The Fight on Google’s Results Pages: Community Platforms

Dell’s Bob Pearson was right, a company’s corporate homepage is really

As I was doing follow up research on some of the vendors in the community space, I was entering in some keyword searches on Google to find different product pages. Although a common practice, it’s interesting to see which vendors buy sponsored links on the right hand column of the search screen. It’s not easy to tell if they’ve purchased these keywords directly to display if someone enters a vendors name, or if they bought greater search terms like “community software”, either way it’s an indicator of what Google, or the vendors think their most relevant competitors are.

Search marketing is a pretty normal practice, but over the years I’ve seen and learned a few ethical, and not so ethical ways companies do battle for mindshare. A few examples:

  • Brands often forget to purchase the paid keywords for their specific product name during a launch, a well placed blog post from a competitor mentioning the specific product name can yield some pretty tremendous search engine juice. History tells us that many press release link to the company’s homepage, but not to specific product pages, forcing bloggers, press, media, and analysts to do Google searches to learn more, the result? A competitors blog can easily be visible above the fold.
  • While discussed and reprimanded by Google and other search engines, when I was in web marketing, I heard cases of competitors supposedly clicking on our paid search terms, and since we had a limited inventory of pay per click, they would use up our inventory. Now I’m sure Google has ways around this (by looking at IP address or other behaviors) but every technology has a workaround.
  • For even more nefarious uses, former colleague and internet expert John Cass gives a breakdown how one vendor was using trademarked product names in search marketing strategy, and the difficulties of enforcement. (link via LiveWorld’s Bryan Person)
  • So what’s right and what’s wrong? Time tends to average things out, and those that play above the table will eventually look victorious, those that kick under the table tend to get punished –or others see it and walk away. On the other hand, all’s fair in business, there are no rules, and this just is an indicator of who’s hungrier for your business.

    Below are some screenshots of some vendors search engine results pages (SERP) and you can see the different sponsored links on the right. Here’s what I see when I search for Liveworld, Kickapps, and Telligent.


    Update: Sam Decker, CMO of BazzarVoice created this interesting matrix was created that shows which vendors are buying keywords for other competitors SERP pages. link via LiveWorld’s Bryan Person.

    • Jeremiah, you bring back memories, and Bryan/Liveworld, we feel your pain! I suppose I think that it is ethical for companies to buy paid search on the keywords of their competitors. However, it is NOT OK for companies to engage in tactics that seem dishonest or are designed to confuse people. It is the SEO version of “bait and switch”. Imagine that you went to Wal-Mart, and as you entered the store, someone said, “AHA! Gotcha! This is Target, but at least we got you here!” At the end of the day, marketing has to be about building trust.

    • Great post!

      Bidding on competitive keywords is certainly commonplace (actually, as stated in your post, Google’s advanced Broad match will sometimes map you to your competition’s trademarl–you can find out if Google is doing this to you by running a search query report in adwords, as it is not always obvious this is happening).

      My feeling is that once you begin bidding on competition, you bid up the entire marketplace and the only one who wins is Google.

      My suggestion it to try and enter into a co-opetition agreement, whereby you make a pact not to bid up the marketplace. If this does not work–let the games begin.

      As far as using your competitors trademark in your ad copy, that is not cool! Google frowns upon it, and will help you to a certain extent. (you can find the trademark form here:

      This issue with this is, Google tends to be less responsive if you are not a fortune 500 company. I suggest that you email the competitor who is doing this, and once again try to strike up a friendly agreement.

      If they are not willing to play nice–you have two choices
      1. Get your lawyers involved
      2. Start a bidding war

      Depending on what sector you are in, it may be cheaper (and less messy) in the long term to go the legal route–


    • Adam

      Agreed, buying keywords on competitors SERP pages is pretty normal, and likely an encouraged practice by almighty Google.

      I take it that Liveworld has some admirers, four of them at that. David Carter of Awareness suggests it could be from an outsourced search agency, who are probably doing their job well.

      I think that what we should remember is that while the paid search sponsored links is one way, having strong organic search results always win out. Fight for the center column if you can with conversational marketing.

    • Diane

      Yup, that’s why organic and natural search engine juice matters most. Thanks for chiming in, I read the comments on John Cass’s blog post carefully.

      Question if it’s not ok to advertise (pay per click ads) on Google using a competitors trademarked name, is it ok to discuss it in a blog post, in an apparently disparaging manner?

    • Jeremiah

      Of course–organic results get upwards of 65% of clicks anyhow (last time I checked) and are generally more trusted by those who know the difference–thing is, there are still people who do not know the difference (imagine that 🙂 )

      The key is universal search domination, and at the center of that is content creation. The more images, video, press releases, news stories you have (all properly tagged of course) the better chance you have to own the SERP for the given keyword.

      For those fighting in the PPC space, if you are not fighting the organic battle, you are destined to lose the war.

    • I was encouraged by Bryan Person to comment since I have been tweeting about this. Bryan and I were talking about this practice this morning since I was very embarrassed when I learned that my company briefly engaged in posting ads with misleading titles. I was happy that when others at our company found out, we quickly pulled the ads and apologized.

      I also feel strongly that it is not ok to provide misleading titles or to put competitors names in the copy. I’m not sure how I feel about advertising my company on other company’s names. I’d like to hear what people think.

    • I think its ethical if the ad is not being mis-leading.. but dumb. That being said it turns out we DID have a competitive campaign on Google Adwords.

      A couple of phone calls and got the campaign paused.

    • Heather

      Is it ok for brands to use a competitors name in advertisements if it’s not mis-leading?

      What about if the title of a blog post that’s also not mis-leading?

    • Jeremiah:

      I’m pleased to see that this is starting to get resolved – thanks for tweeting and blogging about about it.

      We’re pleased to see that companies consider us a worthy competitor, but use of the LiveWorld trademark in their AdWord copy — and not all of them are doing that, I should point out — is a trademark violation. Google has a policy against it, too.

      We’ve gone to Google in the past to point out these violations, and it’s a shame we may have to do so again.

      As for clicking on our competitors’ unethical/misleading ads, it’s certainly not something I do. I don’t believe in fighting one wrong with another.

      And what of companies buying above-board (and not misleading) sponsored ads against the names of their competitors? This is a tricky ethical area, and one I’m still mulling over.

      I agree with you, Jeremiah and Adam, that the best practice, by far, is to focus on producing content that will put your company at the top of the organic results page. No ethical issues there.

      Bryan | @BryanPerson

    • FYI, wasn’t an agency we hired. Full disclosure, it was internal. Some differing points of view on this internally, but I asked that we pause while we discuss it.

      I think there are better tactics even if you aren’t misleading.

      Of course I am totally distracted Googling big brand names. 🙂

    • David, thanks for your transparency here! I appreciate you taking the steps to stop this.

    • My flight is delayed so time for one more comment 😉 First.. I’m still against this.

      I have also stated in the past I thought it was dumb because you are saying that competitor is relevant.

      Turns out that last argument isn’t the case. Most SEO folks would pick even the most obscure competitors to be in the list since you only pay per click and you don’t have to bid very high. Also, you get data on what competitor name is being shown and being clicked.

      Sadly my Google results are different because I am connected via a Canadian Telco. I keep getting ads for Maple Syrup and Hockey Tickets.

    • Jeremiah —

      This issue is not about disparagement. It’s about whether someone intentionally misleads, or obfuscates the truth. Sometimes companies make mistakes — or their agency does — and that just needs to get corrected. Stuff happens. In other cases, the actions are more intentional and more devious. It’s neither transparent nor authentic.

      In our case, the company that did it is not one that we’ve ever competed with — and I do think that they ultimately handled it appropriately.

      We are all learning and we will all make mistakes. The acid test for me is about the intention. If you have to ask yourself “Should I feel uncomfortable doing this?”, then it’s probably not worth doing.

      WOMMA (Word-of-Mouth Marketing Association) has been very thoughtful about these issues, by the way. Word-of-mouth marketers who pay people to pretend that they like a product don’t get into WOMMA because of the devious intention behind their actions.

    • This issue really boils down to a trademark issue and that is how Google looks at it.

      Bidding on a competitor’s name is common and legal, using your competitor’s trademarked name in your ad to gain revenue and traffic is not.

      In my 14 months at Telligent I have had to file complaints against two of our competitors. They knew better and they did it to distract potential customers.

      This is a competitive space, but you can compete without stepping over the line.

    • Bryan and Ken really bring this down to the most important element. Using your competitor’s name in the ad to gain traffic through adwords is illegal.

      A competitor of our company buys our corporate name as a keyword, however their ad is “Switch to Xxxx”…that is smart marketing in my opinion and there is nothing illegal or unethical.

      It’s the competitor that buys up our company name and then uses it again in the ad link text that is crossing the line into dirty business and trademark infringement. How is using that practice any different than “clickjacking”, which is still a huge issue in the security community?

    • Yes also after the 3rd or 4th keyword google greatly favours the website which actually has those words in the same order. i.e suppose you want your website to rank first in google results for say “good herbal tea from usa” then if you repeat the same phrase often enough then it is more than enough !

    • Wow, Jeremiah, I no longer see any competitors ads on the Blogtronix Google search.

    • Jeremiah,

      Great post. As a former marketer in the mortgage industry I can tell you that click fraud was a major problem. When you have keywords that go for $40 CPC it’s easy for people to wipe each other’s spends out daily before the sun even comes up. I’m sure this is more frequent of an occurrence for expensive keywords that result in large revenues for each conversion than on smaller items.

      Additionally, I believe that the fight for the center column is not just community and blogs but embracing and understanding how leveraging universal search can literally lead to 60-70% coverage for your brand on an SERP w/images, video, news, etc. As one commenter said:

      “The key is universal search domination, and at the center of that is content creation. The more images, video, press releases, news stories you have (all properly tagged of course) the better chance you have to own the SERP for the given keyword.”

    • Nice article! What really staggers me is that so many companies do not take into consideration the terms and keywords people use to search (i.e. the companies think they know what people search for rather than spending some time to actually assess what keywords people actually use). There are very many great and free keyword generators out there so companies have no excuse not to use them.

    • Here’s another relevant article re Right Media. No legal liability for them.

    • Jeremiah, When it comes to PPC, as Diane suggests I think it is inappropriate to include competitor’s trademark brandnames in an ad. There’s a simple mechanism for getting those ads removed from Google Adwords by contacting their trademak department.

      I am also leery of companies that bid on the trademark keywords, but there is no way you can stop competitors from doing this, except perhaps by having an open discussion about the issue.

      On the issue of using competitors brandnames on a blog post, I think that’s perfectly acceptable. I could quite imagine a company discussing the merits of brands and ideas in the marketplace and mentioning competitors. If you didn’t mention the competitors on a relevant topic, I think readers would come to conclusion that you are insincere. You have written about your competitors on a regular basis while at Forrester. Those references have done you credit rather than hurt the competitor.

      I think what’s particularly interesting about this discussion is that we are having the discussion and helping to change behavior in the industry. When I wrote my earlier post you reference in your article it was my intention to inform the company being hurt by a competitor to take action by contacting Google, but also to suggest to the community that placing trademark keywords of competitors in your ads is not a good idea.

      If you are in business, your goal is not just to make a profit but to live within what’s acceptable conduct within your community and make a profit! I don’t think we should forget that.

      I believe WOMMA as an organization has done one of the best jobs in the industry for debating ethical issues about word of mouth marketing practices. The association understood it was there role to take the bull by the horns and discuss the issue of Wal-Mart and Edelman. WOMMA helped the industry, and in so doing brought prestige for the association as one of the few that really takes action on ethics. In the new world of social media active participation on business ethics is very important. That’s one reason why I like the medium so much. We have real community that debates and regulates itself.

    • You need threaded comments. Its getting hard to read who is replying to who.

    • David Carter (Comment #22)

      I have a redesign coming, I’ll factor that in. When I first started this blog, I didn’t get a lot of comments, yup time to evolve.

    • kai

      Really doesn’t seem like a big deal to me. So what if a company uses another’s name in the title of copy of their ad? If the ad is deceptive or libelous in some way then there’s a genuine grievance, but just using the name…

      Using Diane’s example, if I wanted Walmart and when I went in it turned out it was Target and I had been deceived, wouldn’t I just turn around and head out the door? And wouldn’t my opinion of Target be diminished for deceiving me?

    • Pingback: Search marketing is still going strong |

    • It feels like we are talking about “stepping over the line”, but its really lots of different issues and lines. Misleading ads are different than buying trademarked keywords. Following Jowyang’s lead, I posted a Social Media Ethics Questionnaire on my blog

    • When I search Leverage Software, I see two competitors (Jive Software and Small World Labs) whom have purchased my trademarked company name. It’s illegal but it’s frankly not worth the hassle. I’m flattered that they believe the trademark and the company, as competitor, is worthwhile.

    • Thanks Mike, that’s interesting…

    • As John Cass mentioned above, there is a simple form the trademark owner has to give to Google to stop advertisers from purchasing their trademark.

      Is something I did at Oracle a long time ago. At the same time, we created a white list of partners who on a case by case, we let them use the trademark.

      But with universal search, the “golden triangle” (from the eye tracking studies of 1995) is gone. Users now scan the entire result page. For this reason, smart brands use social media to tag their different assets and let Google find them.

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    • You should provide a follow-up