Remember the good old days when the biggest worry of an Internet marketer wanting to protect a brand was unscrupulous competitors listing your trademarked brand name in meta tags? These days, many online advertisers are using affiliate programs to increase their market penetration and drive sales. But affiliate programs require planning and careful monitoring to avoid diluting your brand and driving up your costs.
While it's clearly desirable to outrank your affiliates in search engine results pages, most brand holders don't want to pay what it would cost them to rank No. 1 for every non-brand term. When it comes to trademarked brand terms, though, you have a degree of control over the landscape that you don't possess elsewhere. You can choose whether or not to allow your affiliates to bid on your brand terms at all.
It seems like a no-brainer: Why split your revenue with affiliates and open the door to the possibility that they'll drive up your per-click costs? However, there are situations where it can make sense to allow affiliates to bid on brand terms. It all depends on your goals, objectives, and metrics.
With that in mind, you need to know just how much market share and revenue you can afford to relinquish to affiliates.
If you do allow affiliates to bid on your brand terms, you should cap their bids to keep them from driving your media costs through the roof. When you cap affiliate bids, you need to make clear to your affiliates exactly what you expect from them. Put it in writing in your affiliate agreements. Make sure they understand, especially if this is a policy shift for you, and then stick to your guns. For your no-bid or no-overbid policy to succeed, you can't afford to make exceptions -- even for a "star" affiliate that's bringing you plenty of sales.
Get in the habit of monitoring your affiliates' ads on a regular basis. Periodically search their sites for your brand terms and key descriptive phrases, using an exact search to filter out irrelevant results. Audit your affiliates' content for false claims and extravagant promises they can't deliver on -- the kinds of things that can get your brand de-listed from search engines. Be sure that they're not using old creative that might not be relevant to your current offers or objectives.
It's a good idea to use a feed to provide your affiliates with up-to-date content. But if you go that route, be sure you're supplying them with descriptions that are different than the ones you're using on your own site, to avoid being filtered for duplicate content.
Finally, be prepared to back up your policy with a cease-and-desist order if push comes to shove. Search engines aren't compelled to help you protect your brand, although it should be noted that msn's trademark policy, which the folks from Redmond have been known to actually enforce, has more teeth than most.
Affiliates can make a tremendous contribution to your overall search marketing effort, but you should exercise caution in giving affiliates the ability to bid on brand terms. Use an approach that makes sense based on your business model. Communicate your policy clearly, eliminate every opportunity for error that you can, and follow up to ensure compliance.
It's your brand, after all, and you've worked hard to build and position it. So it's worth taking the extra time and effort to make sure it's not infringed or abused.
Todd Friesen is director of search engine optimization at Range Online Media. (firstname.lastname@example.org)