Why Google's Trademark Policies Are Good for Searchers

When it comes to advertisers' running ads on competitors' terms, Google takes a free-market approach. Google -- which describes its ad program as  simply "a provider of space for advertisements" --  takes limited responsibility for the keywords that advertisers bid on, and offers little more than a "limited investigation of reasonable complaints" when companies advertise on other business' trademarked terms. (If you're a business and see another advertiser encroaching on your trademark, Google "encourages" you "to resolve...disputes directly with the advertiser.")

Many advertisers are clearly unhappy with trademark laxity. Those unhappy businesses include American Blinds, which spent nearly four years battling Google's trademark rules in court, but gave up on the suit earlier this month, largely due to a lack of funds. Another unhappy customer is American Airlines, which filed a complaint against Google over trademark policies last month.



But what does Google's relaxed trademark treatment mean for searchers? The answer, I think, is a better variety of search results.

Organic results offer great answers to the explicit questions that searchers ask. But it's the paid results -- because they can come from businesses not reflected directly in the keyword -- that can answer the implied questions that lie behind the literal ones. Combined, that's an ideal search experience, even if it's not an ideal situation for businesses whose trademarks are hijacked.

A search on the term "american airlines" is a perfect example of what I mean. At the time of this writing, the top two Google organic results for that term are American Airlines Web pages (the first result is the homepage). The third result is the Wikipedia "American Airlines" entry.

Those organic results are shining examples of the genius behind organic listings. Of Google's roughly 34 million indexed pages that bore some relevance to "american airlines," Google has chosen three that will certainly help searchers understand what American Airlines is, and will help those searchers interact with American Airlines more effectively. They're excellently suited for answering the explicit question: Tell me about American Airlines.

But what's missing from those top organic results is an answer to the underlying, unstated question behind a search for "American Airlines:" Where can I find the best flights? The answer for that question won't necessarily come from an American Airlines page, and so it's unlikely to come from organic listings or from an ad from American Airlines itself. Instead, it comes from the other paid listings on the page -- the four ads for aggregator sites that are also bidding on the term "American Airlines." Had American Airlines been the only advertiser allowed to show up on the "American Airlines" term, the implied question searchers are asking would have remained unanswered.

Presenting searchers with answers to the implied question is especially important for searches in which the brand name is just a stand-in for a generic category, and so the literal question isn't really the question being asked. A searcher might type in "canon" when he means "digital camera," "nike" when he means "sneakers," or, of course, "band-aid" when he means adhesive bandages. But if a searcher uses a brand name with a generic search intent, organic listings won't provide the best results -- because they'll return results skewed towards the brand name, which is the literal question asked. And so a searcher for "best deals xerox machine" probably won't find that sale on Kyocera copiers through organic results. But since Kyocera can bid on the word "xerox," he might have some luck finding that sale through the paid listings.

Of course, capitalism run loose also means fiercer competition, poor scruples, and many businesses that have a harder time staying above water. Which is why businesses will continue to fight Google on its trademark policies -- and why we may eventually see advertisers rebel by placing their Google budgets elsewhere.

For now, though, competitive bidding is a fact of life. If you're a searcher, that's good news. If you're a business with trademarks and competitors, that might be very bad news. But regardless of how you feel about Google policies, make sure you're bidding on your trademarked terms. Even if you're not, your competition may be running ads on your branded terms right now.


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