Trademark Holder Asserts Google Confuses Searchers
Flowbee's lawsuit, like at least seven others filed since April, alleges that Google wrongly allows Flowbee's competitors to use its name to trigger sponsored search ads. In a complaint filed in federal district court in Corpus Christi, Texas, Flowbee argues that people are confused when they search for Flowbee and see a "sponsored" ad for a competitor.
In its court papers, the company theorizes that consumers believe that whatever company they're searching for also sponsors the ads that appear on the page. "On information and belief," the company asserts in its complaint, "many consumers incorrectly believe that Flowbee 'sponsors' these 'sponsored links.' "
Despite that blanket statement, however, it's not at all clear that consumers assume trademark owners sponsor all the ads on a search results page.
Several years ago, when paid search was still relatively new, people might have thought that. A Pew study from 2005 showed that some people were confused about the differences between sponsored and organic search results overall -- though that's a different issue than whether they understand who sponsors paid ads.
Still, it's hard to imagine that too many people currently think that a trademark owner sponsors all of the paid ads on a results page. Even in 2004, when Geico sued Google for allowing Geico rivals to use its name to trigger paid search ads, the insurance company wasn't able to prove at trial that those ads confused users.
Law professor Eric Goldman, director of the High Tech Law Institute at Santa Clara University, says search users' assumptions about keyword-triggered ads remain "one of the most crucial unresolved empirical questions underlying all of the AdWords-related lawsuits."
He tells MediaPost that he suspects consumers' views will be shaped by the ad copy itself. "It may be that you can't have a one-size-fits-all assessment," he says.
Now, with somewhere around a dozen lawsuits in the works against Google and Yahoo, there's at least bound to be some public research soon that sheds more light on how consumers view search ads.