What you don't do can (and probably will) hurt you
The same age-old question comes up in every search strategy meeting: "Do you think that we should purchase our brand name in Google and Overture?" The answer out of one corner is a resounding, "YES, YES, YES!" However, there are those few who think that it's not necessary if you're already coming up at the top of the page in the organic search results. Let's take a quick look at a few reasons why it is still important to have control over your brand name.
Branding - No one would argue that search engine marketing is an extremely influential medium for defining, redefining, enhancing, and protecting a company's brand image online. According to a study by the IAB and Nielsen//NetRatings, 27 percent of survey respondents were more likely to name a specific brand if it was in the top spot of the search results page. Perception is key, and potential buyers expect to find your Web site at the top of the search results. If you aren't found, what does that say about your company? What image does that project? Don't let these people get away, or, worse, find a competitor's Web site.
Brand Protection - If you're not purchasing your own brand name, trust me, someone else will, be it an affiliate or a competitor. There have been many highly publicized lawsuits debating the validity of purchasing one's brand name, but both Google and Overture have made it widely known that the onus lies within the company itself to protect its brand and trademarks.
You might think the search engines themselves could avoid confusion by refusing to let companies bid on trademarks they themselves do not own. Sure they could - if they were content to give up the revenue they make on these keywords, which are often hotly contested and thus commensurately high priced. And cracking down on pay-per-click keywords - if the search engines were inclined to do so - would still leave open the question of using competitors' trademarks to influence natural [organic] search results.
Surely it's a legitimate practice to optimize your content through a direct comparison of your company versus your competition. The search engines are not actively policing your trademark or brand policies. Corporate marketers themselves need to be on the offensive when it comes to brand protection by aggressively pursuing a tight keyword plan to help weed out those who inflict harm on their brand.
With all of this to consider, there are concrete steps as an organization you can take in order to proactively defend your company's trademarks.
Implement a complete organic search engine optimization campaign on your site to protect the free organic space and compete with the costly paid listings.
Create a cease and desist policy to enforce your rights when a violation of your trademark occurs. For those of you who are already affected by what you may consider to be trademark violation, this is the time to call your lawyer.
Put a strong statement of your trademark protection policy on your Web site and provide a place for people that have been led astray by a violator to report the violation.
When creating an affiliate agreement, include a keyword "do not purchase" list covering trademarks. This will ensure that you aren't competing with your affiliates for the same keywords, thus personally raising the price for yourself.
Actively monitor the search listings on a daily basis to ensure that if a conflict arises, you have accurate documentation in hand when ready to pursue any type of action.
The trademark issue - the responsibility of the search engines themselves may be resolved in the courts, as companies levy trademark infringement lawsuit not against its competitor but against Google, for facilitating the practice. While you might think a lawsuit would result in Google's becoming more conservative in this area, in fact the opposite has occurred: Google recently announced it was allowing anyone to bid on trademarked words, with no restrictions.
Despite this constant fight, with no resolution coming in the near future, search engine marketing as a practice evolves and changes with every passing week. Branding, however, must remain consistent. Using every available resource to help promote and protect your brand will ultimately prove successful not only in your search efforts, but will help you achieve your business goals and objectives.
Melissa Burgess is director of business development at IMPAQT, a search solutions provider based in Pittsburgh, Pa. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.