SEM Conquesting – Big Deal or Not?

14 Jan

There was some talk yesterday on Twitter about conquesting.  One of @BryanPerson‘s competitors is buying his company’s keywords (trademarked company name) on Google.

Lots of folks chimed in, including @CommunispaceCEO whose company (Communispace, obv) faced similar issues in the past:

Consensus was that it was a little shady at best (using trademarks is against Google’s rules), but is it really such a big deal?  If your potential customer knows enough about you to search for your name, they’re going to realize they’re in the wrong place after clicking on ‘site a’ and being taken to ‘site b’. If they don’t, you have bigger problems than somebody using your name in a google ad.  If they search for a competitor name and their ad has your company’s name in the copy…. well now they know who you are 🙂

If it’s not ok to use competitor company names in paid search ads, does that mean it’s also not ok to talk about them on blogs.  How about Twitter?  Is it ok to compare product offerings on your site?  Can Pepsi mention Coke on TV? Really feels like a non-issue to me.

Misleading people or telling lies is a completely different matter, of course.


15 Responses to “SEM Conquesting – Big Deal or Not?”

  1. Marc Sirkin January 14, 2009 at 10:17 am #

    Isn’t deception part of the game? Seriously, buying up a competitors keywords seems to me to be good strategy (all is fair in love and marketing, eh?).

    That said, the decision you have to make as an actual human being has to do with your brand and your own personal integrity.

    While I was at March of Dimes, some “competitors” started buying up our keywords and even our name. We consulted with Google and trademark lawyers, and if memory serves, there was little we could do about the situation. Google may have indeed changed the rules (this was 2002/2003), I’m not entirely sure.

    I think your comparison is apropos, where is the line? Can Pepsi not mention Coke by name on TV or in a print ad? Can you not mention (or link) to a competitors website or talk about their new products on Twitter?

    Do a quick search on “Burger King” –

    Notice that Wendy’s Ad? To me, that’s shady… but I also think it is what it is.

  2. Rachel Kay January 14, 2009 at 10:23 am #

    Great post on a really heated issue. At the end of the day, it appears the motive may have been to confuse the customer – this wasn’t a truly transparent strategy in my mind. But agree with you – where do we draw the line? As online marketing evolves, there will always be questions about what crosses ethical lines. Hopefully companies will decide to play nice.

  3. Glenn January 14, 2009 at 10:30 am #

    It is almost as if the company are trying to trade off of the popularity of someone elses brand. Would McDonalds be happy if Burger King were going around sticking Whopper ads up in their windows? Would Burger King be happy if Ronald McDonald was out front handing out Happy Meal vouchers? Probably not. Google have made it against their rules for very good reasons.

    Talking about another company on your own blog is entirely different. The user has come to you to hear what you have to say. There are limits to how far I would think decent to talk about a competitors offering in comparison to your own, but short of slander and lieing it seems perfectly acceptable.

    So I think it is fine to talk about your competitors on your own grounds as long as it is within decency. But trying to make money off of buying ads with someone elses branding is wrong and an attempt to mislead.

  4. Graeme Benstead January 14, 2009 at 10:32 am #

    It seems to me that any practice devised to mislead users, through Google adword antics or otherwise, will always ultimately damage the party using the underhanded tactics.

    First of all, we’re not stupid – we know what they’re up to and most people don’t like to be deceived, and secondly… well.. it’s just not cricket is it, it undermines my trust in the brand and leaves me with a bitter taste in my mouth.

  5. Tom Planer January 14, 2009 at 10:34 am #

    As it stands now, I think it is a little bit sneaky. As time goes on, people will get wise to it and I think all it will end up doing is creating mistrust in the competitor who is bidding for their competitors key terms and tarnishing their reputation. I think the companies that decide to play nice will come out on top at the end of the day. As far as mentioning competitors names goes, I don’t see any problem as long as it isn’t libelous.

  6. Nigel January 14, 2009 at 10:51 am #

    As a Brit, there’s something a little unsavory about using other people’s brand to push your own… I don’t really like adverts that knock other people’s brand to big their own up. That kind of thing is bigger in the US than in the UK… our warped sense of ‘fair play’ means we don’t do it that much…

    In terms of Google advertising, I’m in two minds about it really. In one sense, if a competitor has a well known brand and you want your target audience to know you do the same, it makes good sense to target it. As long as it’s as a comparible service and you’re not saying they’re rubbish, or you’re better etc, I don’t have a problem with it…

  7. Frank January 14, 2009 at 11:45 am #

    Interest topic – It’s been a contentious one for years… Legally, unless you’re “passing off”, comparison, misdirection and deception is fair game in advertising (even the Romans accepted that the burden of responsibility fell to the consumer: “Caveat emptor”). There is, as Kai points out, a fundamental ethical (and legal) difference between deception and persuasion, between a bare-faced lie and creative misdirection – as Marchall Macluhan said “Ads are not meant for conscious consumption. They are intended as subliminal pills for the subconscious in order to exercise an hypnotic spell…”

    What is more interesting is that In practice, these techniques are culturally dependent: Coke never mentions Pepsi (if you’re #1, never admit there is any other product), but if you’re #2, disinformation is good practice. In the US, Tylenol will slam Advil in its ads, or Chrysler will diss GM, but in the UK, repeated trials have shown that in such aggressive ads, consumers favour the underdog – hence in British advertising, they still refer to Brand X.

    In the digital world, these boundaries will, however, be sorely tested, since an online brand can often be little more than a few keywords, a ‘look and feel’ (viz price comparison sites)… It will be interesting to see what happens

  8. Bryan Person January 14, 2009 at 3:36 pm #


    Thanks for keeping the conversation going on this … it’s certain been a contentious issue.

    My thinking falls in line with Glenn’s. The ads that are really a problem are the ones that attempt to deceive the user, such as one that includes “Brand X” in the link text and then takes the user to website of “Brand Y.” This is actually a violation of Google’s terms of service, and at least here in the US, a violation of trademark.

    But legalese aside, it’s also just a slimy tactic. Graeme points out that the companies who resorting to these sneaky tricks will come out looking worse in the end. I certainly hope so, but I also feel it’s worthing point when it happens.

    As for the case between writing about a competitor on a blog versus bidding on their name through Google Words, the difference is in that in the latter instance, companies are *paying* to deceive.

    By the way, LiveWorld was the only vendor whose name was being bought as a Google AdWord. Have a look at the chart that @SamDecker compiled:

    It cetainly is a competitive marketplace, huh?

    Bryan | @BryanPerson
    LiveWorld social media evangelist

  9. kaimac January 14, 2009 at 6:51 pm #

    Thanks folks. Def agree that it’s slimy/shady, but really doesn’t seem like a big deal to me. I still firmly believe that if I see an ad that says ‘company a’, and when I click it it takes me to ‘company b’ site, i’ll be pissed off with company b for deceiving me. More fool them. Also it’s kindof a compliment, no? Like frank says, it’s always the pepsis of the world that reference the cokes, not the other way round 🙂

  10. John Cass January 15, 2009 at 8:20 am #


    Interesting discussion, thanks for posting a link to my earlier article, I hope my re-post of my comments from that article convince you using competitor’s keywords in an ad is different from talking about competitors in your ads, or your website.

    “Pay per click advertising works because customers search on a particular keyword, when someone searches on a brand trademark, the expectation is that the searcher will find a link to the company’s website, either in the organic section of the website or the sponsored section. By conducting the search, the searcher is in their action making the statement they are looking for a particular company. For a competitor to pay for ads on a brand trademark, and include the trademark keyword in their ad, is the moral equivalent of stationing a sales person outside of a competitor’s store, inviting them to their store, and then driving them to their store. Legally a company would be within their rights to expel the sales person off their premises, and even call the police to do so. Google’s rules of use gives companies the option to lodge a complaint with Google about a trademark violation when a company uses a trademark in the body of the text of an ad. Google will usually ban the use of that trademark name by any other company. And if a company was to bring an action against a company for using the trademark, the chances are they might win. So legally this action is probably wrong.

    Many companies have conducted comparative advertising, which is true; to me ads like this are not really an attempt at honest comparison, but an unfair tactic to attempt to grab customers as those customers walk through the virtual door.

    Just because you are in business, does not mean that the end justifies the means, the goal of companies and people should not be purely profit, but conducting business ethically and making a profit. Otherwise we have anarchy and lawlessness, sometimes that means you don’t do things despite the fact you will not break any laws, you just don’t do them because it is the wrong thing to do, not because you think you will get caught and slapped on the wrist.”

  11. David Carter January 15, 2009 at 9:03 am #

    Aren’t we combining several issues into one issue of ethics and legality. Let’s break this down. I have thought more about this and even changed my stance on a few issues.

    Issue 1 – Misleading Ad Copy. Its worse if the copy comes up when under a competitors search term. But copy like “Find out more about Company X” when the ad is being run by Company Y”. We all agree that’s kind of slimy right?

    Issue 2 – Is it legal to use other trademarks? I’m not a lawyer, but having worked on things like this in the past, here is what I believe. There is nothing legally wrong with comparing yourself to a competitor by name in an ad. IF you use the competitors name use the appropriate trademark to acknowledge they own the name. If it was illegal, would Apple run the hilarious PC versus Mac TV ads that make mention of Vista and bugs? Who thinks those ads are unethical? Brian you state this

    “By the way, LiveWorld was the only vendor whose name was being bought as a Google AdWord. Have a look at the chart that @SamDecker compiled:

    Actually that’s a misleading statement and implies other vendors are all chasing Live World. The chart you link to proves the opposite. Several competitors names were purchased by several vendors (note: Awareness, the company I work for, bought names, but I believe our ads were clear in stating you would be taken to our site). There was a good point that the Pepsi’s always compare themselves to the Cokes. A couple of days ago I agreed with this, but big media TV ads are different than Google Adwords. With TV you buy all the eyeballs, you can’t select a biased viewer. Before I had our ad disabled I reviewed the competitive campaign. It turns out we had over a dozen names in the campaign. Some companies I had never heard of. The reason is simple. They ONLY show if the person searches on the word. So you are not tipping your hat to the competitor, one person is enough to make it worthwhile since you pay per click.

    Issue 3 – Do you think buying competitors adwords is ethical? (lets assume the ad copy is NOT misleading). In my opinion it is fine and there is nothing slimy about it. I get annoyed when I see our name used this way, but good ads always annoy the other company. I loathed the IBM ads when I was on the Windows 95 team back in the day.

    Issue 4 – I added this… is it unethical to try and get higher “organic” ranking on your competitors keywords. I think it is, but if you are blogging and writing about your product a lot it should not be an easy task.

    Issue 5 – I added these… is it unethical to buy domain names to your customers name, or typo’s of that competitors name e.g. if linke to

    I whipped up a quick Google form to ask these questions and get quantitative answers. I put the questionnaire in my blog here…

  12. David Carter January 15, 2009 at 9:17 am #

    Interesting article here regarding legislation proposed in 2007 regarding a lot of this. It references many of the examples we already quoted. I read it as the fighting FOR competitive use of trademarks that was being outlawed in Utah . Here are some quotes from this document

    “Using trademarks as keywords to trigger competitive ads is nothing more than the online equivalent of allowing a billboard owner to lease the space next to a McDonald’s location to a fast food competitor; or, the strategic placement of competing generic products beside famous brands on store shelves.”

    Its a very interesting read. Lots of reference to restriction of trademarks inhibiting free speech.

  13. Bryan Person January 15, 2009 at 9:33 am #

    Oh, David, I feel like a jerk. What I meant to type (and clearly was typing too fast) was that LiveWorld *wasn’t* the only vendor whose name was being bought as a Google AdWord. I linked to Sam Decker’s chart precisely to reinforce the point that this wasn’t just about our company. Thank you for correcting me — and for widening the discussion.

  14. kaimac January 15, 2009 at 7:21 pm #

    John – not denying that it’s kinda dodgy (even illegal), just doesn’t seem that such a big deal to me. is it? Your example of having somebody outside the store doesn’t quite work for me, cos when I realize I’ve been deceived all it takes to fix is one click. At which point I’m surely annoyed at the company that’s deceived me, no?

    David – agree, it’s a bunch of issues. the main one for me is that I don’t really think it’s a big deal for one company to use another’s name in a PPC ad. As long as they don’t lie (‘company x kills puppies’), i don’t see what the problem is. If I click ‘coke’ and I get ‘pepsi’, what’s the problem? I know it’s pepsi. end of, surely?

  15. David Carter January 15, 2009 at 7:37 pm #

    Kaimac.. We agree. In fact it looks like the EFF agrees too. I think its ok to utter the competitions name. What you say, seems to be what puts people on edge.

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