Will Branded Keywords Kill Search?

I’m a little dismayed at the news regarding the recent Google trademark issue. Google can continue to initiate ads based on trademarked keywords even though it faces what amounts to a torrent of future litigation.

To summarize, auto insurance company GEICO is quite displeased with competitors bidding on GEICO-branded keywords within Google. The question is whether Google has the right to sell these terms. This is a complex problem only the Internet could create. It points to a persistent problem — the legal world is still woefully behind the progress of technology.

The Conundrum

We all want to let open-market forces help determine who survives with the best technology, ideas, and customer service. But, we also must respect the intellectual property of others, or we’ll end up with pandemonium.

Nothing burns me more than to have a cheap competitor try to hijack a customer by leveraging my client’s good name. Especially if the competitor tries a low-ball claim or provides incorrect information during the purchase-consideration process.

One thing is for sure: This problem will come to a head and have a profound effect on how search engine marketing (SEM) is sold. Major corporations will not sit around and let their highly valued trademarks be subjugated to a leveraging tactic by competitors.

What We Must Do

First, Google must take a leadership role within the search (and really, the marketing) industry and hold a conference on the brand impact of search. Advertisers, agencies, and industry leaders need to come together to discuss the issue. If the industry agrees using trademark terms is detrimental to brand health, Google and its peers should develop a set of policies that work for the better good.

Although common-language words will be difficult to protect, such as “American” and “United,” some brand marks (GEICO, Kodak, etc.) are inherently unique and should only be made available to the trademark owner. Perhaps the industry agrees that for the right to “protect” its marks, a company should pay a reasonable fee to get that traffic. Otherwise, the terms go unsold and unlinked to the company. A win for both parties. It’s up to Google to prove the value of the click to the advertiser. And it’s the advertiser that will either accept or lose the valuable traffic.

Second, the major interactive trade groups — the Online Publishers Association (OPA) and the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) — need to help steer a resolution. Otherwise, the benefits of online marketing will get mired in another silly diversion that draws attention away from the true value we’ve all worked so hard to nurture.

A recent study by comScore and Overture shows that only 20 percent of all online searches involve a trademark. Why not resolve these issues rather than let all search take a black eye?

A lot of our clients see great conversions from branded keywords. That tells us consumers use search as more of a navigation tool sometimes than anything else. So let’s do what’s right for the consumer. Let’s get this issue resolved soon.

Should we just let the issue play itself out in court? Or should we take a proactive stance? How would you resolve it? Let your voice be heard.

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