steered clear even before policy became an issue. “We tend to not fly too close to the sun on controversial practices,” said Matt Kain, SVP of business development at 24/7 Real Media. “So we are not heavily affected by [Yahoo’s trademark policy”.”

When it’s not a trademark issue, it’s difficult for search engines to moderate controversial keyword buys. “It’s very hard to draw the line on what is acceptable and what is too close to a certain company’s trademark,” said Buresh. “The more money spent on keyword bidding, the more search engines make, so it’s in their best interest not to limit ad spending.

“A major concern of the engines is avoiding a potential backlash from disgruntled marketers and having them pull their ad entirely.”

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